[Excerpts of Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s article published in The Indian Express on 30 January 2021]
When the dust settles on the events of Republic Day, one conclusion will be palpably clear. The logic of the state’s political strategy is to find any pretext for social division and state repression. The immediate elite reactions to the unruly and shameful scenes in the wake of the farmers’ protest in India’s capital, especially at the Red Fort, were two-fold. The first was to feign shock and horror, and to channel everyone’s inner nationalism and get them to rally behind the cry of order. The flying of the Nishan Sahib flag at the Red Fort, as inappropriate as it was, was treated as an existential threat and national desecration. The second was relief that the unruly scenes now delegitimised the farmers’ movement, broke the momentum of the protests and would protect the agriculture bills. India’s problem is solved.
But this attitude should not disguise the fact that we were all trying to find a respectable way of expressing our deep authoritarianism and unleashing another round of repression. The leaders of the farmers protest will be targeted with all the national security arsenal that the state has used in previous protests, from Bhima Koregaon to the Citizenship Amendment Act. This includes using the National Investigation Agency (NIA), detention, state harassment, and encouraging mobs to target legitimate protestors. For instance, Yogendra Yadav is already experiencing this at more levels than one can imagine; it is remarkable that people like him, our true patriots, still keep the democratic faith. The real perpetrators of disorder will not be punished while those exercising the right to democratic protest will be demonised. States like UP will unleash their arsenal of state lawlessness in the name of law and order. But the worse is: We will all cheer for authoritarianism.
The scenes at the Red Fort may have been disturbing. But the real darkness on the horizon is not the protest, or the turn it might have taken. It is the turn Indian democracy is taking, almost as if it is on the road to perdition. For almost two months, the farmers’ protests were not just peaceful but a model of disciplined civic expression and cultural articulation. Dozens of farmers died in the cold. There was no outrage anywhere compared to the outrage we saw on the flag. They were demonised. They were subjected to the standard argument of the state, that they were secessionist Khalistanis. The NIA was freely used to hang a sword over them. All the institutions of the state that could have acted as redressal mechanisms, from Parliament to the Supreme Court, abdicated their core duties. But the farmers were not provoked. You may argue that the protest is still largely by farmers from Punjab. You may also disagree with some of their positions. But the government’s position has been even more of a travesty. Even if the movement is largely based in Punjab, we know that it is a deep and genuinely state-wide movement. Does deep existential discontent in Punjab need not be constructively addressed, and in good faith?
Instead, what we have got is the usual pattern of the BJP’s “heads we win, tails you lose” political strategy. First, take an intransigent position that does not address the core of the grievance or contemplate reasonable constitutional solutions — wear the movement down, use the existence of the movement to shore up your credentials as a strong state. But when the time comes, use the movement as a pretext for further crackdowns, strengthening the arbitrary powers of the state, and position yourself as the custodian of nationalism against all powers. Find the perfect occasion for doing so. In every movement, this script has been followed.
The language of order, and the pieties of the flag in which it is wrapped by the state and the media, is not about order at all. The language of order is partisan to the hilt. It is weaponised to crush dissent.
This article was first published on Indian Express on 30 January 2021