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This piece was originally written in late January of 2020. In the past two months, its prediction of worse things to come has proven more horrifyingly prescient than I could have possibly anticipated. In late February, East Delhi witnessed a gruesome anti-Muslim pogrom, during which Hindu nationalist cadres, aided and abetted by the police, massacred dozens of people, injured many more, and burned mosques, businesses, homes, and even entire neighborhoods to the ground. In responding to the global coronavirus crisis, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s neoliberal Hindu right-wing government has furthermore brought Indian society grinding to an abysmally planned, politically advantageous halt, forcing hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers to return to their distant homes on foot.
All of a sudden, a regime condemned for its fascistic bigotry and repression has been tasked with containing a pandemic. Perhaps even more alarmingly, liberals and progressives who previously chastised Modi and his lieutenants for these exact reasons are now entrusting them to perform the imperative task at hand, going so far as to uncritically support their lockdown protocols, up to and including their opportunistic attacks on major protest sites. Their capitulation demonstrates how apparently anti-fascist sentiments can dissipate at crucial junctures if they lack an explictly anti-authoritarian foundation. While the immediate political context for the popular struggles chronicled by this piece may have shifted, the abolitionist possibilities that the latter offer are now all the more important to consider seriously.
n January 26, 2020, India observed a Republic Day unlike any other in its independent history. The ultra-militaristic state commemoration of the date on which India’s Constitution came into effect unfolded in New Delhi under the dark clouds of Hindu nationalist authoritarianism. The conspicuous presence of Brazilian strongman Jair Bolsonaro, who was this year’s chief guest of honor, served as both an affirmation of India’s dire current predicament as well as a potential omen of worse things to come.
The protests that have erupted in response to the proto-fascist agenda of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—the National Volunteer Organization or RSS, which is the mothership of the Hindu Right—have been as multidimensional as they have been massive. The internal complexities of India’s ongoing mass mobilizations present divergent paths forward for the country’s diverse, multitudinous residents as they confront arguably its most critical juncture since independence. Animated by common anti-fascist sentiments stemming from variegated lived experiences of oppression, many of these burgeoning yet still-emerging movements idealize and seek to revive India’s supposedly secular, liberal, democratic past. Others, on the contrary, prefigure futurities that far exceed these moderate terms of struggle, in no small part by grappling with the troubled histories disguised by these terms.
In this essay, I try to make sense of these manifold tendencies and trajectories as they have manifested themselves on the streets of India over the past few months. I contend that the immediate and longer-running interventions of long-subalternized regional political actors, from workers to women to Kashmiris to caste-oppressed persons to Indigenous peoples, could nurture the seeds of Indian and South Asian anti-authoritarian abolitionism: Azaadi (Freedom) with a Circle A. To effectively achieve this end, however, they must confront and overcome the pitfalls of Nehruvian nostalgia, the hegemony of Gandhian nonviolence, and the insidious influence of Brahminical patriarchy.
Saffron Flags Lining the Path to Genocide
Since they received an overwhelming (if, in many ways, highly suspect) mandate in India’s 2019 General Election, Modi, the BJP, and the saffron flag-toting family of Hindu nationalist organizations known as the Sangh Parivar have endeavored to implement the platform of nativism, religious chauvinism, and neoliberalism on which they sailed back into office. The finalization and implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the northeastern state of Assam—a catch-all anti-immigrant measure that could soon be rolled out nationwide—has left hundreds to languish in appalling conditions in the state’s detention camps. 1.9 million more residents of the state risk the same fate, with several committing suicide out of fear of statelessness. Since the BJP-controlled Parliament’s cancellation of constitutional articles that had previously guaranteed semi-autonomy, Indian-controlled Kashmir has endured a brutal lockdown, marked by a near-total communications blackout, mass pellet-blindings and nighttime arrests, and a disastrous de facto economic blockade.
Despite nakedly targeting Bengali speakers and Muslims automatically presumed to be outsiders in Assam, the NRC, to the BJP’s consummate embarrassment and frustration, has ultimately caught more Hindus in its net. In early December of 2019, the BJP attempted to resolve this major logistical misstep by passing the Citizenship Amendment Bill, subsequently signed into law by India’s President as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). In direct violation of the Indian Constitution, the CAA promises Indian citizenship exclusively to non-Muslim refugees from India’s neighboring countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Numerous intellectuals, activists, and lawyers say that this move could, in the final estimation, strip citizenship from the majority of India’s 200 million Muslims, condemning them to the same carceral futures as their Assamese counterparts. The National Population Register (NPR)—a newly sanctioned list of all “usual residents” of India—will combine with the CAA to facilitate a nationwide NRC.
The predominantly Muslim students of Jamia Millia Islamia University (JMIU) in Delhi and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in Uttar Pradesh were among the first to stage organized public actions against the CAA. Together with the students and faculty of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), as well as the residents of Uttar Pradesh at large, they have endured shocking brutality at the hands of the police, Hindu right-wing student organizations, and grassroots BJP and RSS sympathizers. Accounting for these and several other instances of blatant state repression, the grave situations facing the populations of Kashmir and Assam, and the open incitement of further violence by BJP figureheads, Dr. Gregory Stanton—the founder of Genocide Watch, who devised the now globally recognized ten stages of genocide—declared that India “has all of the preparatory stages” for “genocidal massacres.”
Insurgent Dignity and Incipient Autonomy
The unprecedented crises wrought by Modi, the BJP, and the RSS have been met with near-unprecedented nationwide popular mobilizations. Various actors have employed a diversity of tactics to address a range of concerns. College and university students have been among the most visible faces of the ongoing mass protests, with some commentators suggesting that they are among the Modi regime’s most daring, vociferous, and daunting adversaries. To the extent that students, scholars, professional activists, and representatives of civil society organizations have set the terms of the current wave of movements, they have fought to uphold the Indian Constitution and its definition of India as a “sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic.” They have most immediately demanded the withdrawal of the CAA, the NRC, and the NPR as well as other disconcerting legislative measures, such as the Transgender Persons (Protection Of Rights) Act. They have defended India’s what they identify as postcolonial India’s fundamentally liberal values, insofar as they have striven to stand up for the country’s deep-seated pluralism, its intricate mechanisms of representative democracy, and its extensive legal guarantees of the rights to free speech and assembly. Overseas Indians and South Asians throughout the world have echoed these sentiments while staging their own numerous and sizeable mobilizations to oppose the Modi regime and its onslaught of repressive laws.
Nevertheless, India’s contemporary uprisings neither begin nor end with its most polished metropolitan defenders, its most respected public educational institutions, or its most hallowed founding documents. The heterogeneity of India’s rebels punctuates these otherwise elite and hyper-visible domains of mobilization themselves: JMIU, AMU, and JNU are all home to sizeable populations of students from marginalized backgrounds, who have played essential roles in making these campuses hotbeds of progressive and leftist organizing. Furthermore, constitutionalism and secularism have, to a not-insignificant extent, shed their previously upper-crust trappings during the current struggles, contrarily becoming rallying cries for the impoverished, uneducated, and unruly masses as well.
However, the sharpest outlines of anti-authoritarian abolitionism in India are perhaps most visible in India’s hinterlands. They have been shaped by its most neglected subaltern subjects and the traditions of struggle they have maintained since long before the streets of modern Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata became seas of protesters.
Ironically, and yet perhaps unsurprisingly, India’s strongest impetus for re-imagining its self-determination may stem from a region that has challenged the legitimacy of the Indian nation-state since Independence. October 27, 2019 marked the 72nd anniversary of the Indian occupation of Kashmir. Now more than ever, as a result of the withdrawal of constitutionally guaranteed semi-autonomy, Kashmiris are demanding the right to decide their own fates: a new wave of youth-led resistance has filled the darkened Kashmir Valley with demonstrations, barricades, and voluntary economic closures. Since it first came into power in 2014, the Modi regime’s transgressions have fostered a great deal of nostalgia among liberals, progressives, and even some leftists for the supposed golden era of the Indian postcolonial state, particularly under the leadership of its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The Kashmiri struggle necessarily deflates the myths of individual and governmental selflessness, evenhandedness, and harmony that shroud the more sobering realities of this era and its legacies and continuities. It forces a deeper interrogation of the very bases of the independent Indian nation-state, not least of all its military-industrial complex. Centering the Kashmiri struggle thus circumvents many of the pitfalls of even secular nationalism, which risks erasing many of the structural and systemic failures of the Indian liberal democratic state that paved the way for Hindu fascism.
Like their Kashmiri counterparts, adivasis, as India and South Asia’s myriad Indigenous peoples are broadly known, are far from wholly enamored of Indian state power. Claiming a long history of insurrections against centralized authority--as part of which they were among the first to rise up against British colonial domination--adivasis quickly realized that Independence would by no means bring an end to their struggles against dispossession, displacement, and destitution. Adivasi human rights activist Gladson Dungdung deems Nehru “the architect of adivasi misery”: famously declaring dams “the temples of modernity,” modern India’s venerated patriarch inaugurated the still-operational model of industrialization and infrastructural development that has stripped millions of adivasis of their land, forests, water, and other resources, all too often forcing them to leave their homes and become daily wage laborers to survive. This continuing series of betrayals has, to no small extent, driven adivasis into the arms of the Hindu Right, with RSS affiliates building a significant base in Indigenous-majority areas since at least the 1980’s. As such, nostalgia for India’s Nehruvian epoch is not only misguided but perilous. Insofar as the largely urban, educated, upper-class proponents of this nostalgia reaffirm the label of “backwardness” imposed upon the country’s Indigenous peoples, they leave the rich Adivasi Radical Tradition open to co-optation and corrosion by their predatory adversaries. They also risk abandoning the dynamic prospects for broader social transformation presented by its sophisticated mechanisms of place-based social ecology, direct democracy, and mutual aid.
Where adivasis have preserved or reclaimed their communal autonomy, they have benefited, to a degree, from their positioning beyond the parameters of South Asia’s 3,000 year-old caste hierarchy. At the same time, the populations most oppressed by this hierarchy have articulated their own proud anti-authoritarian abolitionist tradition, which has once again come to the fore as the recent protests have rocked India. Chandrasekhar Azad Ravan is the magnetic leader of the Bhim Army, an Uttar Pradesh-based community organization dedicated to combating the inequities and injustices committed against Dalits and Bahujans, who are among the lowest-ranking groups on the caste ladder. On the afternoon of December 20, 2019, Azad appeared on the steps of Delhi’s landmark Jama Mosque, raising a copy of the Indian Constitution--authored by Dalit statesman B.R. Ambedkar--in what has become one of the most famous moments of the ongoing uprisings thus far. In calling for bottom-up mobilizations against caste-motivated atrocities and for popular political education, Azad is not only carrying on Ambedkar’s mission but also arguably taking up the mantle of the Dalit Panthers, who were inspired by the Black Panthers of the United States to mount militant resistance to the casteist order that, in their view, had persisted virtually uninhibited during Indian Congress Party rule under Nehru and his successors.
The Dalit Radical Tradition epitomized by Ambedkar, the Dalit Panthers, and Azad further exposes the cracks not only in Nehruvian social democracy but also in the potent personality cult constructed around Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s character, beliefs, and practices. “The Father of India” has enjoyed a long--and confusing--life in Indian intellectual, activist, and civil society circles, and he is everywhere in India’s protests, in multiple senses. On the one hand, the slogan, “Don’t be Silent, Don’t be Violent,” typically accompanied by a stylized image of Gandhi, has become one of the hallmarks of the mass movements at hand. On the other hand, the Modi regime has also weaponized Gandhian imagery ever since it came into power, with the Mahatma serving as the face of Modi’s disastrous flagship Clean India Mission.
The saffron appropriation of Gandhi is unlikely to shock many Dalits and Bahujans (or, for that matter, Black South Africans): they have criticized perhaps the best-known Indian of all time for his caste apologism and reformism ever since he faced off against Ambedkar in the early twentieth century. Even more so than Gandhi’s personal failures, caste-oppressed persons know from decades, if not centuries, of personal experience that his near-blanket advocacy of nonviolence--which has been taken up by scores of contemporary dissidents--is a dangerous proposition for populations confronting the threats of physical assault, rape, and murder on a near-daily basis. This all-too-often uncritical, restrictive strategy is significantly rooted in Brahminical patriarchy, inasmuch as it buttresses the social domination of typically upper-caste, upper-class men in Gandhi’s mould by allowing them to stipulate the terms of legitimate resistance. Brahminical patriarchy has undermined India’s social movements and the regimes they have inspired for a long time, but it is arguably even more hazardous to the present wave of protests, which have, in so many ways, been shaped and propelled by women.
“The Toiling People are Rising”: What Will They Do Next?
India’s current mass protests achieved truly gargantuan proportions on January 8, 2020, when approximately 250 million workers--about a fifth of India’s population--staged a general strike across a host of economic and social sectors. They brought countless roads, railway lines, government offices, shopping districts, power plants, and plantations to a standstill, in possibly the largest action of its kind in world history, to decry proposed pro-corporate, anti-worker labor law amendments that would, in the words of Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) General Secretary Tapan Sen, lead to the veritable enslavement of India’s workers. Reflecting on the massive strike, Sen remarked, “The toiling people are rising, and they won’t rest till they achieve their demands.”
The toiling workers who collectively withheld their labor on January 8 were joined by thousands of farmers--who have been despairing at the industrialized and financialized degradation of their livelihoods for years--and by students from over 60 college and university campuses. These insurgent masses cut across the social categories considered here, as well as the many others demarcating India: they are, to a considerable degree, Muslims, adivasis, Dalits, women, and migrants, not to mention Christians, Buddhists, atheists, and leftists.
The plurality of India’s mass mobilizations cannot be dismissed out of hand: it could very well deliver a body blow to the Hindu right’s ruthless quest to consolidate a hyper-capitalist Hindu police state. In order to do so, however, this plurality cannot afford to devolve into a well-intended but naive and ultimately self-defeating celebration of multicultural tolerance, with a view towards restoring this mode of social being to its rightful place at the core of the Indian secular liberal democratic state.
If they are to overcome the truly existential interlocking crises that they confront, India’s plural struggles and the actors leading them must extend their horizons to encompass the breadth and depth of India and South Asia’s most resilient anti-authoritarian abolitionist currents, in all their complexities and contradictions. This move has an essential inward-facing component as well, inasmuch as these agents of mobilization may well have to question a number of the dominant or even counterhegemonic discourses they have employed, as well as the material foundations of these discourses.
Has India ever really been the “world’s largest democracy?” Can it ever attain this status as long as it adheres to the borders, boundaries, and mandates of its postcolonial state apparatus?
The boiling streets and squares of India offer no boilerplate answers to these questions. But they do suggest that these answers can be found, if India’s reinvigorated multitudes are brave enough to look for them--and to fight for them, together.