The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
THERE are those among us who seldom if ever speak out against the fascist culture of mob violence that kills or maims innocents under the watch of a conniving state. The same people, though, become very vocal against real or imagined harm posed to public or private property — things — in the course of a popular agitation. One such is being staged by Indian farmers on the borders of Delhi. Thinking nothing of the lynching of fellow Indians while unleashing a propaganda barrage on behalf of someone’s property resembles the purposes of the neutron bomb.
The Americans worked on the neutron bomb during the Jimmy Carter period as a low yield battlefield weapon for a war that would be fought in the western half of Europe against rampaging Soviet armour. The bomb — or bombs really, since several would be deployed as tactical weapons — would kill humans and other forms of life in the vicinity but by and large leave houses and offices intact. Keeping a blind eye on the inordinate human toll and bereft of morality, the bomb project could help avoid another costly European Recovery Programme, the US-funded Marshall Plan that followed Germany’s defeat in 1945. The Soviets called it a ‘capitalist bomb’.
Prime Minister Modi has been exhorting angry farmers to desist from harming public property, which in any case the peaceful protesters have not done. He once made a similar accusation against the Jamia Millia students in Delhi who peacefully opposed discriminatory citizenship laws that excluded Muslims.
While Modi accused the farmers encircling Delhi of harming public property, his supporters began calling them Khalistani separatists and Maoists, etc. Some folks in Punjab did tear down a number of cell phone towers owned by a company, which also owns media outfits that oppose the farmers’ unrelenting agitation for repeal of recently passed laws. The farmers see the laws as harmful to their interests and beneficial to big corporates, including the tycoon whose mobile towers were attacked in Punjab. That story is becoming murkier as the mobile company has accused business rivals as being complicit. It implies that the agitating farmers may have perhaps fuelled a corporate war. The farmers have, in any case, distanced themselves from the mysterious attacks on mobile towers, saying they need the focus on their demands. But they do see the owner as plying the narrative that opposes their struggle to repeal the laws hurriedly passed by Prime Minister Modi.
Modi’s frustration with not being able to quell the farmers’ protest is becoming increasingly palpable.
It is difficult to remember when or if Mr Modi or any of his Hindutva colleagues were equally agitated by the killings targeting vulnerable communities. The last outburst came against Jamia students in December 2019. But this time around, Modi’s frustration with not being able to quell the farmers’ protest is becoming increasingly palpable. It was evident in the speech he gave the other day.
The farmers “could burn my effigy and give it a shoe-beating in a public square, if they so wish. But they should not damage public property,” he told a public rally that loudly supported him. Modi’s iron-fisted image has taken a knocking, as the siege of Delhi has impaired road links with the capital. The farmers have made it worse by winning sympathisers from different critical quarters in the US, Canada and Europe.
There was a time when Modi spoke a totally different language. His own website dedicates a page to the Navnirman Movement — in which student protesters brought entire cities to a halt with its ‘extremism’ in 1974 — and Modi’s own role in it.
“The Navnirman Movement was Narendra’s first encounter with mass protest and led to a significant broadening of his worldview on social issues,” the page on narendramodi.in proclaims. “It also propelled Narendra to the first post of his political career, General Secretary of the Lok Sangharsh Samiti in Gujarat in 1975.”
Compare this with his reaction to the peaceful Jamia protesters a year ago: “Violent protests on the Citizenship Amendment Act are unfortunate and deeply distressing. Debate, discussion and dissent are essential parts of democracy but, never has damage to public property and disturbance of normal life been a part of our ethos.”
In December 1973, in Gujarat, students at an engineering college in Ahmedabad began raising their voices against canteen charges. The police used force against the students, according to Modi’s website. The tactics backfired: protests blew up on other campuses, and spread into the city through early 1974, leading to state-wide strikes, arson and looting, all targeting the state government.
Student protestors attacked the property (yes, the property) of Congress legislators and corporators. Ahmedabad was facing anarchy before the army marched in.
“The state and central governments failed to quell this discontent despite all their efforts,” the website says gleefully. “As a young Pracharak [Hindutva propagandist] and associate of ABVP, Narendra joined the Navnirman movement and dutifully performed the tasks assigned to him.”
The violence spread to Patna. On March 18, the ABVP and other right-wing protesters picketed the Bihar state assembly. After battling with police, the students torched government buildings, a public warehouse and two newspaper offices.
In 1974, Arun Jaitley, finishing law college at Delhi University, travelled to both Ahmedabad and Patna to support and stoke what was shaping into the JP movement. The movement had students rioting, pelting stones, setting university offices on fire, and declaring city-wide bandhs, all against elected governments. Jaitley, who would be crucial to Modi’s rise as prime minister, was appointed national convenor for the agitating student organisations.
It’s significant that the Navnirman protests began 18 months before the Emergency, which was clearly conceived by Indira Gandhi’s advisers later. That subsequently happened in early 1975, after railway minister L.N. Mishra was assassinated in a bomb blast in Bihar. The farmers are protesting peacefully as they know their history and its dodgy ways.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn