Will The Congress Please Buckle Up?

India’s older intelligentsia last month went through the annual ritual of righteously, and rightly, recalling the Emergency that was imposed 46 years ago, impairing civil liberties, media freedom and right to political protest. But the flavor and tone were different this year.

Expectedly, the targets were Indira Gandhi, the prime minister who imposed it, and the Congress party. Feebly, very feebly, the party protested. While not defending the Emergency, it picked up enough courage to say that the current situation was equally bad, even worse. Lacking the necessary ballast, its voice was further muffled by a partisan media, and met with aggressive rebuttals from those in power who claim the sole right to play the victims and even martyrs.

Significantly, most other ‘victims’ now in the opposition, did not join either side. It betrayed their conflict and confusion about their role in the current situation. And, of course, their unwillingness to be seen either with an aggressive ruling Bharatiya Janata Party or with the Congress.

It is time to ask: can, or should this caution persist? Last month also witnessed hesitant moves at forging opposition unity that betrayed mutual distrust and a lack of direction. These tentative moves are obviously prompted by the electoral triumphs of regional parties, like the DMK in Tamil Nadu and by Trinamool Congress in West Bengal.

The economic stress and the misery heaped by the second wave of Covid-19 pandemic have contributed to disillusionment. Together, they have caused a psychological backlash. Look at the government’s handling of protests, terming some as sedition and its vocal denunciation by the judiciary. Look at the anger at the floating corpses on the holy Ganga. This is unprecedented, and not a result of the opposition’s foreign-made ‘toolkit.’

ALSO READ: Nation Rising Up, Opposition Holed Up

However, what could be a golden opportunity is being wasted, not just by the squabbling Congressmen, but also others fearful of the BJP’s dominant presence and aggressive implementation of its political agenda. Some like the Samajwadi and BSP are busy poaching each other’s workers and lawmakers. They have learnt little from the past and presently, the way the BJP poached from other parties, mostly to dump them. When it overdid that in West Bengal – a lot more was overdone, like a toxic, personalized campaign that boomeranged when Mamata Banerjee was individually abused – the reverse process began within weeks. The TMC turncoats want to return to it after winning on BJP tickets. This is unprecedented.

The biggest failure in taking advantage of this situation is of the Congress. In the party that led the country to its freedom, the family and the organization have become synonymous. Congressmen are unable/unwilling to even consider an alternative leader or a bunch of them. Why, organizational election itself is stalled for fear of the edifice falling apart. Covid-19 was cited as the reason the last time around.  

The party could not keep its own government in Madhya Pradesh and pulled back allies from victory in Bihar. In the last round of elections, it failed to retain Kerala and Puducherry and to regain Assam. It scored a zero in West Bengal.

There is discernible disenchantment with the leadership at the top. Here, too, the voices are feeble. The Gandhis are unable to prevent internecine warfare and seem clueless about how to stem the rot and plug the leaks. Incumbent chief ministers are facing revolt from factions and ambitious youngsters.

Punjab has been a success story, but dissensions have emerged with elections due next year. Navjot Singh Sidhu, seen by many as more of a show-boy and a possible tool/proxy of god-knows-who, could quit if not ‘accommodated’. Ditto, Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan, who, however, has a better track record than Sidhu. Unsurprisingly, the BJP in Rajasthan and in Punjab, the Badals and Bahujan Samaj Party, besides AAP’s Kejriwal, are readying to demolish the two last Congress fortresses. The attitude of each party towards the continuing farmers’ agitation, drawing much of its sinew from Punjab, has made the situation more complex.

ALSO READ: Can Amarinder Singh Save The Congress?

Despite all this, the Congress is seen as the pivot of any opposition unity move by the elderly Sharad Pawar and a young Tejashwi Yadav. It urgently needs to choose its own role and direction if it is to play any role that could lead to opposition unity. A national party it certainly is, but only if it can carry others along. Days of others rallying behind it are over, at least for now. An ailing Sonia Gandhi, formally still the Congress president, had wisely pulled that off in 2004. Can Rahul and/or Priyanka, with their dismal track record in elections, repeat that?

As BJP lords it over, deprecating the Congress ‘dynasty’, but not the other small and big ones in the opposition, there is a point to ponder. No political party is homogenous – it cannot be. When you take too many people from outside, you dilute your own organisation and your ideological mores (many don’t have). As a mass-based party, the Congress embraced all and sundry, since that was also its role during the freedom movement. But many left it to join the opposition while retaining the ‘Congress’ label, thus hurting the ‘parent’ party.

The BJP, on the other hand, is a party with a strong ideological mentor in the RSS. Embracing too many MPs and MLAs from elsewhere has caused it greater pain than, perhaps, the Congress. But then, Mr Amit Shah is playing realpolitik, taking a leaf from L K Advani’s book authored in the 1980s and 1990s. The pain is visible in West Bengal and other places could follow as time goes. 

Talking of the 1990s, one misses Harkishan Singh Surjeet, the hands-on Marxist who rallied parties with diverse political platforms to forge coalitions that governed, however briefly. Now, Sharad Pawar has initiated the moves, tentative though they are.  Not himself a chief minister, he reputedly runs a government of diverse parties in Maharashtra, a major state.

It will be some time and much effort before the Pawar-Mamata initiative gains momentum. Without subscribing to any one or collective platform, it needs stressing that a healthy democracy requires balancing. India needs, as a Hindi expression goes, “loha lohe ko katata hai” – you need iron to cut iron.

At stake is not just the healthy functioning of a multi-party system, but also federal relations, particularly when and where different parties are elected. The Constitution provides for a federal governance and a multi-cultural ethos. In this context, one fully agrees with what the Chief Justice of India, N V Ramana, recently said of greater checks and balances to make a democracy thrive.

It is not going to be easy. One hears of ‘files’ with the Union government, those that ensure silence of some of the opposition leading lights. On the other hand, the BJP is certainly growing strong in terms of men, money, media and muscle as the party in power. Finally, at its helm is Prime Minister Modi who, as sociologist-politico Yogendra Yadav rightly predicts, “will fight till the last”. Can the opposition prepare for the seven states that will have elections next year, before the Lok Sabha polls? 

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

An International Development Consultant

‘Devangana’s Arrest Was A Message To Activists, Their Families’

Andre Ling (38), husband of student activist Devangana Kalita, says it was terrifying to see his wife being targeted by an entire state machinery. He feels this episode is only the beginning of a long battle ahead.

I am an international development consultant working at the intersection of development and humanitarian work, particularly in conflict affected areas. Devangana (Kalita) and I met in 2008 in Rajasthan at an NGO where I was working and Devangana had gone to do an internship. We have been together since then, though we only got married in 2014.

For me, having Devangana back is like recovering a part of myself without which I could not properly function. I suspect it is the same for many others in whose life she has played a part. But we are still waiting to see what comes next, with further hearings in the Supreme Court, and ultimately the trial. In addition to that, there are so many other people locked up under similar charges who have not yet been released. In a sense then, this battle is just beginning. There is still a very long way to go.

I find it appalling that something as serious as the UAPA has been used so frivolously (as observed in the High Court’s bail order). It sends a terrifying message to the public, to all those who have grievances resulting from state policies, to those who believe in democracy, and to all those who dream of a more inclusive, free and just society.

The crackdown on dissent is part of a global wave of repression and authoritarianism that comes at a time when our economic and political systems are in a crisis. Dissent and protest are forms of collective public expression. It’s about people asking to be listened to; to have their concerns taken seriously. It strikes me as the abdication of a government’s responsibility to not listen to its people. The extent that governments will go to, to fabricate cases against democratic protesters, is chilling.

ALSO READ: An Idea Cannot Be Jailed

Seeing one’s friend or family member get arrested, with the full backing of the state machinery, is obviously terrifying. Just the emotional pain of seeing someone you share your dreams, your life with, taken away and locked behind bars makes it difficult to think or act. It sends a message that no one is safe to speak their mind or stand up for what they believe in; it made everyone afraid for their own safety and that of their friends.

Parents wouldn’t want their children to be associated with political activism. I am sure that this was the intention behind the wave of arrests – and to some extent it was successful. But when something as powerful as the truth is bottled up for too long, it starts to fester and searches for outlets. I don’t think it can be subdued for very long.

Devangana, Natasha (Narwal) and Asif Iqbal’s democratic spirit continued to radiate within jail, and spilled out into the public domain, through letters to friends and families. The fearlessness that they have shown is an inspiration to others.

The experience in jail has left a big impression on Devangana. The time spent in isolation, the uncertainty – “will this ever end?”, hardships, and the friendships forged in the jail… and the many stories shared. I was always in awe of how she managed to compose herself, to continue sending out messages of love and strength to friends and families, to file – along with Natasha – a writ petition for prison reform securing COVID vaccines for inmates, increasing the frequency and duration of contact with family members, to name just a couple of items.

I don’t think her time in jail – up close with the most dehumanising face of the state – has reduced her determination or grit at all. Rather it has expanded her perspective and given her new energy and focus for the years ahead.

I tried to be there for her and show up in whatever ways I could. At the beginning that meant following her from one police station to the next, as she went through interrogation; bringing changes of clothes and home-cooked food when it was allowed. I tried to match her seemingly endless positivity on phone calls and video calls, to make sure that she got whatever could be arranged for her in terms of books, stationery, clothing and her MPhil registration. There was quite a lot of running around to be done. I had support from friends, family and of course her lawyers, who have been outstanding in their commitment.

I believe when the truth is on your side but the state is not, you have to be brave, for in the long-run it’s worth it. There is a well-oiled machine that will try to frighten you, or force you into silence. But fear fuels injustice. Of course, everyone has their own vulnerabilities, so you just have to do whatever you can from your own social location and never give up.

As Told To Mamta Sharma

An Idea Cannot Be Jailed

Old men, however powerful, or, drowned in the heady intoxication of their own glory and greatness, should rethink their relationship with the young, with or without a generation or ideological gap. Especially, those who are dissenters, thinkers, protesters, rebels, contrarians, idealists, dreamers – who don’t agree with ‘their’ idea of the world! And who refuse to succumb, come what may – police atrocities, prisons, draconian laws, huge charge-sheets, concocted charges, fake news, demonization in the sold-out media, and a priori condemnation as ‘anti-nationals and terrorists’.

Why should the old and powerful refuse to learn lessons from history? Power does not hold forever. No greatness is eternal. Time is never a great healer. Immortality is impossible. Prisons and injustice cannot kill ideas or idealism. Perhaps delayed, justice too must arrive, one day. Hope floats. And dreams don’t die so easily, especially in the hearts of the young.

So why are the those hailed as Dear Leader, the Great Helmsman, Prophet, Iron Man or Messiah, with the entire State apparatus and media at their command, therefore, obsessed with the paranoia that some young scholars are their enemies?  Why are they so afraid of their youthful dreams?

The young are not the enemies of an ‘open society’. If the open society is flawed and fragmented, is it their fault if they are choosing to ask questions? Those in power should have the courage to agree and disagree, argue and discuss, establish a dialogue and discourse, accept a paradigm shift; why gag the voices of the young? Why lock them up in prisons? Why condemn and exile those who defy and deny their power and authority? And why should such old men, who have lived their life of power to the full, hate the educated, critical, thinking, young women and men, who are just beginning their adult journeys, with such ferocity and venom?

The young are doing what they should in any open society: Doubt everything! This is a philosophical and political quest! If India is unequal and in-egalitarian, if its secular ethos is being destroyed by a brazen neo-Nazi narrative, and if the State seems so brazenly partisan and one-dimensional, is it wrong to seek answers, while seeking to protect the original principles of the Indian Constitution? Is it a crime to peacefully oppose a communal law like the CAA and defend the secular and pluralist values of the Indian freedom movement?

ALSO READ: ‘FIRs, Arrests Can’t Break The Spirit Of Dissent’

Whose portraits were splashed all over Jamia and Shaheen Bagh when mothers, sisters, daughters and students sat on a prolonged sit-in, stoic, non-violent, steadfast, for months, in the freezing winter, like the farmers now for months at the borders of the capital? Did the powerful men in Delhi bother to see those portraits and posters?

They belonged to the freedom movement: Sarojini Naidu, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Ashfaqullah Khan, Sardar Patel, Bhagat Singh, Mahatma Gandhi, among others. So was that a crime, to remember and resurrect these icons yet again, and how was it anti-national?

There is no absolute truth or absolute power. One day, the rigid walls of authority must break or crumble, finally. That is, if humanity wins over inhumanity, wisdom over arrogance, and justice over injustice. Or, as streams of a new consciousness turns everything sublime; the sudden, inevitable arrival of a great moment of history, a revelation, a revolution, a fantastic kaleidoscope turning the  four seasons luminescent with its rainbow colours!

It happens. It is possible. This is an inspiring lesson, from here to eternity. This is because such intense luminescence of stoic resistance is never measured in terms of defeat and victory in history. They burn in the sky like magic realism, meteors, shooting stars, full moon tides – and they never die –  not even in one hundred years of solitude. They are etched in the pages of history.

So what did the graffiti writers write during the spontaneous students’ uprising on the wall of Sorbonne near Paris in May 1968? Or, what did the students of JNU, on their own campus in 1983 and 1989, resurrect from this shared past? The same graffiti on the wall: Society is a carnivorous flower; Give Flowers to the Rebels who Failed; We won’t forget. We won’t forgive. We won’t let them get away. And then they all sang the same songs: All in all, we are just another brick in the wall… The answer is blowin’ in the wind… We are in the same boat brother!

In India, there were other songs too. The various versions of The Internationale, and, of course, the eternal greats: ‘Woh Subah Kabhi to Ayegi’ by Sahir, Tu Zinda hai to zindagi ki jeet par yakeen kar by Shailendra, and Hayei Samhalo Dhaan by Salil Chaudhury, among other immortal renditions of revolution and freedom. This was the dream in the insomniac eyes of the young, a new world, a new dawn, a new language of secular, enlightened democracy, a new egalitarian freedom based on total equality and human dignity. 

ALSO READ: ‘Our Songs Give Voice To Farmers Protest’

The human condition must change – that was the dream. Then, now, and in the days to come. In a nation which celebrates this dream. Not clampdown on campuses, young minds and ideas. Not mob-lynchings – not in my name please! Not a Police State. Not a crackdown on peaceful protests and non-violent dissent. Not NRC/CAA, UAPA and jail!

The British hanged the young, including Bhagat Singh, Ashfaqullah Khan, Ramprasad Bismil, Sukhdev, Rajguru, Khudiram Bose, among others. They put others in the horrible torture chambers of Andaman’s ‘Kala Paani’, including the adivasi rebels led by Birsa Munda, who fought with their bows and arrows against the guns and cannons of the British, in the hills of Jharkhand in the late 19th century. They killed young Birsa in prison – he was just about 20 – poisoned to death, murdered.

Later, among others, they murdered Master Surya Sen, the leader of the Chittagong armed struggle led by the young; he was so brutally tortured that it is difficult to narrate it. They put freedom fighters in jail for many years. They enacted the Jalianwala massacre!

Did it then stop the young to dream of a new India? Did it stop Udham Singh and Bhagat Singh? Did it crush the dream? Did the young refuse to join the freedom and revolutionary movement because of the fear of death or prison or torture? No.

Rhetoric apart, remembering the Machiavellian metaphor, a government should not only appear to be democratic, it should prove its democratic credentials as an everyday national reality. While we remember how Indian democracy was ravaged during the Emergency, let’s not run away from the horror stories of the contemporary times in India, especially after May 2014. And there are umpteen unhappy examples to prove that.

That is why the bail given to Natasha, Devagana and Asif became a cathartic moment of joy and relief across the nation. That is why the metaphor and reality of ‘Pinjda Tod’ flew on the wings of emancipation, freedom and justice! That is why, Umar Khalid and all those brilliant scholars and peaceful dissenters  in prison were remembered at the gates of Tihar Jail in Delhi, amidst youthful slogans and songs, which celebrated these young idealists and dreamers of India, our future of hope, and reminded the nation, how truly unjust, and revengeful, it all is. 

Natasha said, outside the Tihar Jail, that all the women prisoners laughed when they were told that she and Devangana were branded ‘terrorists’! Indeed, you might agree or disagree with them, but even their hardened opponents know it deep inside their hearts – these young scholars are not ‘terrorists’. They are committed and courageous young intellectuals, dissenters and rebels, and they have a right to peacefully protest, under the Indian Constitution.

Natasha said, talking of the ‘prison inside’, and, perhaps, of the ‘prison outside’: “We should think – what kind of society are we making!”

And Devangana replied, when asked what if they are once again sent back: “Knowing the prison inside now, we are not afraid anymore!”

Surely, prisons cannot kill ideas. Or, the dream of a just, secular and humane society. Truly, that is what the ‘bailed’ freedom of Natasha, Devangana and Asif teach us.

Anti-CAA Women Activists of Lucknow

‘Courage Of Narwal-Kalita Gives Anti-CAA Activists Hope’

Salman Ahmad, 30, an advocate at Lucknow Civil Court, says he was amazed at the spirit of Pinjra Tod activists on their release from jail. Khan sees similar resolve in anti-CAA women activists of Lucknow

I am so happy that finally Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Iqbal Tanha have been released on bail. It was an uphill fight, but I am glad they have come out of jail for now. I am just mesmerised at the courage these people have shown, especially the women.

The moment I saw the news clip of Natasha Narwal laughing after just coming out of jail and not deterred one bit, I was like: Inki himmat me koi kami nahi aayi; chehre pe ab bhi hansi barkarar hai. Aisa lag raha hai ye to Sarkar ko chidha rahi hain (She looks spirited; her smile/laughter is intact and it seems as if she is cocking a snook at the government that they couldn’t break her spirit even in jail.

I have seen similar steely resolve in the women of Lucknow; the women who spearheaded the anti-CAA and anti-NRC movement at Ghantaghar. I had been following the news about CAA-NRC right from the beginning and have been involved with its Lucknow chapter, so to speak, right since its inception.

Lawyer community holds protests against Citizenship Act in Lucknow

I myself was a part of the CAA- NRC protests and have helped a lot of people in getting timely bail when they faced similar police harassment. In fact, the police filed two-three FIRs against me as well but I was undeterred. Even my whole family and the families of friends and colleagues registered their protest. We know these are momentous times and anything can be used against anyone who shows the courage to question the government.

Women don’t speak up in the beginning or fight unnecessarily, so if the women are out in the streets and unafraid to go to jail for what they consider right, just and truthful, the government should sit up and take notice. When women put things at stake, it means they are ready to give it their all.

ALSO READ: ‘FIRs, Arrests Can’t Break the Spirit of Dissent’

We can see through the divide and rule policy of the government, but I believe it’s not going to work. Because this time the people also know that they have to take a stand. During January-February last year, many of us took an accommodation near the protest site and did all that was possible in aiding other supporters and we wouldn’t even go home for many days at a stretch. Even at the cost of our own personal safety we have visited police stations after police stations to show our support in the release of common people. As an advocate it is my duty to see that the law is not misused.

CAA-NRC provisions have touched a raw nerve and people have realised that their very existence is at stake. It is the people of India who are holding it together with love, otherwise look at what hatred between communities and a breakdown in communication did to Myanmar. I wouldn’t say that there was no mistrust between communities before this government came in; it was there, but it was a side thing. But with this government it is the main agenda. Many people holding top position in important institutions have been known to have biased views regarding things.

Anti-CAA protest in Lucknow

I hope things get better soon and the government understands the concerns of the people and not just try to put those asking questions in jail. We need to talk to each other. The powers that are need to take people into consideration.

Nasreen Javed Lucknow Social Activist

‘Police FIRs, Arrests Can’t Break The Spirit Of Dissent’

Nasreen Javed, 32, from Lucknow says the unfair methods used by a repressive state, like police FIRs and arrests, cannot crush the spirit of dissent in Indian democracy

Lucknow Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb ke liye jani jati hai. Yani yahan log ek doosre ki izzat karte hain, ek doosre ka sath dete hain (Lucknow is known for its inclusive culture and people here respect, support and take stands for each other). The government has tried its level best to break this cohesiveness, but they haven’t managed to so far. Nor have they managed nor will they succeed in breaking the spirit of young activists like Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita, Asif Iqbal Tanha, my fellow protestors or me.

The government had perhaps thought that if they arrest or unnecessarily hound youngsters, they might rot in jail for the rest of their lives, but the collective soul of India is far greater than the hatred that is brewing in it right now.

I have always raised my voice against injustice and untruth, but with CAA- NRC protests, I ensured that my voice is heard loud and clear and it doesn’t slow down. I was one among the group of 11 women who started the CAA protest at Ghantaghar in Lucknow and participated for 66 days in a row. With a three-month old adopted daughter in tow I braved it all. I have nearly eight to ten FIRs against me, all for taking a stand during the CAA- NRC protests. But I am not scared. I am not doing anything wrong.

Nasreen Javed with fellow protestors in Lucknow

Police acted in heartless manner to break our last year’s protests. Our blankets were taken away extreme cold; our food wasn’t allowed to reach the protest sites; they would pour cold water on the bonfires. I still remember an amber reaching my hijab and singing it when cold water was poured on the fire to put it out. But they cannot pour cold water over our spirit and dampen it.

ALSO READ: Nodeep Kaur Recounts Her Stay In Prison

Even if I have to go to the jail for this cause I am not scared. Sach ki takat alag hoti hai, uska jazba hi alag hota hai (Being on the side of truth lends you a different kind of courage). Perhaps we have the same courage, same spirit that our freedom fighters had during the Freedom Struggle. We are freedom fighters.

The police have been unrelenting in trying to find ways to break our spirit, but so far we have also managed to hold on. As Natasha Narwal said, having strong family support gives you the courage to carry on with your fight for truth. There were times when the police would wake my in-laws in the dead of the night and ask them to bring me to the police station (while I was at the protest site) or they would be arrested. Why hassle old people?

Anti-CAA protestors hold indefinite fast in Lucknow

I go to the court for hearing every 15 days and even with the fear of Covid-19 lurking everywhere I am standing strong. A life that has meaning in it is worthwhile. Thank God my family understands why I feel so strongly about CAA-NRC. It is about ‘exclusion’ while our Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb and even India at large is about ‘inclusion’.

We are raised in a way that we are taught to include. I wonder what’s going on in the minds of our leaders. They were subtly/indirectly saying that persecuted people from other countries, from communities other than Muslims would be granted citizenship. But can the government also ensure that their living standard would become better? What about the living standards of the people already settled here? Dialogue is the need of the hour.

As Told To Yog Maya Singh