Over the last few days, images and videos of police brutality to crush the student protests at Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University have been making the rounds on social media.
This has sparked student and citizen protests across the country, against the police action as well as against the Citizenship Amendment Act, to which the students of the two universities were objecting when they were attacked.
Maps with dots to show student protests are now being shared on social media and beamed on various news channels and portals, with armchair activists, as usual, claiming to be “proud of our students” and hashtagging their posts with an “against” thrown in the mix.
There are three problems here.
One is that while these images give the armchair activists, the students, the country, and the world the illusion of something having been achieved, nothing has – except pats on backs within an echo chamber.
The second is that the protests are not united in their aims or reasoning. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, most students are protesting the exclusion of Sri Lankan Tamils from the list of “illegal immigrants” who would qualify for citizenship. In Assam, the protesters are not unhappy that Muslim immigrants will not have the same rights as Hindu immigrants; they are unhappy that immigrants could have the same rights as they do. It is the xenophobia that plagues most of the northeast rearing its head, and not liberalism. One can’t lump all these protests together as a single movement, particularly since not all are even against the Citizenship Amendment Act – they are against it in its current form, and for different reasons.
The third is that we like to place ourselves in history, and cite protests that we feel have been effective – we like to speak of Mahatma Gandhi and Jayaprakash Narayan. We forget that these protests were on at a time when people had far fewer options than we do today. We also forget just how many lives were lost during these protests. We also forget that their goals were realised not because of the protests so much as for economic or political reasons. The world war had weakened Britain irreparably. The Congress was losing ground across the country. The BJP has no such problems.
The notion that the students are doing something heroic rather than counterproductive is dangerous.
It’s all very well to share a sourced map and a photograph taken by someone else in one post, before sharing live videos from the U2 concert one is attending the next. It’s all very well to draw parallels between India and Tiananmen Square.
What about the students who are actually out there, getting beaten and maimed while not really making a difference?
Across the world, and particularly in Asia and the Middle East, governments have a history of setting their armed forces on students. Students tend to retaliate; clashes with the authorities tend to turn violent; and then the government has the perfect excuse to come down hard on students, detaining them, accusing them of sedition, and worse.
Take Iran. Take the Arab Spring. Nothing changes, except the lives of individuals, and always for the worse. Young men will disappear, as they have done for long in parts of India.
Of course there is a need for protest. But we need to redefine the ways in which we protest, and channel them so that they are effective.
Raised voices do nothing when the people have no power.
The government already has all the numbers it needs to sign any bill into law.
It has also been clever in timing its most controversial moves.
The economy is on the brink of collapse. Economic growth is at a six-year-low. No one is talking about this for as long as we are talking about an Act which clearly flouts several provisions of the constitution.
Crime against women is on the increase, rapists are being let off the hook for “lack of sufficient evidence”, and the only option the authorities seem to have to get them off the streets is to shoot them dead, but no one is talking about this anymore either.
No one is talking about banks losing their customers’ money due to data leaks. No one is talking about the enormous holes in privacy protection with the Aadhaar data bank. No one is even talking about the government’s impending project, the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC). No one is talking about Amit Shah’s promise to build a “sky-high Ram temple”.
A show of strength need not follow the beaten track. People should be using their numbers to do more than land up at a place to voice their opposition to the Act. It has now been written into law. Where can a law be challenged? In the courts. We ought to be analysing everything that is wrong with the Act, and all the ways in which it violates other laws.
Yes, it is true that a government ought not to pass the buck to the judges. And where can this be challenged? In the polls. The Members of Parliament who voted in favour of it ought to be challenged in their constituencies. Their contact details are public. Citizens, and their constituents, can reach out to them with individual appeals and demands.
Over time and geography, hacktivism has been far more effective as a method of illegal protest than picketing. The courts have been far more effective as a method of legal protest than gathering in numbers.
The Act, if it had been inclusive, could have been a good thing, setting an example for a world in which some countries are hosting people who have been driven away from others.
The government has botched it, and in the process successfully distracted from several pressing problems.
Rather than romanticise the protests, which only compounds the problem, we ought to fight by targeting our retaliation and using the most effective means to do so.
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Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com