Skip to main content

#BlackLivesMatter, anti-CAA stir, farmers’ protest: Lessons from global movements

By Simi Mehta, Anshula Mehta 

There has been an exponential increase in protests around the world, and these have been hailed as the site for speaking truth to those in power. These global phenomena have a unifying symbolic representation. The question that persists is that do all these protest sites create the same impact on power? Do all these protest sites become harbingers to saving an ideal of democracy? Are their differences in perception, symbolism, the role of actors involved and the outcome? Should these movements be valorized and glamourized?
In India, farmers’ movements lay the ground for universal claims of food security and survival. They seep into the concerns of economic disparities and its implication on citizenship. On a similar note, the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) movement began with universal goals of saving democracy and constitution.
Yet, the collective conscious of the public space could only capture this to be a specific demand of a religious minority. The same reduction of the farmers’ protests with communal overtones was not successful. Therefore, it begs the questions about the normative claims of populism.
One of world’s leading social theorists and sociologists, Prof Jeffery C Alexander of the Yale University and Dr Hilal Ahmed from the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) engaged in a conversation with Dr Ajay Gudavarthy from the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, at a panel discussion organized by the Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi. Prof Harbans Mukhia, eminent historian, and Dr Trevor Stack, senior lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, were the discussants in this event.

Contextualising perceptions in history

The perception of political movements by the citizen audiences depends on three interlinking variables, namely, elite and mass members of the movement, the projection of the movement by mass media and performances of the movement. The current movements have a unifying thread of performances that are geared towards gaining civil citizenship.
Prof Alexander contextualized the #BlackLivesMatter protest in the history of race struggle in American history. He said, the struggle for civil citizenship continues because “race is a primary contradiction in American history”. The American constitution envisages a democracy of equality, fraternity and social justice entrenched in the oxymoronic character of white supremacy, he added.
The history of race struggles has seen allies in the white citizens of America. But does this participation ever envisage the end of race?, he asked. Abolitionists spoke about the indignity of black enslavement; the symbolic movement was towards the abolition of slavery and not of racism.
Prof Alexander provided insights into the Civil Rights Movement which was led by Martin Luther King with a deep emphasis on equality and rights. However, he pointed out that the performance by the elite and mass members in the movement was deeply Christian, and this made the demand exclusive to another intersection of the populace.
Situating the #BlackLivesMatter movement in history would make the observer uncomfortable because the performativity of the movement was to paint very specific imagery, he asserted. The symbolic performance situated itself in painting people who had died due to police brutality as martyrs fighting for the principles of the civil rights movement- equality and rights.
According to him, the movement very specifically captured the voice of trauma of black men from the working class who were scuffled in the public space regularly, the black lives became the voice of this specific location. So, the question that lingers is whether all movements begin with general universal claims having a very specific worldview within them.

Comparing movements

Dr Ahmed opined that comparing movements needs a deep understanding of the same beyond superficial news coverage. The aim of comparison should be to delve deep into questions of context, performances, the model of collective political action and most importantly a learning ground.
These locations in terms of space and time hold within them the capacity to reimagine or “think the unthinkable”. Movements today hold dual questions: that of survival and that piques interest in the form of reimagining the plural and the collective.
Using these variables, Dr Ahmed compared the anti-CAA movement and the farmers’ protests. He pointed out that these movements were protective and defensive and they encapsulated within them ‘structural existentialism’. These sites were not challengers but defenders. Both the movements had common features:
  1. There was an emphasis on non-party politics. They collectively rejected competitive electoral politics to be the site of the contesting issues. They chose to present their questions in a different realm of politics.
  2. The movements used a new form of performative symbolism. This performative symbolism was also a world view that had been set by the hegemonic state. The interaction was only with symbols that were already controlled by state structures like the Tricolour, Gandhi and Ambedkar.
  3. Traditional political leadership was rejected. The traditional houses of power did not settle with the performative symbolism of the two movements. A stark contrast was the intersectionality of the elite leadership in the protest site though the specificity remained, Chandrashekhar was the leader of the anti-CAA movement and Rakesh Takait is leading the farmers’ movement.
  4. The last feature is the response from the public sphere. There is a fresh trend of protests against protests, and interestingly, these are painted by the media as honest, rational concerns which has driven the middle class to the streets.

Where did the protests miss?

The anti-CAA protests started from the universal question of saving constitutionalism and democracy and yet, they failed to engage with Hindutva constitutionalism, and this successfully reduced the possibility of thinking of an alternative as the public imaginary was captured by the refashioning of a Hindu constitution.
This refashioned constitution set itself around the narrative to that of tax payers to capture the middle-class imaginary, and thereafter successfully refashioned the taking of capital by the state as a claim against ‘the other’.
Anti-CAA protests started from the universal question of saving constitution and democracy, yet failed to engage with Hindutva
Dr Ahmed pointed out that there is a threat to collective thinking and it is here that a lesson can be learnt from Gandhian populism. Gandhi never celebrated the idea of a collective people. He feared that this celebration would result in valorization, which would impede any form of self-reflexivity or question of social morality.
The farmers’ protests on the other hand has failed to capture the public imagination because they have failed in creating any public opinion. They continue to speak of victimhood and the counter-narrative of playing into this victimhood and painting them as non-rational actors, has been successful, he said.
It is here again that a page can be picked from Gandhian populism in the context of communal rioting, Prof Ahmed said, noting, Gandhi never stopped using the terms Hindu-Muslim. It was through his speech that he was successfully locating an empirical site of concern for what most people saw as abstract challenge of communalism.

Lessons to be learnt

Prof Alexander noted that a “theoretical framework asserts that symbolic representation is essential to sustain political democracy”. It is this performance and symbolism that can result in solidarity being generated for tackling the empirical questions.
Religion, he said, is a stronger base for solidarity than race and this is why the ‘othering’ of race is more collectively seen as a concern and not the ‘othering’ of religion. This just results in one very unsettling but true narrative that has been built by reimagining Mughal history, where the “Muslims can never be victims in India.”
Giving his assent to this reading of the social democracy of India, Dr Ahmed pointed to the electoral and non-electoral politics of Hindu victimhood, stating, this idea has become the social imaginary of contemporary India.
Prof Mukhia concluded by stating that the social imaginary had a competition towards who was the greater victim to access better resource redistribution -- the resource in question being civil citizenship. Dr Stack added, the understanding of heterogeneity must be such that one locates the complexities within a collective. The phenomenon of collectivity holds within it both tensions and complementarity, and provided a caveat that differences should not turn into hostilities.
---
Acknowledgment: Sakshi Sharda, M Phil student at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and a research intern at IMPRI

Comments

TRENDING

Communal rhetoric? Hindutva preached by RSS-BJP is 'monolithic', not Hinduism

By Prem Verma*  I am a devout Hindu but not a believer of RSS Hindutva form of Hinduism which brings about hatred of other religions. My Hindu religion has not taught me to look down on other religions and neither has it instilled in me to go about converting others to my religion because my religion is superior.

Gross 'injustice' to children: Rs 5000 cr cut in education budget; 15 lakh schools shut down

Counterview Desk  More than 100 dignitaries, including educationists, academia, social activists, teachers’ union, civil society organisations (CSOs), various networks and people working on child rights, in a letter to Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman have sought reversal of reduction in allocation for education in the Union Budget 2021-22, even as demanding substantial increase in it.

India sees 62 journo deaths, 4th highest, amidst pandemic: Swiss media rights body

By Our Representative The Switzerland-based media rights body Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) has noted that India is the fourth most affected country as far as mediapersons’ death on account of Covid-19 is concerned. According to Blaise Lempen, secretary-general of PEC, the global tally of casualties among media persons in the Covid-19 pandemic has reached 1,036 journalists in 73 countries till date.

Buddhist shrines massively destroyed by Brahmanical rulers in "pre-Islamic" era: Historian DN Jha's survey

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.

RSS love for 'killer' Myanmar junta behind Indian military presence at Tatmadaw Day?

By Shamsul Islam*  If a shameful act means an action which is criminal and nauseating, it would be an understatement to describe the attitude of the present RSS-BJP rulers of India towards the demolition of democracy and large-scale killing of the people of Myanmar by the military ( tatmadaw ) junta which took power through a coup on February 1, 2021 after renegading the election results in which the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, National League for Democracy, was a clear winner.

Chhattisgarh’s Apra riverfront imitates Sabarmati: 'Devaluing' water, environment

Sabarmati riverfront By Mansee Bal Bhargava*  This year’s #WorldWaterDay (March 22) focus was on ‘Valuing Water’. My school friend, Pragati Tiwari from Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, called that day knowing my interest in water matters. We were remembering our childhood days as how we used to play on the banks and the bed of the Arpa Nadi (River) during the summer holidays and as how the river would swell like Anaconda to flow happily during the monsoon.

Bihar massacre on Holi day: Brahminical, casteist mindset behind 'uneasy' silence

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar By Vidya Bhushan Rawat*  Several people were killed in Bihar amidst Holi festivities, but not much response has come in from the media. The silence of the government and the society as a whole is also appalling. We seek to romanticise these festivals, yet we forget that every year they take so many lives. This despite the fact that Holi appears to be the best time for 'avenging things'.

India's draft migrants policy: Whither concern on job restrictions imposed by states?

By Anil Kumar*  India’s Niti Aayog has prepared a Draft Migration Policy. The draft policy acknowledges migration as an integral part of development, and it calls for positive government interventions that facilitate internal migration. With a rights-based solution to migration, the draft states that the policy should “enhance the agency and capability of the community and thereby remove aspects that come in the way of an individual’s own natural ability to thrive”.

Recalling Jallianwala martyrs' communal amity as BJP 'warns' of Sitalkuchi everywhere

By Shamsul Islam*  The RSS-BJP rulers declare India to be a battle-ground between Hinduism and Islam. Muslims have been declared as ‘internal threat’ by RSS ideologue MS Golwalkar (“Bunch of Thought”, Chapter xvi). Behaviour of many of their leading cadres, including those who hold high constitutional posts, is such that they seem to be conspiring over-time to ignite a civil war between the two communities. They are under the impression that this would help divert attention from failures of the Hindutva rulers on developmental front.