Staging the ‘people’ in three recent movements

ADITYA NIGAM

IN this essay, I will briefly look at the ‘production’ or staging of the ‘people’ in three recent movements, namely the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement of 2011, the anti-CAA movement of 2019-2020 and the Farmers’ struggle of 2020-2021.

It is by now generally agreed that ‘the people’ is a fictive category, that is to say, it does not really exist in the sense in which modern political thought produces it – as the ‘foundation’ of political power as popular sovereignty, which also implies that it is must have a ‘singular will’. Such an idea of the people arose with modernity, as the idea of the Divine Right of kings was challenged by a new emergent order that insisted on the equality of all. With God no longer in the picture, an equally metaphysical idea of the ‘People’ came to serve as the foundation of political power. The idea of ‘popular sovereignty’ assumed the People as One – though in practice, there are different variations to this idea. The metaphysics of the One did not quite fit with actual reality, even in Europe, given the actual diversity of languages and cultures. This One-ness had to be put in place, often by violently producing homogeneous national cultures – another key modern European invention.

In India, however, nationalism arose in a colonial context where alliances of all sorts had to be struck among colonized populations. As we know in the case of at least some important sections of the minorities and lower caste populations, not all such attempts were successful. Hegemonic nationalism, dominated by the North Indian Hindu upper castes, could not obliterate difference in the way nationalism managed to do in the land of its birth. In any case, the bewildering cultural difference in this huge landmass, would perhaps have required a different kind of enterprise of producing the metaphysical People as One. And in a very crucial sense, it did, in the nationalist formula of ‘unity in diversity’, attributed to Jawaharlal Nehru.

To be sure, this was not an idea all nationalists celebrated but it did come to define our idea of India. In this rendering, the unity of the Indian people, its immense cultural diversity, was not something to despair about but to be celebrated. The problem however, remained as to how, with such celebration of empirical diversity, one could possibly think the People as One. Its singularity too, had to be constructed and expressed through the party of nationalism, the Indian National Congress.

Intellectually, this idea of ‘unity in diversity’ has a very long and distinctive genealogy, which goes back to an amalgam of ideas from two very different sources that Dara Shukoh had, in his 17th century tract, called Majma-ul-Bahrain or the Meeting of Oceans. This was the title of his text, which was translated into Sanskrit, during Dara’s lifetime, as Samudra Sangam. The oceans in question here were the Upanishadic Hindu and the Islamic/Sufi where Dara saw a fundamental similarity in both. While the Upanishadic/Vedantin talked of Brahman as the One that manifests itself in the form of the great diversity of the universe, the Sufi idea of wahdat-al-wujud from Ibn Arabi, spoke similarly, of the Oneness of Being.

 

 

As scholars like Shireen Moosvi have pointed out, Akbar himself was greatly influenced by Ibn Arabi’s doctrine of wahdat-al-wujud, and Jahangir was said to be influenced by Jadrup Gosain, who brought Vedanta to the Mughal court.1 Manisha Mishra cites from Dara Shukoh’s Introduction to Samudra Sangam, where he writes of his learning of Vedic knowledge from Baba Lal Bairagi of Batala, Punjab, who he referred to as ‘intelligence in essence and knowledge incarnate’ and went on to claim that he ‘did not find any difference… in the way in which (the Hindu and Muslim Saints) sought to attain the Truth.’2

It may be relevant to remind ourselves that Dara Shukoh had spent years in this engagement with Vedantic and Upanishadic philosophy and had completed the Persian translation of fifty Upanishads in 1657.3

It was this colossal exercise of finding – rather producing – a common language, the work of exploring the ‘meeting of oceans’ that made available the conceptual resources of what came to be formulated as ‘unity in diversity’ in the colonial era. What was thus adumbrated in the context of two religious universes, became during the phase of anticolonial nationalism, the template for rendering India’s diversity and difference itself as the expression of a more fundamental, metaphysical unity.

In a manner of speaking, the ‘We, the People of India’ invoked by the Preamble of the Indian Constitution, already draws on the conceptual resources of earlier centuries as they came to be reworked and redeployed in the new context of a nationalism that could claim to speak on behalf of, the entire ‘Indian people’.

The India Against Corruption (IAC) movement in 2011 was a unique event in many ways, for it marked the beginning of a new phase of mass movements in India. It broke an unstated compact between parties that had led to a complete stasis in Indian politics. Elsewhere, I have referred to it as the ‘implosion of the political’ though it was only after the anti-corruption movement burst forth that the real dimensions of that implosion became visible.4 It was a matter of common knowledge, at least among journalists and political analysts, that there had been something known as the ‘post-1980 contract’ – a code of silence that never would the Congress dynasty, nor indeed any dynasty, be attacked.

 

Writing in the Times of India in late 2012, sociologist Dipankar Gupta said that the issue had actually come up once again about a year and a half ago – presumably just before the IAC movement – but was suppressed. In early October 2012, Arvind Kejriwal had raised the issue of Robert Vadra’s involvement in corrupt land deals. In that context, a senior BJP leader reportedly told a senior journalist that his party had been in possession of the very same documents that Kejriwal had brandished at his press conference, but ‘after an intense discussion, the leadership decided not to rake up the issue in Parliament even after submitting a motion in each House asking for a discussion.’5 Everybody knew – the parties, their leaders, media persons, political analysts. And yet, nobody spoke out.

For almost three decades, politics in India had been reduced to what is called noora kushti in Hindustani – simulated wrestling matches. All politics had been conveniently confined between the four walls of the parliament, where one could periodically witness fire-spouting speeches and farcical walkouts but nothing beyond that. That was the context in which anti-corruption movement emerged from late 2010 onwards, peaking in April 2011, whereafter it came to be known as the ‘Anna Hazare movement’.

Rank outsiders had suddenly barged their way into the political field. People who neither understood nor cared for the grammar that grammarians of politics had so carefully put in place, were now all over, asking ‘rude’ questions. The ruling Congress propaganda machinery swung into action, ably assisted by sections of the intelligentsia. In the media debates, democracy was reduced to representation-by-election. Protesters were challenged repeatedly with the question, ‘who do you represent?’ It was as if the right of ordinary citizens to ask questions of their rulers was illegitimate unless they were properly, that is, electorally ‘represented’.

At the centre of the whole ‘debate’ then was the question of the ‘people’, which the ruling party and sections of the intelligentsia had reduced to one of electoral representation. The protesters were dared to form a political party and fight elections, to know where they stood. On the side of the IAC, speeches by the leaders, starting with Anna Hazare himself, invoked the Constitution of India. ‘Jis din se is desh ka samvidhan lagoo hua is desh ki janta malik ho gayi’ was a point Hazare often made in his speeches during the movement. In fact, the principal targets of the movement were the political parties in general, and the political class as such, for it was precisely them that the movement held responsible for everything that was wrong – that had led to the endless derailment of the Lokpal Bill since the late 1960s.

In those initial months therefore, the movement spoke of direct democracy, attacked political parties and invoked the Constitution to bring back ‘the people’ to the centre of the debate, in place of ‘procedures’ that had already been defanged and were seen as safe by the powers that be. In the later phase, though a section of the movement did accept the challenge of forming a party – the Aam Aadmi Party – the invocation of ‘the people’ as sanctified by the Constitution, remained central to its discourse. Elsewhere, I have discussed the notion of ‘the people’ as it continued to function in the ‘popular-democratic address’ of AAP – which, in my reading, has insisted on its ‘nirgun’ or ‘attributeless’ character.6

Indeed, what was remarkable about the movement was its invocation of what we might call the ‘national popular’ in a Gramscian sense. So the movement neither had any name nor flag or insignia. It simply called itself India Against Corruption and wielded or displayed the national tricolor as its flag. In other words, it positioned itself as the voice of the people of India – the people invoked in the Constitution – and claimed no other identity, no other ‘ideology’ outside it.

 

The movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (the anti-CAA movement, for short), began in December 2019, initially with the students’ protests in Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) in Delhi. The students had planned a march to parliament on 13 December 2019, which was not allowed to be taken out and met with by massive police repression. Two days later, on 15 December, video footage and injured students’ testimonies revealed that the police entered the university campus and randomly started beating up students studying inside the library or praying in the mosque. Brutal police attacks on the anti-CAA protesters also took place in the poorer neighbourhoods of East Delhi and Daryaganj. The police attack in the JMI premises was said to be so brutal that it sent shock waves across the Muslim colonies around the university.

Very soon, the families, women in particular, took the lead and began a sit-in on a road outside their colony, Shaheen Bagh, starting the iconic struggle that in fact, spawned hundreds of such protests across the length and breadth of the country. The initial protests in many cities of the country were joined by ordinary students and people from different walks of life and not just Muslims. These too were met with massive repression and as time went by, the form of the struggle spawned by Shaheen Bagh became the model of a peaceful satyagraha that occupied public spaces and became what have been called ‘pilgrimage centres’ for people wanting to join these round-the-clock protests.

Such protests started in Park Circus Kolkata, Bilal Bagh Bangalore, Muhammad Ali Park Kanpur, Sabzibagh in Patna, Shanti Bagh in Gaya, Roshan Bagh in Allahabad, Iqbal Maidan in Bhopal, Jaistambh Chowk in Raipur, among many others across the country. The actual sites of protest were of course, mainly peopled by Muslim women, some in their eighties, who had taken the lead. Very soon Shaheen Bagh had a library for the young, a children’s corner where various activities for children would be undertaken. There were art installations all around, depicting struggle, detention camps and figures of icons from the past – all the way from Jamia Millia to Shaheen Bagh. Poetry recitations, solidarity speeches and songs were part of the daily activities as literally thousands thronged to Shaheen Bagh and later to other locations where similar protests had come up.7

On 19 January 2020, on the thirtieth anniversary of the mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from Kashmir, ‘the Shaheen Bagh women surprised even the most ardent of their supporters by inviting Kashmiri Pandits to address them.’8 They raised their voice for the return of Kashmiri brethren to their homeland. While this may have appeared as something unprecedented, it was of a piece with the way in which the idea of ‘the people’ of India was being imagined and produced in the course of the movement.

Indeed, from the very early phase of the movement, its two most insurgent acts became the mass reading of the Preamble and singing of the national anthem in protests, from the stairs of Jama Masjid as well as other sites across the country. Ambedkar, Gandhi and Bhagat Singh became the icons of the movement, and the national tricolor once again, the insignia of struggle. This was also an act of reclaiming the national flag and the anthem from the coercive use to which it had been put, violently, by the Hindutva forces – forcing people to display their ‘patriotism’ in cinema halls for example, by standing up while the national anthem played.

And almost as if to prove that the struggle was of the ‘people-nation’ and not of a single community, Sikh farmers from Punjab started pouring in large numbers. They set up a langar and served food to protesters despite police attempts to disrupt it.

It is important to remember that while the IAC had taken a sharp stance against political parties as such, because of their general analysis of Indian politics, for the anti-CAA movements, things were far more straightforward. The highly problematic and discriminatory CAA 2019 had been passed in both houses of parliament within two days of its being tabled, with practically no opposition. It was thus clear that no hope could be placed on the political parties. Had ordinary students and common people not initiated the movement, all the parties seemed ready to overlook the interests of the Muslims at large. The idea that the voice of the people-nation could be heard only if they began speaking in their own voice, without the mediation of political parties was once again very clear. Posters at protest sites, like the one outside Park Circus in Kolkata, clearly told political parties to keep their banners and their ideologies outside if they wanted to come in to express solidarity.

The epic one-year long farmers’ struggle started on 26 November 2020 and continued till November 2021. About 700 farmers lost their lives while at the protest. Actually, the farmers’ agitation had already begun in June, in Punjab, from the very time the central government first promulgated the three ordinances that were later passed in parliament, as acts.

Once again, the feature that provides a line of continuity of the earlier two movements is that here too, the rejection of political parties was aggressive and uncompromising. For, in the case of the farm laws too, the parties in parliament hardly played any role in opposing or stalling them, or indeed carrying out a mass campaign to expose the intentions of the government. Indeed, the Congress, the main opposition as well as the ruling party in Punjab, was happily going along with the laws
till the wrath of the farmers burst upon the scene. Starting protest public meetings, the movement soon moved on to blocking highways. It continued for three months before the farmers finally decided to march to parliament.

Actually, the picture is a bit more complicated because it was initially an entirely Punjab-based mobilization, where various left-wing farmers’ unions had been active for some years and had both, a strong grassroots presence as well as a grasp of the larger politics behind the laws, which would have led to the destruction of the farming community as well as corporate takeover of agriculture. The issues arising out of these laws directly affected the relatively well-to-do farmers of the Green Revolution areas of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh (and parts of Rajasthan) but the government and the ruling party had by then successfully, communally polarized the farming population in the latter two areas.

 

The period immediately preceding the agitation was the period of the first wave of Covid-19, which had been transformed by the government and its controlled media into a vicious anti-Muslim campaign, assigning to them the responsibility for the spread of the pandemic. In the case of the sugar belt of West UP, the feat had already been accomplished way back in 2013, via the Muzaffarnagar riots. In Haryana, it had happened more gradually but reached its peak during the first wave of Covid-19.

It was fascinating nonetheless that as the Punjab farmers marched through Haryana reached the Singhu and Tikri borders, their struggle rapidly radicalized the Haryana farmers as well. Since the central government did not allow the farmers to enter Delhi, on the Haryana side of both these borders, virtually small townships came up, with tractor trolleys serving as residences. With farmers from Punjab camping, the local jat farmers in particular, became involved in supplying food and other necessaries of life including opening their homes and hotels for women to use, for toilet and other purposes.

This interaction between the local Haryana farmers and the camping Punjab farmers, rapidly opened up a different view of the world before the local farmers, who realized in the very first few weeks that they had been quite oblivious of the dangers posed by the new laws. The news of this did not take long to reach the jat farmers of the sugar belt of West UP and slowly the siege of Delhi began, as they started camping on the eastern side in Ghazipur.

The discourse of the farmers’ struggle, unlike the two movements discussed earlier, did not directly invoke ‘the people’, when it referred to or described the struggle. Instead, it drew on larger cultural repertoires whence the concept of the annadata or the one who provides food was now deployed in the larger context of the nation – those who feed the nation. Also brought into play, though not so much by the farmers’ leaders themselves, as by the supporters of the struggle, was the old slogan of the 1960s ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ coined by Lal Bahadur Shastri. This slogan immediately linked together the two pillars of the nation – the soldier, whom Lenin had referred to as the ‘peasant in uniform’ and the peasant.

The jawan-kisan combination functioned as the synecdochical representation of the ‘nation’ – and in that sense it can be said that there was an effort to invoke a larger sense of the ‘people-nation’ throughout the course of the struggle. Once again, the invocation took the route of rejection of ‘representation’ by the political parties. The people, it seems, could only appear directly, on their own – just as in the case of the earlier two movements.

One important part of the story of the struggle of the Punjab farmers has also to do with the fact that the SKM-linked organizations had been making serious efforts, over the years, to take up issues of the Dalit agricultural workers, whose demands often conflicted with the demands of the owner farmers. As a result, they managed to procure the support of the agricultural workers and Dalits to a significant extent – and thus present an image of a larger rural front.

If the category of ‘the people’ is fictive, it is also one that needs to be continuously staged and restaged. In the specific Indian context, I suggested in the beginning that the voice of the empirically diverse ‘people’ could only be represented though the leading and organizing political force of the party. The invocation of the ‘people’ in these movements takes a very different route. Drawing on past experiences of the popular will being hijacked by political parties, contemporary movements such as the ones discussed above, seem to now be making the opposite claim – that the people can only emerge in person, without the mediation of political parties. Given that this rejection of the political party has wider resonance in movements across the world, this may be an invitation to rethink the forms of modern politics afresh.

Footnotes:

1. S. Moosvi, ‘The Mughal Encounter with Vedanta: Recovering the Biography of “Jadrup”, Social Scientist 30(7/8), 2002, pp. 13-23. https://doi.org/10.2307/3518149 (last accessed 25 May 2022).

2. M. Mishra, ‘Contributions of Influences in the Writing of “Majma-ul-Bahrain”: An Enquiry’, Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 66, 2005, pp. 423-429. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44145858 (last accessed 25 May 2022).

3. It was this translation that Antequil-Duperron acquired and translated into French as Oupenek’hat, which in the 18th century kindled massive European interest in ancient Indian philosophy.

4.  Aditya Nigam, ‘Implosion of the Political’, Journal of Contemporary Thought 27, Summer 2008.

5. I have discussed this entire set of issues at that time. See A. Nigam, ‘The (Ir)resistible Rise of Arvind Kejriwal – Enter the Outsider’, 2012. https://kafila.online/2012/10/13/the-irrestible-rise-of-arvind-kejriwal-enter-the-outsider/ (last accessed on 25 May 2022).

6. The distinction between ‘Nirgun’ (attributeless) as opposed to ‘Sagun’ (with specific attributes and identifiable form, such as Rama or Shiva) has a very long history in Hindu thought and has many different variations. My use of the category of ‘Nirgun’ in the paper draws on the specific way in which it is used in the idea of nirgun bhakti in the tradition of certain North Indian Dalit communities. See A. Nigam, ‘Arvind Kejriwal ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai? The Nirgun “People”,’ 2022, and ‘AAP’s Popular-Democratic Address’, in Manas Ray (ed.), State of Democracy in India: Essays on Life and Politics in Contemporary Times. Primus Books, Delhi, 2022.

7. For an excellent documentation of the struggle, see Ziya Us Salam and Uzma Ausaf, Shaheen Bagh: From a Protest to a Movement. Bloomsbury, New Delhi, 2020.

8. Ibid. p. 66.