There was deep anxiety amongst the well-wishers of India’s student movements about how the rally in Delhi would turn out to be. The rally was called by multiple mass movements and student movements, to affirm solidarity to each other, oppose the incarceration of Chandrashakhar Azad of the Bhim Army. A day before the rally, news of cancellation was rolled out by few media houses, and what added fuel to the strings of rumours was the tweet by DCP where he denied granting any permission. Memories of Najeeb's protest, where the police dragged his mother and detained many of the protestors haven’t faded from Delhi’s public memory yet and hence, the anxiety.
The rally was significant for many reasons. Leaders from many youth organisations came together under one umbrella with one voice – a voice of defiant dissent. The crowd, easily exceeding a thousand (and not the misreported numbers circulated by various media houses) was overwhelming in its enthusiasm; happiness and hope were evident on the faces. Umar Khalid said something which can summarise the evident phenomenon of organic bits of peoples’ movements across the country coalescing, “the balloon of the Modi wave has burst, and the credit goes to the farmers, workers, students, and the women of our country”. The speakers talked about how over the last few years the country has witnessed a strings of hate crimes, murders, lynchings, etc aided and abetted by elements of the party in power, this climate of oppression amplified by the silence of the Prime Minister, propaganda replacing journalism in large news channels, social media trolls becoming powerful, and a climate where any dissent is quickly named “anti-national”.
India is right now going through a curious phase where performative nationalism is vitiating the atmosphere of this country and leading to violence towards the marginalised. People are killed in the name of the cow, for being Muslims or Dalits, and in an especially reprehensible case a Muslim worker in Rajasthan was burnt alive, and this horrible act was recorded and posted on social media followed by the valourisation of the murderer by a mob, outside the courthouse with the administration watching silently, a fact reminded by Shehla Rashid. The potent poison of political religion and a perversion of nationalism has damaged public critical thinking and political discourse, all under the garb of veneration of Bharat Mata.
To add to this extreme social conservatism, there is the economic oppression done by large companies. Any media investigation on them is quickly shut using libel laws with journalists and activists being stuck in never-ending court cases, thanks to the economic might of these companies. As has been noted by Arun Shourie in the recent past, the atmosphere reeks of a decentralised emergency.
Recently, during Bhima Koregaon anniversary clash, the inciters were not arrested (with one inciter having previously been praised by the PM) and instead Jignesh Mevani and Umar Khalid had FIRs filed against them. This kind of scapegoating is symptomatic of a larger trend wherein a person with a Muslim identity (not even necessarily a Muslim) serves as a convenient distraction; a fact quipped upon in Jignesh Mevani’s speech in the rally. In many semi-urban communities across North India after the recent spate of violence by the “gaurakshak” vigilantes, having outward signs of faith has become a peril.
Umar Khalid and Jignesh Mevani pointed out in their speeches, that all this violence has erased the economic questions of the people. The mandate in 2014 was for development and anti-corruption but these topics have disappeared from public discourse. The fact that demonetisation was soundly criticised by economists and partly failed, leaving behind a trail of collateral damage, has been forgotten. By the time the public criticises demonetisation, the topic has shifted to GST, again a move which ruined many SME businessmen as pointed out by Umar Khalid. And when the question about GST is raised, the political establishment retorts with soundbites about “nationalism”.
All the speakers in rally mentioned a few common points, one of which is the failed promise of the two crore jobs per year, another promise on which the 2014 mandate was obtained. The speakers raised the question of whether national discourse can return to the questions of livelihood away from the hateful rhetoric. Shehla Rashid pointed out the complicity of the media in suppressing this voice of dissent, and Kanhaiya Kumar talked about how culture has been appropriated to be used as propaganda. The speakers asserted that the masses of the country care about jobs, the farmers want a decent price for their produce, and the students want their dignity back, and not being able to answer these important questions the establishment uses Hindutva as a distraction. Akhil Gogoi raised an important point in his speech, that every day 33 farmers commit suicide, so where is the promise of Acche Din? One is reminded of the farmers' protests in Delhi and in Rajasthan which were ignored by the mainstream media, especially where farmers carried skulls symbolising their fellow farmers who committed suicide and ate rats to showcase the distress.
In the words of Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid, the January 9 rally was the real opposition, which was out on streets, and Kanhaiya Kumar stated that a lot of deadwood of casteism and religious bigotry will be cleared to plant new seeds of social change. Jignesh Mevani concluded on a very interesting note questioning the government in power - whether they want the Manusmirti or Constitution waving both of the said books, referring to the recent statements of the BJP lawmaker who wanted to do away with the Constitution. He, like Kanhaiya, affirmed that they will struggle to defend the Indian Constitution.
One hopes that such a formation by these young leaders of various social movements can craft a credible vision to lead the country into better fulfilling the promises in its Constitution.
Sagrika is a Delhi based journalist and Anupam is a US based scientist. They observe Indian students politics from the lenses of journalism and technology respectively.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author's personal views, and do not necessarily represent the views of Newsclick.