[trigger warning: death, violence, police brutality, genocide]
Democracy was first established to ensure no man is subjected to a monarch’s will and, at the time, it revolutionised the world, freeing millions from subjugation. Today, democracy as we know it faces another, bigger threat – fascism. With the rise of the right all over the world, we are slowly returning to an established monarchy, with political power structures pushing certain leaders into the limelight (the kind of political approach pioneered by the US, emphasising the party’s lead candidate instead of talking more about a decentralised power structure). In this cultural and political climate, the civil disobedience movements are becoming increasingly widespread. If it weren’t for crucial movements like the Quit India Movement by Gandhi, the Suffragette Movement, and the Civil Rights Movement, our social landscape would now look vastly different. However, political parties and governments around the world now seek to vilify such action which once modified our societal fabric in crucial ways and, as the state leaders become convoluted in a mass orgy of power behind the scenes, they turn the common protestor into the State Threat so to unite the masses for their re-election.
A good example of the above would be the bureaucracy and media circus surrounding the recent protests against the CAA/NRC in India. The CAA stands for Citizenship Amendment Act, which grants citizenship to refugees from India’s neighbours belonging to all religions except Islam, and the NRC, short for National Register of Citizens, will identify ‘illegal’ immigrants in the country, with concentration camps having already been built to house them (but the country somehow does not have enough money to buy sufficient rapid testing kits and PPEs for testing and protection against COVID – 19, and has to ask for foreign aid). The target of these exercises is clear : Muslims, and while the Prime Minister has repeatedly said no legitimate citizens of the country need to be worried, his party leaders hold different stances, with some calling Muslims invaders, illegals who need to be recognised by their costumes, and other such typical riot-inciting right wing rhetoric. In response to all this, concerned people have begun organising protests all over the country, holding sit-ins, marches, and other forms of non-violent resistance to these actions of the government. As soon as the protests started, however, all the government and party machinery went to work to de-legitimise the protesters and incite violence against them, by saying the women sitting for the protests were sex workers taking money to protest and that it is these Muslim invaders who have started the protests. This rhetoric was spread by both the IT cells of BJP (the ruling party), and the TV ‘news’ channels it owns, which are actually roughly more than 75% of the news channels in India. The multiple calls to action by party leaders (“Shoot the traitors of the country” was a popular slogan a lot of BJP leaders raised in their rallies) and the fascist news anchors ultimately resulted in a violent pogrom in New Delhi, causing the death of 40 people – including an 85-year old Muslim woman too frail to flee her burning home- and leading to more than 400 people, most of whom are Muslims, being injured, while the Delhi Police, under the control of the Home Minister Amit Shah, silently stood by.
Not even delving into whether the cause which people are protesting for is correct or not, the systematic attack on people’s right to protest is horrific, and disregards the history of our civil disobedience. The news channels run prime time segments de-legitimising the protestors every night, and calling protestors “urban terrorists” and a danger to the country, while conveniently ignoring the inciteful speeches by the BJP leaders (all this, while the ruling party has an actual alleged terrorist in the parliament). For example, here are some prime-time debates held on Republic TV, a popular Indian news channel, a week after the pogrom: “Foreign Media Fake News Campaign” (regarding the news about the pogrom in the Atlantic, NY Times, etc), “Tukde Tukde Gang to face Trial” (another popular right-wing rhetoric in India is to call progressive student leaders ‘Tukde-Tukde Gang’, or Gang who wants to split the country), “Misreporting with an Agenda?”, and “Why Abuse the Forces as They Restore Calm”. A thing to note is that none of the debates blamed the government or the police administration for failing to stop the riots, or blamed the ruling party for inciting them. Interestingly, Prime Minister Modi himself said he watches this program after a hard-day’s work to unwind.
The rise in civil disobedience movements has also been linked to the fall of media as the fourth pillar of democracy. For a while now, the media has been lax in their function as a ‘watchdog’ of democracy. This has been well-documented and proven in books like Chomsky’s brilliant Manufacturing Consent, where he explains carefully how the media always follows the government directive, whether directly (in order to not lose access to governmental sources, which may not give insider information if the government’s line is not followed, and so on) or indirectly (through government or party-funded think tanks producing experts with skewed opinions who then go on TV shows and provide legitimacy to a corrupt system, the general tendency among professional journalists to criticise policy and tactics rather than governments, clearly biased films being presented as factual works, etc.). However, in recent years, this lapdog nature of the media has grown to such an extent, it has become the guard-dog of the government. Our traditional media always presented itself as a commodity that could be bought with advertising slots, and nowadays, a lot of rich ruling parties across the world have bought these media houses, which now serve them as a subtler propaganda machine. In a study conducted at Loughborough University, academics analysed stories published by various print media about different UK parties in the first week of the 2019 General election campaign. The study showed that the Labour Party was overwhelmingly targeted with negative coverage by the papers, while in some publications, like the highly circulated The Sun and Daily Mail, positive stories were only reserved for the Tories. In the UK, while broadcasters are bound by strict impartiality laws during official campaign proceedings, newspapers have no such restrictions.
In order to win the majority voters, political parties push a communal ‘us vs. them’ agenda continuously, polarising society on a national level. In these circumstances, with the state on the side of a murderous majority, it can be hard to maintain even basic human rights, much less your identity as a minority. This is a struggle faced by many under a lot of authoritarian regimes around the world, from the LGBTQ+ people in Hungary to the Uighur Muslims in China. Against state machinery, an individual is nothing. However, banded together, we exercise enormous powers. According to Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, non-violent protests are twice as likely to succeed as armed ones, and it only takes 3.5% of the population to ensure serious political change. The idea of the government being the nation has been spread to such an extent that speaking against the government is considered speaking against the country by some. In my opinion, a nation is its’ people, and a protest against the government is not a protest against the nation, it’s a protest by the nation against an oppressor.
[Photo credit: Javed Sultan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images]