Calling it #NotInMyName or #SpeakOutChennai or #BreakTheSilence, hundreds turned out around the country last week to protest the culture of lynch mobs that we now find sprouting across India.
The protests, mostly impromptu or called at short notice, in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and other places on June 28 and in Chennai on July 1, evoked a visible response. And it might even be the impact of these protests that led Prime Minister Narendra Modi to break his silence and invoke the name of Mahatma Gandhi to say that killing in the name of gau bhakti is not acceptable.
Admittedly, the turnout was good, but was it good enough? After all, these protests could not gather more than a fraction of the support that the Nirbhaya protests drew from across the country, not just in Delhi. Neither could they match the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement.
What did those protests have that the current ones didn't?
For one, there was the emotional proximity and urgency that the country’s middle class felt about them. In the Nirbhaya protests, for instance, the youth poured out onto the streets across the country, especially in Delhi where the incident occurred. Protestors came out on their own, and the protests went on for days together, growing organically with no single individual or organisation leading the charge.
The issue touched on an emotional chord that let loose a primal fear. The gruesome rape of a young, middle-class woman, touched everyone because it woke them to the possibility that it could happen to them or their loved ones.
Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement had a similar universal currency, because “corruption” was something everyone could relate to. A majority of the people have been touched by corruption at one level or the other or have seen it impact theirs and others’ lives – from the traffic cop pocketing a couple of hundreds to ignore a skipped red light to the big ticket scandals like the 2G scam and the CWG scam that had come to light just before the movement came together.
With a pervasive atmosphere of bribe-taking that had affected nearly everyone’s lives (the question of bribe-giving was conveniently ignored) and a knight in khadi armour like Hazare to lead, this movement too found near-universal support. What again drew supporters here was that it was a movement on behalf of the aam aadmi, irrespective of their political leanings or social backgrounds.
On the other hand, lynching in the name of religion and cow or beef does not have that emotional pervasiveness. It has happened to someone –someone belonging to a particular community. Of course, one feels outraged and appalled by it. But it has not yet threatened anyone in the average middle class Indian’s immediate social circle. So, many in the middle class still remain distanced from it.
It may sound callous, but the truth is that the current protests have not managed to create the emotional immediacy that these earlier movements evoked.
The other important difference is the media attitude towards these protests. Both the Nirbhaya protests and the Anna Hazare show received wall-to-wall coverage in the media. Television channels ran 24x7, and newspapers filled their front pages with these issues. In contrast, one literally had to search for news relating to #NotInMyName in the mainstream English language newspapers, at least in those published from Chennai. Even in The Hindu, which is often trolled by the bhakts, it was buried deep in the inside pages. It was the independent online media and individuals and groups on social media that offered extensive coverage of the protests. The less said about television channels the better.
This should raise more flags considering the fate of these larger, better-mobilised protests. Anti-rape laws turned more stringent following the Nirbhaya protests and the culprits in that case have been sentenced to death (barring the juvenile culprit). But do we seem anywhere nearer to a solution for the flood of cases of rape and sexual assault reported everyday in the media?
And what did the Anna Hazare show achieve? The promised Lokpal Bill is nowhere in sight and there is no visible sign of corruption having been controlled, let alone being eliminated.
The only concrete outcome of the movement was the birth of the Aam Admi Party, which has so far had limited electoral success, but is under immense antagonistic pressure from the BJP heading the government at the Centre. And there are allegations that the main opposition is complicit in the attempt to restrict the growth of the AAP too.
What also happened was that the anti-corruption plank was taken over by Narendra Modi, who produced a heady cocktail by mixing with it the political rhetoric of development, good governance and promise of achche din, to ride that wave to power. The consequences of that are there for all to see.
Let's not delude ourselves. Even if there are no more lynchings or organised violence against minorities, we have only caused a minor dent in the juggernaut.
I am reminded of a long off-the-record chat with a powerful RSS functionary, who told me much before the Gujarat riots that time will come when Muslims would cast protection votes for BJP. ‘We vote for you, you leave us alone,’ would be the strategy. I met him again when Narendra Modi swept back to power after 2002. I asked him whether this was what he meant and whether they would try it on a national scale. The RSS man did not reply to this question at all.
Are we on the threshold of a situation where Muslims might indeed cast the protection vote or be consigned to total political irrelevance?
The thought is scary, and unless liberal civil society and the left and other opposition parties get their acts together and change their narrative, the country will inexorably move towards that.
This means that launching a sustained protest and converting it into a full blown movement has to happen without any significant help from the media. We cannot also entirely depend on social media alone, which can at best (hopefully) mobilise the people and bring them out on the streets. But before that they need to be convinced that it is their life as much as it is that of the targeted communities – it is the concept of India that they are fighting for.
Simultaneously, the political opposition needs to get its act together, and focus on issues that directly affect the people and their livelihood. There has to a pincer attack, people's movement on one side and a political movement on the other.
The big question, as always, is, can we do it?
Note: The author is a contributor and the views expressed are personal.