“You write injustice on Earth, we will write revolution in the sky” — Amir Aziz
These words are from Amir’s poem “Sab Yaad Rakha Jayega” which was recited, in a live performance, by one of the greatest songwriters of all time, Roger Waters. As you probably know, this poem came in the aftermath of one of the most violent displays of police brutality in Indian history. If you have been living under a rock or you have the privilege of being “apolitical” here is a wiki page. News agencies telecasted police entering the university campus, apparently without permission and using tear gas, batons on students, that too inside the college library. Honestly, I was not too surprised. Dissent is not something I expected the ruling party to accept. What surprised me was the fact that these people who claimed that they were protesting peacefully were students. I remembered something that Kanhaiya Kumar said in a podcast with Kunal Kamra about the time when he was called the “Tukde Tukde Gang”. He jokingly said, “Hum logo ka canteen me udhari hai”, how are we going to break a nation with a billion people. Lol. Being a student back then, I had seen a fee hike protest in my university fail without any police involvement or court cases. Why then was the mighty Indian government afraid of students ?
Short answer- because it works. To be more precise, it has worked before and probably no political party knows more about the strength of a student protest than the one ruling right now. A quick search on the history of student protests in India led me to articles like this. To make my point, I am taking the one that interests me the most- the one that preceded emergency. All of us have read or at least heard about emergency imposed in 1975, the darkest blot on India’s democracy but most don’t know why it happened, or what triggered it.
It was the December of 1971 and India had just won a war against Pakistan for the independence of Bangladesh. Indira Gandhi was proclaimed as “Durga” by the opposition leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee. No small feat. She rode the wave of patriotism and called for immediate elections in 13 states and she won them all. To impose her authority on the judiciary, she appointed AN Ray as the Chief Justice of India superseding 3 senior judges. FYI once the CJI retires, the most senior member of the bench takes his place and Ray was third in line. As you might have guessed Ray was a puppet and would be very useful in times to come. This move though was heavily criticised by the veteran JP Narayan. He, among others, believed that this was an attack on the independence of judiciary and must not be taken lightly for it will have profound impact in the future. “Mother Indira”, as she was called by her supporters, paid no attention to the criticism. She nationalised the banking (like she had promised before the election), coal, steel, copper, refining, cotton textiles, and insurance industries.
Surprisingly, she had a flair for the theatrics even when the images couldn’t be circulated on Good Morning messages on Whatsapp. They had something called “newspapers” back then. Like when the oil crisis hit India in 1973, she rode from her home to the parliament in a horse drawn buggy- all for the front page.
Having been involved from a tender age, she understood Indian politics to its very core. I have one more really interesting anecdote to tell about her political theatrics.
In May 1977 , 9 Harijans were burnt alive by a upper caste mob in Belchi, a small village in Bihar. Indira, along with her party had been swept away in the elections (6 months ago) and most people, even in Congress believed that her political career was over, much like what happened to her grandson in 2016. She heard about the incident in Bihar and immediately got on a flight to Patna and started driving towards Belchi. This was 1977 and it had just rained so there was practically no road. She exchanged her car for a jeep and then switched to a tractor. When the road became too muddy even for a tractor she decided to start walking. She had walked a few kilometres when an elephant came to her rescue. A 60 year old ex-prime-minster rode an elephant to a village in order to be with Harijans in their time of need. That my dear friend is a comeback (albeit a political one) even Virat Kohli would be proud of.
Back to our story of 1974. All was not well in Indiraland. The Congress government in a lot of states specially Rajasthan, Bihar and Gujrat was very corrupt. In 1974, Gujrat was ruled by Chimanbhai Patel, lovingly called Chiman Chor for his corrupt nature. The anger among the masses culminated into a student protest in January, 1974. The protest became extremely violent with buses being burnt (of course) and effigies scorched. The situation in Ahmedabad became so bad that the centre asked the army to march in. Indira asked Chiman to resign and putting the state under president rule. According to wikipedia —
It is the only successful agitation in the history of post-independence India that resulted in dissolution of an elected government of the state.
While the protest in Gujarat was going in, there was a parallel student agitation in Bihar for reasons which were broader than the ones in Gujarat. The protest was started by left leaning parties and was led by the CPI but the right wing parties specially ABVP, which was then linked with Jan Sangh, eventually joined in by forming the Chatra Sangharsh Committee (CSS). The CSS then asked JP Narayan to lead the movement. He agreed on the conditions that this protest would be non violent and nation-wide. JP was well versed with the idea of student protest as he had done it himself when he was studying in Wisconsin. A lot of BJP to-be-veterans participated in this movement.
In 1974, Arun Jaitley in his early twenties, finishing law college at Delhi University travelled to both Ahmedabad and Patna to support and stoke the JP andolan, which had students rioting, stone-pelting, setting university offices on fire, and declaring city-wide bandhs, all against elected governments.
Narendra Modi’s website says that even he participated in this movement. These are the exact words —
“As a young Pracharak and associate of ABVP,” the page adds, “Narendra joined the Navnirman movement and dutifully performed the tasks assigned to him.”
JP’s movement would become a nationwide protest but it wasn’t free of critics. RK Patil, upon JP’s invitation spent two weeks in Bihar after which he wrote a letter to him. He asked a supremely important question — “What is the scope for Satyagraha and direct action in a formal democracy like ours ? By demanding the dismissal of a duly elected assembly the Bihar agitation is both unconstitutional and undemocratic”.
No historian would claim that this protest brought down the mighty Indira Gandhi but this is where it all began. There were a lot of issues that Indira was facing but the final straw came from a decision of the Allahabad High Court judge in a case against her for election malpractice. He not only rendered her election to parliament null and void but also banned her from contesting elections for 6 years. On June 23 1974, she successfully got a stay order from the puppet Supreme Court implying that she was allowed to stay in power constitutionally.
By now, JP was joined by all the opposition parties and the protest had become too hot to handle. On June 25th, emergency was declared just minutes before midnight. The power supply to all newspaper offices was cut so that nothing was printed while all the opposition leaders including JP and Morarji Desai were put in jail. The situation would have seemed hopeless back then but the emergency did end and elections were called in 1977. For the first time India had a non Congress government led by Morarji Desai. The coalition included the Jana Sangh which later became BJP.
There are some obvious similarities between the events that preceded the emergency (in 1970s) and whatever is happening right now. The ruler is more photogenic than teenagers on instagram, the judiciary has all but lost its credibility and the army of bhakts have gone bat shit crazy. Indira had crazy “bhakts” too, both on television and in front of it. In 1978, when she (along with her son Sanjay) was arrested, a couple of goons Bholanath Pandey and Devendra Pandey hijacked (yes hijacked) an Indian Airlines plane using toy guns and demanded that the Gandhis be released immediately. They kept 132 passengers hostage and then surrendered. Shocked ? There is more. They were rewarded with party tickets to contest state elections and guess what THEY FREAKING WON. Trust me, I know this sounds like a plot of a sitcom but all of this happened (source1, source2, source3).
Covid lockdown couldn’t have come at a better time for the Modi government. The economy was in the gutter, the flame in Shaheen Bagh was burning strong and revolution was in the air. To kill the protest police made more than a dozen arrests during the lockdown. Students, doctors, teachers, journalists everyone who was arrested had one thing in common- Dissent.
The images of Jamia Protest are horrific. It was absolutely heartbreaking for me to see students my age covered in blood, being dragged across the street and beaten up by lathis. Who was right and who was wrong is a separate debate altogether but nothing, absolutely nothing justifies what happened to those students. This is not a call for revenge. I don’t believe in violence. Burning buses and throwing stones at the police will achieve nothing and I don’t want to encourage any of that. If anything, burn the bridges we have made, wipe off that line in the sand and start having conversations. The least I want you to do, dear reader is to remember. Just remember this happened. Tell everyone and tell them to remember. Talk to your parents and family but whatever happens now — NEVER FORGET. I can’t and I never will.