A settlement may well be taking place somewhere near the base because one is hearing stories of students arguing with conservative parents before trooping out to join a hostel here, a college there to merge in the nationwide protests. These are "ostensibly" against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). "Ostensibly", because a mass upsurge does not possess precise comprehension of a complicated issue nor its geometric lines. It proceeds on the basis of a vague, intuitive grasp of a larger reality: something evil is afoot.
Are the unspeakable brutalities of the UP police some sort of rearguard action on the government's part to protect the key bastion? All fangs bared, psychologists will tell you, is a sign of fright. Or, is Yogi Adityanath climbing up a few notches to look taller than the duet in Delhi?
Police barging is into Muslim mohallas, terrorizing the elderly and women, picking up the youth (not always without an eye on ransom money), in brief, inviting "skull caps and beards" onto the street to provide visuals for a gleefully complicit media. But focus on the partisan media must not obscure the oases of courageous, balanced journalism with the likes of Ravish Kumar of Hindi NDTV in the lead. They deserve applause. This media keeps protests (and police excesses) at Benaras Hindu University and Aligarh Muslim University in equal focus. The assiduous effort to polarize on communal lines by the rest of the media, the one which does not show policemen smashing CCTV cameras, are challenging journalistic decency. Whether the no holds barred excesses of the Yogi will smother the embers of protest or barely cover them with an ashen sheet, only time will tell.
How long will the darkness in UP last? Sahir Ludhianvi summed it up very simply:
"Zulm phir zulm hai, barhta hai to mit jaata hai
Khoon phir khoon hai, tapke ga
to jumm jaayega"
(Brutal repression cannot last in perpetuity.
Blood, when shed, leaves stains)
The black-hole of UP must not be allowed to distract attention from a historic new phase the youth have inaugurated in the nation's political life. First, the movement signals a generational change. The time may well have come for senior pundits to contemplate retirement in the 72nd year of the Republic. The placards are not only teeming with ideas, they are also brazenly irreverent: Hindu hoon, chutia naheen" for instance. I am perfectly willing to substitute "Hindu" with "Muslim" in the text.
Opening of the ventilators is the single biggest contribution of the youth agitation, the realization that one can heave a sigh of relief. The regime's invincibility had been dinned into large sections by a faction of the media which too is now in the process of being exposed in the wake of the protests.
It was bad enough that the protests erupted with the suddenness of revelation, what is worse for the regime is the fact that they have taken place against the backdrop of electoral decline. Reverses in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, a narrow shave in Haryana, embarrassment in Karnataka, must be galling for a party which saw Hindu Rashtra within grasp after a thumping majority of 353 seats in a House of 543.
Even though the Supreme Court gifted a judgement to the BJP affiliates enabling them to finally build a Ram Temple in Ayodhya, the political consequences of this outcome are ironically negative for the party. Communal polarization burgeoned when the temple was an issue, with Muslims pitted on the other side. For the faithful, a temple exactly on the spot where Rama was born, is a matter of supreme satisfaction. But by the same token the politician has lost an issue - the goose that laid the saffron egg is dead.
This is one additional reason why the Citizens issue was urgently required to keep up the communal temperature. But a great miscalculation attends this move. Ram Janmbhoomi had been an issue since the 19th century, given a boost by the idols being placed inside Babari Masjid in 1948. The "Shila" processions in 1989, the carrying of bricks consecrated in thousands of village temples all the way to Ayodhya was a marketing strategy that would leave Madison Avenue gasping. Even more spectacular was L.K. Advani's Rath Yatra, carrying a replica of Ram's carriage from Somnath to Ayodhya, generating sufficient saffron to boost the BJP from a mere two seats in 1984 to power under Atal Behari Vajpayee in a little over a decade.
Narendra Modi had this advantage plus the tailwind of post 9/11 global Islamophobia to which he added his own "Mian Musharraf" rhetoric (grinding his teeth) in Gujarat elections and the sky-high communalization post 2002 Gujarat pogrom.
The Citizens issue, however, though loaded with communal intent has resonated quite differently with the youth - of all denominations. The Citizenship issue terrifies the Muslim but the image of petrified Muslims has, contrary to Hindutva expectations, touched a soft cord. Women, with students in the vanguard, in occupation of spaces of progressive politics is another new, heart warming trend.
How New Delhi proposes to firm up the Citizenship Register in Assam without upsetting the warm relations with Dhaka is something of a puzzle. Does the lack of anxiety on Sheikh Hasina's brow indicate back channel assurances? Will Muslim distress across the border not provide a handle to the opposition in Bangladesh?
The expanding protests have given heart to various groups. The traditional metropolitan elite, distanced from power with the consolidation of the Modi-Shah duet, has already pulled out its calculators, working out the electoral mathematics for the future. The habitual quest for connections causes them to dream dreams of an implausible two party system. The emerging reality is more federal than unitary. Delusory dreams are in any case premature because the BJP is not disappearing in a hurry. If the party ever has its back against the wall, there is still a willingness to surpass Balakot by yards.