This is a tale of two distinct events: One staged by the common citizen, the other by our VVIPs. The ‘Not in My Name’ protests were held in several cities by a few thousand people, braving the heat of Delhi and the rains in Mumbai and Bengaluru to show solidarity with victims of hate violence. There were no elaborate rituals, no full page newspaper ads, no glitzy stage, no lal batti cars and no ‘don’t you know who I am’ attendees. Yes, there was the odd ‘celebrity’ — a Shabana Azmi here, a Girish Karnad there — but the majority were anonymous, well-intentioned Indians: From 18-year-old college students to an 80-year-old retired government typist.
The midnight session of Parliament to ‘celebrate’ the launch of the Central Goods and Services Tax Act (GST) was populated by the power elite of this country, each one lining up with typical VVIP splendour. The pomp and pageantry of the Indian State was on full display and Parliament had been lit up like a bridal house on a wedding day. The scent of power wafted across the Central Hall of Parliament, the order of seating a reflection of an individual’s status within the charmed circle. With portraits of the founding fathers casting their benevolent gaze over the proceedings, this was pitched as a ‘historic’ event, a second ‘freedom at midnight’ moment.
There was nothing ‘historic’ or choreographed about the ‘Not in my Name’ protests. A simple Facebook post by just one concerned citizen had gone viral, sparking off a spontaneous reaction of outrage at the killing of another faceless young Indian because of his religious identity. There were no lengthy obituaries to Junaid: Most of those present didn’t even know the deceased. Yes, there was some soulful music and rousing poetry but nothing that appeared remotely stage-managed. A few people wore black bands and some others carried banners, but there was mostly an air of quiet anger and contemplation.
By contrast, the Parliament session was like a luminous sound and light show, dominated by the speeches of our leaders with constant table-thumping and cheering whenever the netas spoke of how the GST would transform the lives of the poor. The leaders praised each other cutting across party lines, a ritualistic exercise in feel-good self-promotion by a tightly-knit club. This was a rare moment of national political consensus, spoiled only by the rather churlish decision of a few Opposition parties like the Congress to stay away from the ‘festivities’. The event was carried ‘live’ across every TV station in the country, each anchor competing with the other to emboss the occasion with superlatives.
The ‘Not in My Name’ protests were carried on a few English news channels, but the more watched regional and Hindi channels chose to give it a miss, probably because they didn’t see any TRPs in a small, urban-centric gathering. The Right-wing commentary on social media spoke of how such events were monopolised by the usual suspects: Secular liberals who raised their voice only because a Muslim had been killed. “Where were you when RSS workers are killed in Kerala or Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley,” was a common refrain, the ‘what-aboutery’ accusations only designed to push an ominous ‘them’ versus ‘us’ polarisation.
It is almost as if the genuine anger of a citizen in the face of violent bigotry is somehow illegitimate but the majesty of the State must not be subject to inconvenient truths. Which is why, if given a choice, I would have rather attended a simple citizens protest in the true spirit of democratic dissent than an ostentatious Parliament jamboree.
Post-script: While citizens raise their voice against lynchings and the State applauds itself over the GST, here is another reality to ponder over: In the month of June, over 25 farmers in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh and Congress-ruled Karnataka committed suicide, mostly because of debt-related problems. When will the urban citizenry protest for the farmer or Parliament hold a midnight session to debate the agrarian crisis?