Uncovering the moral core of the anti-CAA protests

Uncovering the moral core of the anti-CAA protests

Inside Out

Aarthi Ramachandran

The Shaheen Bagh protests have been described as a modern-day satyagraha. It is early days yet, but worth asking whether the protests in the Delhi neighbourhood, and the peaceful protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens are satyagrahas in the sense that Mahatma Gandhi intended the word to be used. But before we come to that, it is important to consider Gandhi’s ideas on the subject and how they impacted the freedom movement.

The premise of the Indian freedom movement, if we consider Gandhi as the standard-bearer, was unique. It posed a moral challenge to imperialism, not a militaristic one. Gandhi gave the movement this thrust. For him, the moral struggle against British imperialism was anchored in the search for truth or satya.

Why did he choose a category as abstract and indefinable as truth? Gandhi’s movement was directed less against the British and more towards swaraj or self-rule, the ‘self’ here standing not just for rule by Indians but for the higher Self that governs right behaviour and action or dharma. It is this anchorage in truth and non-violence that made the Gandhian project incredibly strong and, in some sense, unassailable.

He wanted to show the British the reality of their own ‘untruth’, which would force them to act in accordance with what was right. The satyagrahis needed to undertake this exercise within the portals of their own hearts at an individual level and in political acts of resistance to British rule and western civilisation.

In the current context, what then would be the moral centre of the protests? The answer lies in the acts of solidarity we have witnessed over the last month – people turning out in large numbers to hold the hands of those who feel threatened or disowned by the actions of the Modi government. Its imprint is found in the heart-bursting emotions we feel when we see students marching to protect the right of all Indians to equality before the law. But what is really at the bottom of these protests is Hindu-Muslim solidarity – something Gandhi strived for all his life and ultimately was assassinated for. In that sense, the essential impulse of the protests so far has been Gandhian.

But in the absence of a Gandhi-like figure, the ongoing resistance needs to be cautious about protecting this impulse of brotherhood and fraternity – also enshrined in the Preamble. Any act that seeks to vilify Narendra Modi and Amit Shah or connote violence in word or deed against the State or anyone else will compromise the struggle. As long as the protests can maintain their moral centre, it will be difficult for the BJP’s propaganda apparatus to discredit them.

Yesterday’s swaraj is today’s Hindu-Muslim solidarity. We must not forget this. But equally, we must remember the deeper work of experiencing self-rule that Gandhi was at pains to embody through his life and work.

Hindu-Muslim solidarity continues to be the biggest of the unresolved issues facing India – bigger than, dare I say, Kashmir; bigger than Ayodhya; bigger than anything else that the government might imagine as the unresolved business of Partition and Independence. In fact, it underlies many of the biggest fault lines that have threatened to undermine the Indian experiment.

If the ongoing protests can take us closer to this ideal, provide it with the necessary symbolism and josh (to use a word that those in the government favour) for our age, they would have done their job. But for it to endure and flower, the satyagrahis of today will need to think beyond protests and posters. It will need all of us to ponder about what equality and fraternity really mean and whether we have mastered them within ourselves. We will need to make space for introspection, both personal and societal, in the current movement if we want it to succeed in the real sense.

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