December 15, 2019. I flip through the pages of my physics book, exhausted. It’s midnight. Intending to take a short break, I pick up my phone and log on to Instagram. Something’s wrong. A man cowering in front of a policeman brandishing a lathi. A group of women shielding a student from police brutality. A library in ruins. Gunshots. Tear gas shells. I go blank. I’m unable to process my emotions in any tangible terms, but I can’t look away either. Three months later, I still can’t look away.
यदि तुम्हारे घर के, एक कमरे में आग लगी हो
तो क्या तुम, दूसरे कमरे में सो सकते हो?
यदि तुम्हारे घर के एक कमरे में, लाशें सड़ रहीं हों
तो क्या तुम, दूसरे कमरे में प्रार्थना कर सकते हो?
यदि हाँ, तो मुझे तुम से कुछ नहीं कहना है।
– सर्वेश्वरदयाल सक्सेना, ‘देश कागज पर बना नक्शा नहीं होता’
Ask anyone, and they’ll say things changed that night. What happened at Jamia shook the collective conscience of the nation, a nation already simmering in anger, but too indifferent to care. As the spirit of revolution coloured our streets, people everywhere were beginning to sit up and take notice. Protests sprung up all over the nation, the chants of Inquilab Zindabad reverberating across hordes of posters and candles. Infographics on safety during protests garnered thousands of likes, as twentysomethings all over the country discussed the constitutional rights and laws they were protected under while protesting, prepared to face the worst-case scenarios. Varun Grover reciting his protest poem Kaagaz Nahi Dikhaayenge, Jamia ringing in the New Year while reciting the National Anthem, a pile of shoes at Delhi Gate, eerily reminiscent of Auschwitz, a crowd in Calcutta clapping in rhythm with the Italian Bella Ciao—all of it written, remembered, recorded. A revolution, alive in the archives.
You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and
Skip out for beer during commercials
Because the revolution will not be televised
The revolution will not be televised
– Gil Scott-Heron, ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’
Three months later, the wounds are still there—deeper, messier, more profound. For most of us, they are easier to treat; turn off the internet, don’t look at a newspaper, and nine times out of ten, you’ll be sucked in back by the banality of daily life, the anguish subdued, the anger paused. Our activism is occasional; log in, outrage, log off. Back to real life.
“Eight-year-old girl gang-raped in Kathua.” Angry Instagram Stories on how we should hang our head in shame. #HangTheRapists and #JusticeForAsifa climb up on the Trending section. “The guilty must be held responsible,” “horrific,” “shameful”—celebrities and politicians issue statements, their grief packaged in 280–character Tweets. A candlelight march at India Gate, with placards demanding justice. Anger. Indignation. Disgust. And then, silence.
“Article 370 abrogated, Internet services shut down in Kashmir.” Twitter divided. Historians and authors condemn the government. Protests in the capital. Death of Indian democracy! Instagram users paint their profile pictures red. #KashmirBleeds trends on Twitter, as the newly–turned union territory plunges headfirst into some of the darkest times it’s about to witness. And silence. All over again.
मेरे सीने में नहीं तो तेरे सीने में सही,
हो कहीं भी आग, लेकिन आग जलनी चाहिए।
– दुष्यंत कुमार
We are a country of 1.3 billion distracted souls—we move on from one tragedy to another, our voices inflammatory and apoplectic at first, and suddenly, negligent. We joke about the fallacies of the ruling party with our friends, and follow it up with a film recommendation in the next sentence. Our rage spills over our social media profiles as we furiously type calls for justice and demand change; an hour later, it’s followed by a selfie. In a world so accustomed to injustice and inequality, social justice takes the form of erratic spurts of outrage, our compassion finite, our memories transient—after all, there’s only so much you can feel, remember. Like this article, activism in the contemporary world is limited to, for the most part, a creative writing assignment, a rousing Tweet, or a post re-shared on an Instagram Story. Because eventually, privilege, among other things, is a pair of rose-tinted glasses: while the apolitical live in denial about them existing at all, even the best of us end up putting them back on after a while.
Those who had no place
in the books and poems
of the apolitical intellectuals,
but daily delivered
their bread and milk,
their tortillas and eggs,
those who drove their cars,
who cared for their dogs and gardens
and worked for them,
and they’ll ask:
“What did you do when the poor
suffered, when tenderness
burned out of them?”
of my sweet country,
you will not be able to answer.
A vulture of silence
will eat your gut.
Your own misery
will pick at your soul.
And you will be mute in your shame.
– Otto Rene Castillo
When entire societies are built on a foundation of oppression and subordination, with media channels replete with horrifying accounts of hate crime, every instance of injustice is measured to a certain degree of trauma in order to spark a public outcry. It has to check all the boxes, in terms of brutality and abhorrence, and cross all levels of humanity for it to become just a national headline, worth fretting over. And this isn’t a critique of selective outrage—accusations of which are usually based on facile assumptions and demonstrate a shallow understanding of power dynamics—the problem is that even when we do talk about state-sponsored violence, there is an inherent bias towards some kinds of injustice over others. The English-speaking middle-class elite speaks passionately about feminism and queer rights, but finds itself at a loss of words when it comes to caste and class-based discrimination. And when the very same people dominate the mainstream socio-political discourse, issues like caste invariably get reduced to just about a footnote, as Arundhati Roy writes in The Doctor and the Saint.
In the 21st century, our attention spans decide who’s worthy of justice. The necessity of justice is calculated by the number of weeks people talk about it. The protests that happen around it. The petitions. The public outrage. And lo behold, the Judiciary swoops in, and the judgement is in the favour of the public. Everyone’s happy. Articles are published: “Historic judgment, a victory!” And at the same time, a thousand other things happen—a Dalit woman is raped, a manual scavenger dies, a Muslim is lynched—but now we’re tired. Oh, we’ll deal with that later. And we forget. The files collect dust, the newspapers misreport, the evidence insufficient, and the case is closed. Another hate crime, but not worthy of the same retribution. Simply put, all injustices are equal, but some injustices are more equal than others.
So it’s only appropriate that the most powerful poetry of our times comes with the refrain, “sab yaad rakha jaayega.” Everything will be remembered. A nation chronically afflicted with the tendency to forget and short-lived attention spans rising to a revolution—this time, we remember.
बहरे भी सुन लें, इतनी जोर से बोलेंगे
अंधे भी पढ़ लें, इतना साफ लिखेंगे
तुम काला कमल लिखो, हम लाल गुलाब लिखेंगे
तुम जमीं पर जुल्म लिख दो,
आसमां पर इंकलाब लिखा जाएगा
सब याद रखा जाएगा, सब कुछ याद रखा जाएगा
If I try to sum up everything that the current political climate has made me feel in the last three months and put it on paper, it would be just a single word: anger. And not just at the government, no; I’m angry with everyone around me—from apolitical acquaintances and ignorant schoolmates to right-wing uncles and lathi–brandishing goons. And in this movement, it is universal. Anger manifests itself in different forms—it spills over like volcanic lava when a young Jamia student lashes out on seeing her university in ruins, burns like fire within a crowd chanting Halla bol at a protest, boils and thunders in Aamir Aziz’s poetry, mediates in Puneet Sharma’s Tum Kaun Ho Be. Pure, unbridled rage.
Anger in politics is often seen as counter-productive. Repulsive, an overreaction—as if people are supposed to just move on with their lives in a world which selectively dehumanizes and degrades their existence. While examples of such in media are mostly dismissed as “crazy” and “too emotional,” even when people do not make direct accusations, the tone–policing is palpable even in their uneasy silences. And I suppose a lot of it has to do with our changing perceptions of activism; social justice, in today’s times, has been reduced to a pathetic excuse, a hobby to partake in, an obligation to fulfil. There has emerged a very specific brand of activism—punctuated with emoticons and trendy hashtags, grossly unaware of its own privilege—that permeates most of the Internet.
कौन कहता है आसमां में सुराख नहीं हो सकता,
एक पत्थर तो तबीअ’त से उछालो यारो।
– दुष्यंत कुमार
Feminism is now diluted to a cutesy Instagrammable campaign, replete with convenient activism and pretentious challenges, alienating a huge proportion of women it claims to represent. Environmentalists begin and end entire conversations on climate change without even mentioning ecofascism, and somehow the onus now falls on the masses to introduce changes in their lifestyle to stop global warming, as if a problem largely created and maintained by capitalist institutions and authoritarian governments could be solved by using metal straws. People tend to separate and compartmentalize social movements, pretending as if each exists in a vacuum of its own, failing to recognize a million ways how our identities overlap and crosslink to create complex, interdependent systems of inequity and disadvantage.
“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle
because we do not lead single-issue lives.”
– Audre Lorde
And while this not only produces insincere, oversimplified bytes of socio-political discourse, devoid of any nuance, but it also ends up downplaying the severity of institutionalized oppression and power imbalances, and the indispensability of social justice, inadvertently making a mockery out of the very tangible emotions of the oppressed.
There is an ideal portrait of the persecuted. The ideal woman, the ideal queer, the ideal Muslim, the ideal Dalit, the ideal Black—an epitome of civility, their heads perpetually bowed down, hiding their fear and despair beneath wry smiles. As long as one fits this image, they are celebrated, idolized, told stories of. It now becomes their responsibility to make the rest of us feel comfortable, unprovoked, to turn their forms of protest palatable and accessible for the elite. We expect them to forgive and forget centuries of systemic oppression and subjugation of our making (“let bygones be bygones”) and to participate in farcical displays of peace, and harmony, and togetherness, their existence reduced to mere photo–ops for the privileged. Their lives are refashioned into inspiring stories of hard work and perseverance, heroic tales of how they overcame all obstacles to rise up in society. But the moment they stand up and protest for their rights, demanding accountability, they’re dismissed as being too radical and violent. Because we’d rather idolize their oppression than sing praises of their resistance.
वे डरते हैं
किस चीज से डरते हैं वे
गोला-बारूद पुलिस–फौज के बावजूद?
वे डरते हैं
कि एक दिन
निहत्थे और गरीब लोग
बंद कर देंगे।
– गोरख पांडे
And in our country, it is now more glaring than ever. Sharjeel Imam, Amulya Leona, Kris Chudawala, Tahir Hussain, Ardra Narayanan—and the list goes on. There is no place for the imperfect minority; while the Right cries for their death, the Left ostracizes them in fear of losing their credibility. Their speeches should be powerful, but polite, their writings revolutionary, but hopeful, their anger rousing, but not too caustic; one toe out of line and there, you’re charged with sedition. And violence is a complete no–no; even if it comes in the form of self–defence, even if there’s a bloodthirsty mob outside, threatening to burn your house down. They should be the very embodiment of perfection, the paragon of virtue—even if it means putting their own lives on the line. After all, Rohith Vemula had to commit suicide for his struggles to be even recognised.
“My birth is my fatal accident.”
[From Rohith Vemula’s suicide letter]
Civility is a luxury that only the privileged can afford; so it’s only ignorant to expect the persecuted to respond with the same etiquette in the face of injustice. As revolutionary activist Angela Davis explains in a 1972 interview how violence is a part of protest,
“When you talk about a revolution, most people think violence; without realizing that the real content of any kind of revolutionary thrust lies in the principles and the goals that you’re striving for—not in the way that you reach them. On the other hand, because of the way this society is organized; because of the violence that exists on the surface everywhere—you’d have to expect that there are going to be such explosions. You have to expect things like that as reactions.
If you are a black person and live in the black community all your life, and walk out on the street every day seeing white policemen surrounding you. . . When I was living in Los Angeles, for instance, long before the situation in L.A. ever occurred—I was constantly stopped. The police didn’t know who I was, but I was a black woman and I had a natural, and they, I suppose, thought that I might be a ‘militant.’ And when you live under a situation like that constantly. . . and then you ask me whether I approve of violence. . . I mean, that just doesn’t make any sense at all. . . whether I approve of guns.
I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Some very, very good friends of mine were killed by bombs. Bombs that were planted by racists. I remember, from the time I was very small, I remember the sounds of bombs exploding across the street; our house shaking. I remember our father having to have guns at his disposal at all times, because of the fact that at any moment we might expect to be attacked. The man who was at that time in complete control of the city government—his name was Bull Connor—would often get on the radio and make statements like, ‘niggers have moved into a white neighbourhood, we better expect some bloodshed tonight’. And sure enough, there would be bloodshed.
After the four young girls who lived. . . one of them lived next door to me; I was very good friends with the sister of another one, and my sister was very good friends with all three of them, my mother taught one of them in her class. My mother. . . In fact, when the bombing occurred, one of the mothers of the young girls called my mother and said, “Can you take me down to the church to pick up Carol? We heard about the bombing and I don’t have my car.” And they went down, and what did they find? They found limbs and heads strewn all over the place. And then after that, in my neighbourhood, all of the men organized themselves into an armed patrol. They had to take their guns and patrol our community every night because they did not want that to happen again.
I mean, that’s why when someone asks me about violence, huh. . . I just. . . I just find it incredible. Because, what it means is that the person who is asking that question has absolutely no idea what black people have gone through in this country, what black people have experienced in this country, since the time the first black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.”
It’s evident in our history as well—we’d rather deify Gandhi’s ideals of non–violence than Ambedkar’s organised rage. But we conveniently forget how both their forms of resistance were a product of their own circumstances: while Gandhi, born to a well–placed Bania family, had the platform to be able to rouse Indians into revolution, to become the symbol of civil disobedience, Ambedkar, a Dalit, belonging to a poor Mahar caste, had to survive and revolt against the system just in order to find a way into the public sphere.
अब भी जिसका खून न खौला खून नही वो पानी है,
जो देश के काम न आये वो बेकार जवानी है।
– चंद्रशेखर आज़ाद
In this movement, anger breathes within all of us, rendering us incapable of apathy and neglect. While the persecuted fight for their rights at the frontlines, the rest of us celebrate with the protest slogans raised by the women at Shaheen Bagh, and mourn for a bloodied Aishe Ghosh, her injuries immortalised, her pleas for help haunting us for days after. The revolution, knocking at our doorstep. And while I understand the irony of a cis–het savarna Hindu from a well–to–do middle–class family commenting this on a movement largely affecting and led by marginalised groups, it’s our anger what makes this personal.
And as I write this article, I come to a thrilling observation—even if I may not directly recognise it, hope plays just as crucial a role. It might not be as persistent like anger, but it is there, very much there, in fleeting moments—a crowd evoking Ram Prasad Bismil’s Sarfaroshi Ki Tamanna at Jantar Mantar, candles illuminating a thousand smiles at Shaheen Bagh, an uncle dancing to the chants of Azadi at Gateway. On a more personal level, it’s me seeking solace in Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge after a tiring day. It’s me going back to Tagore’s Ekla Cholo Re for a dash of hope. It’s me playing back that moment in Jama Masjid when Chandrashekhar Azad emerges from the throngs, the Constitution in hand, in my mind. An entire nation, picking itself up, to not just fight an authoritarian regime but centuries of oppression and injustice, looking back into its own illustrious history of protest, riding on to glory—as Aamir Aziz brilliantly puts it in an interview: “Hindustan ek khwaab hai.”
दिल ना उमीद तो नहीं नाकाम ही तो है,
लंबी है ग़म की शाम मगर शाम ही तो है।
– फ़ैज़ अहमद फ़ैज़
But anger and hope can coexist. Even though we tend to see them as opposites, they directly impact and inform each other in activism. Because it’s anger what drives our hope: yes, people are angry—at the government, at the media, at the judiciary—and yes, they’re not going to shut up about it, because it’s what gives them hope – that their anger will pay off, that things will become better, and that change will come. Inquilab Zindabad. Long Live the Revolution.
–Anwesha Samanta, Amity International School4 Likes