Many but One, One but Many
The “Universality” that became a necessary paradox, the “Singularity” that wound up becoming a senseless contradiction.”
“We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”
~ J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
There is no longer any denying that our country, India, is in the throes of historic national upheaval, its ramifications are so vast and frightening that even now, shocked into numbness and disbelief, the Indian protestors have not yet fully grasped what is happening to them. The grim data is clear enough and is still building. Since the winter of 2019, our cities, big and small, have been wracked by social disorder. As people, we are accustomed to violence, lawlessness, vigilantism. We see rampaging, looting mobs prompting officials to use lathi charge and tear gas shells against them, and think of it as just unstable politics. The nation’s identity has been overturned, to say the least.
In our history, we can find certain events of civil unrest in India put a serious strain on the democratic foundation of society. Be it the Nirbhaya Movement of 2012 or the Anti-Corruption Movement by Anna Hazare in 2011, they caught the sight of thousands expressing that they’ve had enough.
After the long silence of large-scale people’s movements since 2014, India is now flaring up with various collective mobilizations. From the protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Shaheen Bagh last winter to the protests against the three farm laws this winter, we all have shared a glimpse of ever-mounting suffering that’s staring back at us. Though both of these mobilizations are against unjust legislation, they have been received differently. While the former was attacked for being anti-national, the latter enjoyed the imaginary nationalism that it succeeded in evoking, making it a welcome move for the health of our democracy. Does this difference tell us anything about public morality and ethics when it comes to collective mobilisations?
It was probably the first time in the history of independent India that so many Muslims came out on the streets demanding to be heard. Anti-CAA protests were disparate in that most of its harbingers were women. Women, who have historically been sidelined in the public sphere, became a ubiquitous face of the protest. Their presence did manage to trigger an intense public debate. On one hand, it got them questioning if in times of political and social tumult, is it ethical to draw children into polarised protests and revolutionary movements? Does it leave them traumatised, or does it teach them how to express dissent in a democracy? On the other hand, their prominence indicated that these protests were no longer just a fight for what’s rightfully theirs, it was about saving democracy and the Constitution too. The participation of women and the elderly in the farmers’ protests too suggests that it’s the “beginning of a new era” where, in words of Sheryl Sandberg, “women need to take charge because social gains are never handed out, they must be seized.”
Despite the stark similarities that these protests and their protestors have to their names, the differential treatment of the two movements cannot be overlooked. On the part of the government, both of them were treated with congruous contempt originally. When the BJP saw no sign of triumph in the Shaheen Bagh elections, the agitation was stereotyped as ‘anti-national’. Similarly, the farmers were and still are too often labelled ‘Khalistanis’ who aim to divide India and turn the Indian state of Punjab into a unilaterally run state for Sikhs. The ruling party has in the past asserted that these laws are being resisted only by rich farmers from Punjab and Haryana. The chaos and mindless violence that was unleashed on the national capital on Republic Day was abhorrent – it not only crumbled the reputation of an agitation that had remained largely peaceful for nearly two months but also has made it crucial for the officials to bring the real culprits to book in order to nip in the bud a dangerous communal slant before it slips out of control.
If the anti-CAA protests are a drop of rain, the farmers’ movement is a storm. If the former is a thought, the latter is the mind, not thousands of different individual minds, just one, united – the unfathomable wonder that tiny individualism cannot even conceive. Individuality or Unity? I say there’s room for both. But the universality of today’s farm bill protests forms a necessary paradox, while the singularity of the anti-CAA uproar of 2020 ended up becoming a senseless contradiction. The clear advantage that one has over the other is the “idea of nationalism” that one engenders and the other doesn’t. One has “contagious multiplicity” for it belongs to various regions as well as religions, even if it’s being led by the Sikhs of Punjab.
It’s fair to argue how else should the Muslim community reciprocate to the laws that specifically call them out. The farmers’ protests carry moral and ethical weight, a different kind of acceptability that arises out of empathy for the vulnerable, provided he/she is not limited by the religious imprint as happened in the protests led by the Muslims. The singularity associated with one movement failed to provide patriots with a popular portrayal of belonging and trust. Amartya Sen in his book, The Idea of Justice, argues that “any identity that is imagined in the singular will always remain a source of violence, it is in the multiplicity that dialogic conditions are created.”
Singularity is always prone to be misread as a form of prejudice, discrimination, or hatred arising from attaching relations of inferiority and superiority to differences between subdivisions within a group. This religious sectarianism differs from the larger appeal that farmers bring to the table; there are Muslims too in the farmers’ movement, but they are farmers first, a religious minority next. Amartya Sen in his other book, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, introduces the idea of “illusion of a singular identity”. The theory suggests that violence is created by the illusion of a singular identity, to the exclusion of others, and draws on the past and the present to create problems that are being faced by a strife-torn world.
In Sen’s view, far too much violence in the world today is fomented by the illusion that people are destined to a “sectarian singularity”. Stereotyping protests with a singular identity leads to resignation and a sense of inevitability about violence. Singularity partitions people and civilizations into binary oppositions and ignores the plural ways in which people identify themselves with others. We, as humans, enjoy plural identities. And this may not be the best excuse to treat anti-CAA protests as if they were anti-national, but this does explain the place of “morals of universality and inclusion” when it comes to a clash of civilizations. There is no mathematical explanation of why we define ourselves in terms of inclusivity or what Sen refers to as “diverse diversities”. We don’t just use politics and violence to advance our interests, we use them for defining our identities too. We know who we are only when we know who we are not and often only when we know whom we are against.
One of the two things can happen. If anti-CAA protests are to be reignited after the pandemic, they may have to move beyond their singularity to avoid the isolation that has been imposed on this movement because the farmers’ protests are good enough evidence of the fact that Sikhs as Khalistanis can be put down with force but not Sikhs as farmers. Or, we can transcend our illusion of identity by what Sen calls “reasoned choice”. Instead of living as if some irrational fate destines people to a confrontation with others who are different, we need to make a rational choice about what relative importance to attach to any single trait. We all laugh at weddings, cry at funerals, worry about our children. More important than any of our external differences, even though they are powerful, is our shared humanity. We are divided, but we are not locked up in tight little boxes from which we emerge only to attack each other, we are not a “miniaturization of humanity”. We are better than that. We are here, and here is nowhere in particular.
“Imagine there’s no country, it isn’t hard to do, nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too, imagine all the people living life in peace, you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
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