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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Feargrieve


Updated: Dec 23, 2020

MATTHEW FEARGRIEVE considers the people's response to the COVID19 lockdown in India, and asks what it tells us about Indian societal norms.

A street beggar in Delhi in India is given hand sanitizer by two armed policemen

Protests are a regular occurrence in India. Except when a global pandemic is in full force. So it was that organised demonstrations protesting against a Citizenship Amendment Bill, proposed by a hitherto popular Modi government, obediently dispersed when the coronavirus lockdown was imposed on the country in March.

Fast-forward three months, and the focus of the world's media is on the widespread, lawless George Floyd protests in the US and the copy-cat demonstrations in London, UK.

Always prone to favourable comparisons with the US and its allies, social media in India is now abuzz contrasting the protests in the world's largest and most affluent democracies with the peaceful nature of its own. Observations have been made about the how a politically-passionate country like India is seemingly naturally disposed to peaceful and dignified public protest. One question being asked by commentators is why Indians have never raised their collective voice against their own police force, one which most Indians consider heavy-handed and even brutal. Indeed, police brutality and routine custodial torture are facts of life in India. And yet, the police have never been the subject of any meaningful kind of public protest in India.

Is India really such an inherently peaceful society? The question of violence in Indian society was discussed by the Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar, when, on the eve of India's partition in 1947, as civil war raged between Hindus and Muslims, he posited his view that violence in Indian society was as pervasive as it was invisible, occurring between upper castes and untouchables, and legitimized by deep-seated Indian social rituals and religion.

Ambedkar was of the view that "the Nazis had indeed a great deal to learn from the Hindus. If they had adopted the Hindu technique of suppressing the masses, they would have been able to crush the Jews without overt cruelty, and so could have passed themselves off as humane masters". Systematically marginalised in India society, caste violence against untouchables is so deeply engrained in Indian society as to be a near-invisible, immutable norm.

RB Ambedkar sitting in his office in Delhi, India
R B Ambedkar

Ambedkar tried to redress this inequality by initiating a sort of affirmative-action policy redolent of post-Apartheid South Africa, forcing castes to face each other. In so doing, he created democratic competition between caste groups and their political representatives.

In today's India, the dead-hand of the State is laid heavily upon the Indian Muslims. And this is seen very clearly in the ease with which the Modi government was able to disperse the protests in Delhi about the Citizenship Amendment Bill. There is no longer, in the India of today, any real distinction drawn between the Muslim and Dalit. Meanwhile, the Indian police force remains a creature of colonial rule, a servant of the country's political masters, always ready to check and depoliticise the Indian electorate.

Curiously enough, for a country in which civil protest is a fact of daily life, the police in India are reviled and yet never subjected to the focus of political or social protest.

Source: Shruti Kapila

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