By Allen Thomas and Rahul Raj
The year 2014 marked a paradigm shift in the Indian political scenario which shifted from the coalition1 era to a BJP2 dominated political system. After consecutive wins in 2014 and 2019 the present government can be seen as championing the far-right cause in the global south. Understandably, mainstream politics in India is dominated by right wing since the last few years and due to the quasi-federal and decentralized political organization, the country often witnesses communally charged local level elections.
The most recent elections in the country were held in February this year in Delhi, the national capital of India. They were held amidst the protests against the new Citizenship Amendment Act. While the right-wing ecosystem supported the bill, many other factions of the society stood against it. In this article, we try to inspect the Delhi chapter; on how political will attempts to manipulate public opinion to gain support over elections, and its consequences.
The central government passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) on the 12th of December 2019. Since then, a wave of protests hit the country. This was one of the largest protests in recent history where various sections of the society joined the protest and saw mass mobilization of Muslim minorities, and allies, countrywide.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was passed and amended into the existing Citizenship Act of 1955; by providing eligibility towards Indian citizenship for illegal migrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, and who entered India on or before 31st December 2014. There is a large population that opposes the Act since it does not recognise the Muslims of these foreign countries under the same framework of the constitution that potentially could give non-muslims the citizenship of India.
India is home to the second largest population of Muslims around the world and the amendment of Citizenship Bill along with talks regarding the changes in National Register of Citizens (NRC) and National population Register (NPR) have hit the insecurities of Muslims very hard in the country. A few more controversial issues since the Modi government’s second term such as the Supreme Court’s decision in the favor of Hindu nationalists in the Babri Masjid3 demolition case (final verdict on November 9, 2019) and the revocation of special status4 of Jammu and Kashmir (August 5, 2019) may have stoked fear and anxiety among the Muslim population, and added fuel to anti-government sentiments.
Delhi Elections 2020 are arguably one of the most politically charged elections in the recent time. The right wing ecosystem appeared to unleash the coordinated online and offline campaigns to silence the political dissents and mobilize their supporters not only in Delhi but in the country in a two front campaign, one against the political opponents in Delhi and the other against the anti-CAA protesters. Multiple incidents occurred both before and after the elections that can be classified as toxic and dangerous for any democratic society. These are mere incidents but behind them is a clash of ideologies, narratives and propaganda. The conducted election, its verdict, and the atmosphere of Delhi hide within themselves multiple layers of governance challenges, changing political culture and repercussions for upcoming elections in other parts of the country.
A Glimpse into the Events
Here is a timeline to provide an insight into what was going on before and after elections:
December 12, 2019 – The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed in both houses of parliament.
December 13, 2019 – In New Delhi, students of the Jamia Millia Islamic University (JMI)5 were protesting against the CAA when Delhi Police physically assaulted the students with batons and detained 50 students. The protestors were marching from their university campus towards the parliament house in order to oppose the legislation.
December 15, 2019 – Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) became the focal point of the protest in New Delhi. The protest was against the CAA and illegal detention of students and it saw a massive brutal crackdown from the police. The police entered campus without the permission of university administration and they used excessive force to clamp down protesting students and staff. The students were physically assaulted, struck, mentally, and verbally abused by the police on charges of creating violence in the name of protest. Some photos on social media surfaced on the same day where some people associated with the right wing ecosystem dressed as police were seen attacking and thrashing the students. In addition, a video surfaced of burning the public properties by police but later, the students were framed as the culprit in media trials.
December 15, 2019 – Shaheen Bagh, a place in the vicinity where Jamia Millia Islamia is situated, emerged as the next site, where the largest and longest protest against Citizenship amendment bill, National Register of Citizens (NRC), National population register (NPR) and the police brutality against university students including that of Jamia started. The protest was primarily attended and conducted by women against CAA; they intend the government to roll back CAA and have a conversation with them regarding their anxieties and fear associated with the impact of CAA. The ambiguous nature of the bill and contradictory remarks / (gaslighting) by the Prime Minister, Home Minister, and other official communication had only increased the anxiety of the minority population. The remarks made by home ministry to link CAA & NRC to create a list of doubtful citizens have angered many communities across the country but Muslim women took charge of the protest at Shaheen Bagh. Something worth highlighting is that these protests are organised by those women who have never before held protests in their lives. Ordinary everyday housewives held a non political protest, not against the BJP or any political party but against the CAA since it tampers with the entire Indian constitution on which the Indian state is established. This inspired many cities to have their own version of Shaheen Bagh in other parts of the country too.
January 5, 2020 – More than fifty masked people entered Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU5 and injured faculties and students alongside destroying public property. The group associated with right wing who see the JNU students as a threat to the nation and hindutva led the mob and attacked the people inside the university and escaped later without getting detained or arrested. Many students associated with the right wing may also have been involved in orchestrating the violence as it was later claimed in television debates. A group named Hindu Defence League took the responsibility of the attack but no arrests have been made and the inquiry is ongoing till date. In the current political climate the students who have protested against the government are called anti-national, ‘tukde tukde gang’(group of like minded individuals who want to break India), urban naxals, traitors, naxalites, anti-Hindu etc.
January 6, 2020 – The schedule of Delhi election was announced by Election Commission.
January 24, 2020 – The last day of withdrawal of nomination and the following days the campaigns for election officially started.
January 27, 2020 – As the pre-poll surveys showed a clear lead for AAP in the upcoming Delhi assembly elections, BJP’s Amit Shah, the home minister of India, in his rally targets the protestors at Shaheen Bagh as anti-national people who want to destroy the social fabric of the nation.
January 27, 2020 – Anurag Singh Thakur, a member of Parliament who serves as the Minister of State for Finance and Corporate affairs in a rally incited the crowd by saying “Desh ke gaddaron ko” and the crowd responded by saying “goli maaroan saalo ko”. The statement and response translates into “Shoot the traitors of the country”. After a few days of his campaigning speech, people with pistols and guns targeted the protestors at Shaheen Bagh. The statement may have instigated hatred and violence against the anti-CAA protestors and may have resulted in radicalizing the shooters.
January 28, 2020 – Another BJP’s Member of Parliament, Parvesh Varma drew a parallel between Kashmiri militants and CAA protestors. Shaheen Bagh protestors will “enter your house… abduct your mothers, rape them and kill them the way militants had treated Kashmiri Pandits in 1990”.
January 30, 2020 – A juvenile shooter opened fire at the student of JMI during the protest, injuring one student. He did a live broadcast of his move on Facebook and while carrying out the assault, the police stood by watching. A look into his Facebook broadcast gives an insight into how he may have been radicalized by the speech of politicians.
February 1 – February 4, 2020 – The Chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Ajay Kumar Bisht, known popularly as Yogi Adityanath, addressed many rallies during this time and he accused the sitting government of Delhi of supporting the protestors and repeated the rhetoric of protestors being against the Ram Temple, against Hindus, supporting Pakistan, supporting terrorist. He also stated that the protestors will not get biryani7 but bullets at Shaheen Bagh. The reference of biryani is that some unverified videos were circulated which presented that women gather at Shaheen Bagh for rupees 500 and food (primarily biriyani) per day.
February 8, 2020 – Delhi election voting day with a voter turnout of 62.75%.
February 11, 2020 – Delhi election results were declared. AAP had 62 out of 70 seats while BJP had 8 seats.
February 23 – March 1, 2020 – Period of Delhi pogrom
February 23, 2020 – Kapil Mishra, the face of right wing in Delhi election incited the crowd and threatened to forcefully remove the Anti-CAA protests from Jafrabad and gave the protestors an ultimatum to clear out the protest site. In the next few days, certain pockets of Delhi witnessed the riot-like situation, killing many people and vandalizing the properties. 53 people have been killed of which two thirds were Muslims who were shot, slashed with repeated blows or set on fire. A policeman, an intelligence officer and over a dozen Hindus were also shot or assaulted. Muslims were marked as targets for the violence. This was the aftermath of the election.
Analysis of the Larger Political Framework
The above-mentioned events hint how the campaign for Delhi election became intense and polarized as the voting day approached. The right-wing leaders made inflammatory and hateful expressions to target the political opponents and to attract the attention of the people. While the Delhi election was approaching, India saw a massive rise in protest countrywide. Along with the national capital, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Assam, Lucknow and many district headquarters in the country witnessed massive and sometimes violent protests. In Uttar Pradesh, police were ordered to crackdown the protests in more aggressive ways. The order was given to confiscate the properties of protestors for the public property damages and if required to neutralize the protestors. As a result, many lives were lost during this massive crackdown.
The controversial bills such as CAA, the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir and the verdict of Babri mosque demolition case in the BJP’s second term have helped the party to strengthen its position as Hindu nationalist party and to legitimize the politics of the party. In addition, the protestors were given harsh and insensitive treatment to project the self-confidence that the government has to protect the rights of the majority. The move is a classic example of rise in majoritarian politics. BJP’s Delhi election campaigning was given a national outlook positioning to manipulate the public opinion countrywide.
The electoral success of BJP in national elections in 2014 and 2019 followed by managing to come into power in many states can be understood by examining the ideological positioning and political discourse of the party. This analysis is important because it echoes in the unfolding of the Delhi election. The right wing party has been able to instrumentalize public and private spheres of life. It positions itself as a strong party which can protect the country from neighbourhood threats, therefore, generating a muscular nationalism deeply rooted in patriotism. The party projects itself as a potent political force that can protect the motherland and mixes up the emotions of victimhood by defining the others in their political narratives. The right wing ecosystem has successfully been able to position Muslims as a threat to the nation and against Hindu culture. The Muslims are portrayed as cultural outsiders. In addition, the right wing activism notoriously targets students of selected universities to appeal to the widespread populist sentiments and have been successful in elevating the status of students into a perceived threat to Indian democracy. These moves are to generate public support, target public perception, diffuse identity-based emotions and influence voting patterns.
There has been intent to shape public consciousness through constructed ‘insider- outsider’ narratives. The status of Muslims is elevated from an internal threat to an external enemy as well. A strong Hindu nation is seen as the need of the hour in this narrative of survival. In the narrative, the fear factors are associated with the constructed ‘outsider’ categories and generated political conditions are used for the electoral advantages, to spread propaganda and identity formation. The intent is to focus on changing the mainstream societal and cultural discourses that can lead to change in political discourses and result in electoral success.
Following the same trend, the leaders during the Delhi election invoked the notions of historical past, tradition, issue of national security, and toxic identity politics in their campaigns. Multiple curated narratives of moral, religious, social and ideological importance were used to garner public support, mass mobilization and recruitment. Islamophobic narratives were deliberately placed to weaponize offline and online public sphere. This in turn made people fall in the trap of seeing the issue of contestation in black and white. While the narratives were heavily at play during the Delhi election campaign – it did not however lead to electoral outcomes which was interesting to note. The narratives were simple as the leaders were able to explain these questions- What is the problem? Who is responsible for the problem? And, how to solve the problem? In addition, the technological echo chambers led by the online activists, influencers, provocateurs, political entrepreneurs and at the helm led by the leaders made the civil issue of contestation regarding the newly introduced bill an issue of moral, religious and national crisis that made it appear to be threatening the idea of Hindu nationalism.
During the campaigns, the radical right used their tested tactics of targeting the minority communities, attacking the students and use of institutions for their gain. The way the above mentioned events unfolded were theatrical, manipulative and to an extent highly persuasive. The attack on students in JMI and JNU or calling on the people to shoot the traitors spread a wide range of misinformation and disinformation campaigns across social media platforms and some people turned violent. The political opponents were fed with their version of truth. The right wing unleashed the network of IT cell of BJP, the allied traditional media, micro-targeting capabilities of Internet based technologies and power of institutions to target the political opponents and polarize the public perception. The online spaces were weaponized with trolls, toxic messages, inflammatory speeches of leaders, misinformation, disinformation and this led to mobilization in the real world. Actions such as assaulting the students by the police in JMI library, violent attack on the students of JNU by right wing groups, targeting the minorities by news channels, flaunting of guns with the intention to kill the protestors at Shaheen Bagh after the BJP’s minister made call of shooting ‘traitors’ were not mere loosely aligned incidents, but, they were very well planned and organized efforts to attack the dissents and a strategy of aggressive campaigning to control the political narratives to influence the elections by polarizing the public opinion.
Giving a birds eye’s view on the existing scenario provides a foundational insight. There are usually three factions to any event. One faction that justifies the action, one that despises it and the other that is indifferent. The difference between the first two is just a matter of perspective. In today’s modern world we are driven by social media, it is upto personal subjective inclination to support a faction over the other or just be indifferent to it. When this foundational interface translates into a real world scenario, it becomes difficult for a heterogeneous society to decide between political criticism from hate speech. One faction must just be as convinced about their understanding of the events, just as the other faction is convinced of their understanding of events to be true. It boils down to what makes a narrative more subjectively convincing over the other. And what tools (online/offline), arguments and assumptions are taken into the building of this narrative.
Following the Delhi elections, the national capital witnessed a riot, killing many people. The official reports claimed that more than 53 lives were lost (overwhelmingly Muslims). The official investigations are still happening in shooting cases, protests, attacks on students in JMI and JNU, Delhi violence and it may take years for the inquiry reports to come. It was not difficult to arrest the right-wing activists who attacked the JNU students, as the video footage was available in the public spaces too. The same is true in other incidents of inciting the crowd too. In the last few months, in relation to the Delhi riots, many student leaders and activists from JMI have been arrested and taken into custody for questioning their involvement in Delhi violence. The student activists are arrested under the sedition charges. In these COVID times when countries across the world are releasing/bailing political prisoners out of jails for various reasons, India is one of the only countries doing the exact opposite. Of the many, Safoora Zargar, a pregnant student of Jamia was in jail during lockdown for two and a half months for her role in the CAA-NRC protest and North East Delhi violence.
Contemporary Indian politics hint that electoral politics is transiting into a phase where the established morality and the normative definitions of the societies are challenged. The campaigns of Delhi election, strategically organized clamping down of protestors countrywide, and the violence that followed the elections suggest that transiting ‘social’ and ‘political’ value is linked to the metamorphosis of Indian democracy. The concerted manipulative and divisive campaigns are progressively becoming the new normal and it will go on to intensify and disrupt the democratic processes for years.
These are the darker side of elections in India, the largest democracy in the world. For the right-wing leaders, the Delhi Chapter was just a political exercise, that caused the loss of many lives as collateral damage. The gap between the fringe and mainstream ideologies have decreased in the last couple of years and aggressive campaigns of the right-wing ecosystem have managed to throw the apolitical crowd into a state of extremism. This is the new mainstream of Indian politics where everyone has to have a polarised view, and if you don’t, you don’t belong in the country.
Democracy is a term researched persistently across the globe, and yet we continue to see newer patterns and trends emerge. While it is defined a set of principles established and followed around the world; in praxis, democracy molds itself according to the institutions, social structure and demography of the region. Nevertheless, many studies on democracy revolve around elections; who votes for whom and why? We attempt to a paint a broader picture. This series goes beyond the electoral fallacy to highlight the multifaceted nature of democracy in India. Along with dissecting recent elections, we highlight the interface between the political system and the society. This article talked about the elections that took place at the national capital this year, along with events around it. The next piece would focus on the process of narrative building and the altering of political discourse in India.
- Coalition of different political parties in the Central Government
- Bharatiya Janata Party, political party led by Indian Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi
- Babri Masjid is a mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh; which happens to be on a disputed site as Hindus believe it is the birth place of Hindu deity Ram. The mosque was demolished on 6 Dec, 1992 and after decades of legal battle; a new temple foundation is laid.
- Jammu and Kashmir was integrated into the Indian state post Independence under certain conditions; of which Article 370 was one of them. It provides a special status to J&K.
- JMI was formed by as by the amalgamation of the anti-colonial Islamic activism and the pro independence aspiration of the Muslim intelligensia; under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi.
- Named after Jawaharlal Nehru the first Prime Minister of Independent India, who is often criticised by the BJP and its allies for India’s backwardness. Both Jamia and JNU are one of the best institutions in the country and promote a culture of intellectual attainment and committed to principles of social justice. Both JNU and Jamia have faced severe criticism by the BJP government since 2014, for their constructive criticism towards the government’s policies and politics.
- Biryani is a mixed rice and meat dish of speculated persian or muslim origin. It includes long basmati rice, spices and meat of preference.
Cover photograph: North east Delhi, 25 Feb 2020 | Courtesy : PTI
About the Authors
Allen Thomas is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.
Rahul Raj is a PhD Candidate at the School of Social Work at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.