The perils of India’s street veto: The other side of the Nupur Sharma saga

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The problem is not that the cabal has no power or say, that is a choice made by India’s electorate. The problem is that the state currently follows a suicidal approach, allowing the cabal to have a say despite this choice

BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma was suspended for her controversial comments on Prophet Muhammad, which has outraged Islamic nations. PTI

Recently, I argued in an article on Firstpost that there were many aspects to India’s ruling party acting against its own spokesperson at the behest of the Arab world. At the onset, had India anticipated where the Arab world’s priorities lay, the diplomatic repercussions might have been contained. However, since India engages deeply with many stakeholders in the region who do not see eye to eye, India retrospectively chose not to rock the boat and continue extracting benefits.

The Arab world was not particularly hypocritical on the issue because the logical grooves on which one generally moves have little bearing on it. In its regressive and inhuman worldview, a certain arbitrary line on the desert sand was crossed in a dramatic way. The big takeaway, however, was that a class of people in India who claim to represent the Indian Muslims and make a case for how oppressed the community is, were neither taken seriously by the Indian dispensation nor the Arab world. This has been the story ever since their charade began eight years ago. For the first time, with the Nupur Sharma issue, their grievances mirrored those of the Arab world. The Indian dispensation, however, chose only to acknowledge and act on the latter’s.

The diplomatic fallout might have been avoidable, but as pointed out, it was hardly as big a setback as it was made out to be. After all, even an important power like Iran withdrew the statement it made on the issue after parleys with India. The domestic fallout, though, seems to indicate that this class of people who claim to represent Indian Muslims, successfully instigated some parts of their target audience. Unable to make any headway politically, or in dictating the ruling dispensation’s decisions or actions, they have used the street route to undermine the Indian state. This has now become a routine fixture in their playbook.

Riots were witnessed on the day that both the prime minister and the president visited Kanpur. The following Friday, systematic mobilisation took place across the country. From Uttar Pradesh to Jharkhand to West Bengal, from Kashmir to Karnataka, a well-oiled machinery was activated. While some used loudspeakers to call for Nupur’s beheading, others hung her effigy on the street. The rioters then blocked roads, pelted stones, vandalized property, and indulged in arson. Images emerged from Bengal of multiple fires at regular intervals on a large stretch of road, and a highway being blocked for hours. In Ranchi, the police were forced to open fire, killing two rioters. In Uttar Pradesh, the police would have none of it, beating up the rioters and bulldozing their property to rubble. The instigators, meanwhile, continued to play the victim card.

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The street veto is becoming these instigators’ favourite tool, because other routes, both electoral and backdoor, have started to close. However, it is also fast becoming their go-to route because the state has failed to close this one. As is common knowledge now, an amalgamation of forces from different walks of life with hatred towards the current dispensation being their only binding glue, came together and used the street veto option in a concerted way after the government enacted the Citizenship Amendment Bill. The state cracked down on many of these elements retrospectively, but till date, it is a widely held belief that the state was shaken at its very foundations. This belief stems from the government’s hesitation to frame the act’s rules till date. Once the instigators tasted blood, the state lost half the battle. They returned a few months later to block arterial roads around the national capital for over a year until the government finally withdrew the long-awaited farm laws that were all set to usher in agricultural reforms.

When it comes to the Nupur Sharma issue, it is evident that the cabal of instigators did not want her to set a precedent with the manner in which she narrated a controversial episode on live television. For her and for others to desist from this in the future, they systematically put her life in danger and decided to force the ruling party’s hand to act against her. Here too, since there was no guarantee whatsoever that their demands would be met, they used the street route to make their point, so that nobody would follow suit.

Therein lies the problem with the street veto. Democratic mandates, the rule of law, and the concept of the state having a monopoly over violence are chucked aside because they do not fulfil what a certain group seeks. This group, despite being an ‘intransigent minority’ as described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, uses brute force to get its way. It is for this reason that Kamlesh Tiwari is no longer alive and that Kashmiri Pandits have been forced to leave the valley. If such forces are able to alter government decisions, gag individuals, or displace communities, they could potentially block off one part of the country from another or carry out any such operation at the behest of a foreign country.

Meanwhile, interestingly, Kuwait is all set to deport expat Muslims who took part in protests against Nupur Sharma on Kuwaiti soil. These include Indian Muslims. Considering that not too long ago the Kuwaitis were raising the same issue with India, it is evident that for the Arab world, the Nupur Sharma issue is now a bygone. However, and more importantly, the Kuwaitis have refused to encourage individuals who have the same grievance. The authorities seem very clear that such liberties will not be extended, irrespective of the issue. Today expats who have no right to demonstrate might protest peacefully about the same issue that Kuwait brought up, but how will it be dealt with tomorrow when they cross another line that the state has drawn, perhaps with violence and for an unfavourable cause? The Kuwaitis realise the dangers of a mob pushing back against the margins the state sets. They have chosen therefore to stick to the right forums to register their protest by summoning the Indian ambassador, and to let the rule of law prevail domestically. In India however, the state continues to be pushed back.

However smoothly the Indian state douses international fires, it has been found wanting on the domestic front. Clearly, retrospective action in the last few years has not disincentivised the cabal and its mob. Not only does the mob require to be further crushed, but measures to dismantle the networks and resources that keep it going, and to target specific organisations and individuals involved in these operations, must be taken up on a war footing by the Indian state. The problem here is not that the cabal has no power or say, that is a choice made by India’s electorate. The problem is that the state currently follows a suicidal approach, allowing the cabal to have a say despite this choice. Like many other issues, this is the other side of the Nupur Sharma issue as well.

The writer is an author and political commentator. He has authored the book, ‘Himanta Biswa Sarma: From Boy Wonder to CM’. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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