Who will chowkidar the chowkidars?

Editorial: Anti-CAA/NRC campaigns have opened up big wounds of India's disappointment with its government

Anyone who has driven around Delhi over the last few years must have seen the words graffiti around the city walls: outside college campuses, in the underpasses, across the street from shopping malls.


The phrases, originally from the poet Juvenal's Latin expression, 'Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?' 'Plato became famous later, and then a host of others throughout history, until Alan Moore co-opted them for his graphic novel The Watchmen in the 1980s. They were welcomed by everyone courageous enough to challenge the authority of their custodians, to seek protection from those chosen to protect them.

They broke in the night of December 15, unprovoked, and in huge numbers. The innocents were targeted. People and property have been affected. More victims were seized. They left behind the scenes of confusion.

And if the students of Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi were to plead for help during this time of trauma, who would they call for help? Standing behind the police helpline number 1-1-2 will inevitably be the same voices committing the crime that night, the same faces threatening innocent students, vandalising property. City guards—the Delhi Police—work under the heavy hand of the Ministry of Home Affairs. The watchmen, unattended, unsympathetic, were unleashed.

In the last month of the decade, the disillusioned, angry, and secular masses of India have found a unifying cause against a populist government: the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Narendra Modi, in his five-and-a-half-year tenure as Prime Minister—a time in which he rode waves of nationalist promises of great popularity, silenced voices of opposition and mass media criticism, and secured a re-election—faces the loudest, most united voice he heard against his agenda. With the ongoing disappointment of the state elections, the once infallible government seems shaken.

In early December, Dexter Filkins, a New Yorker, wrote a long feature about Modi's Hindu Nationalist government casting Muslims as internal enemies. For those who followed closely Modi's political career in India, the storey gave few new revelations, but the man's international reputation—together with Aatish Taseer's famous 'Divider-In-Chief' TIME cover storey earlier this year—was carefully cultivated and covered back home.

A day after Delhi's attack on Jamia, Filkins wrote again about India's battered prime minister in New York, this time questioning under the title, 'Has Narendra Modi finally gone too far? ’. It may be a legitimate question from a remote, foreign viewpoint, but many of us have argued that Modi has been 'going too far' for decades. The Gujarat pogrom against Muslims took place in 2002 under the leadership of Modi. He spent much of his political career inflaming the passions of the state and the majority of the country's Hindus against minorities.

Modi echoed the undercurrent of latent fascism in the country, bringing into the mainstream the tenets of organisations like the RSS, the Hindu Nationalist NGO that had raised its own political and social views in its youth, and continued to be its backbone. While the majority of independent India in the constitution acknowledged a country founded on secular integration principles, the RSS—and Modi's BJP by extension—have tried to segregate, to change India's constitutional character, to turn the country into a Hindu republic, just as Pakistan is for Muslims.

Riding the wave of corruption and anti-incumbent scandals against the government of the Congress, Modi and the BJP won a majority in 2014. Running on development platforms, economic improvement, a 'strongman' image, and a lot of personal exposure, Modi was able to persuade a majority of 'moderate' voters to disregard the radical views of his history and embrace the optimism of his future. "Acche Din"—good days—they promised, evidently, they were on their way.

Instead, the days after, at best, have been like days of incompetence and injustice as before with the Congress; and, worse still, the days when the country's sect abuse has escalated than ever. Under Modi, India was confronted with a dramatic economic slowdown, rising household goods prices and an unemployment crisis, all caused by the catastrophic introduction of the demonization and the new Goods Sales Tax.

But for every failure in governance, the government has called the nationalist sentiments of the people to divert, preferring their impulses of tyranny and fascism over the original promise of growth and unity. Even before the CAA bill, Modi's administration permitted a toxic rise in mob violence in the country, hounding and lynching anyone of a different faith, a lower caste, a different political sensibility, or with a critical voice. Everything may be a justification for violence: eating meat, inter-religious marriage, the alleged lack of respect for the national anthem or the alleged lack of respect for the Prime Minister. When all else failed, there was always the constant, omnipresent obsession of nationalists: our step-brothers in Pakistan. Obsession spread to the situation in Kashmir, the lands of both nations continued to find ingenious new ways of struggling.

Modi's rise has given rise to other associates with similar, and sometimes even more, radical views. Like his nearest confidant and the new architect of many of the national discontents, Home Secretary Amit Shah. Or the man identified as a Washington Post "militant monk," Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Or a suspected member of terror and an involved member of the RSS, Pragya Singh Thakur. And it's on and on.

Since Modi's re-election in May 2019, the government has gone over the top to drive its right-wing agenda while paying lip service to the wider issues of economy, poverty, education, and the environment. In August, Kashmir was thrown into disarray by the abolition of Article 370; the area continues to be locked up without internet access, the longest blackout ever enforced by any democratic country. The verdict of the Supreme Court in the conflict between Ayodhya Babri and Ram Janambhoomi was another sign of a right-wing pacification.

But none of these incidents really shook the conscience of the Indian 'mainstream' population: government backers celebrated the rulings, and most of its critics—after a few grumblings—were gradually lulled into fatigue, overwhelmed by something new every day.

As anti-CAA protests started to erupt at the beginning of December, mainly in Assam and Meghalaya in the northeast, it seemed like another question that would inevitably whimper away, becoming a concern for the 'others' and the oppressed in India, another case where Modi and Shah would survive beyond the rumblings of discontent.

But then, Jamia happened.

Pictures, recordings, and first-hand narratives of police violence in Jamia went viral overnight. This was not only a tragedy of the geographically marginalised: these were scenes unfolding in the nation's capital, half an hour's drive (on decent traffic days!) from the seat of the government. This was the capital's police, working under the central home ministry (held by Shah) and targeting innocent students.

It was a turning point.

This was not, of course, the only incident that occurred that night. At the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in Aligarh, UP, the 'watchmen's' leaked stories of even worse conduct. Protests persisted in the Northeast, and in Kashmir, of course. But because of internet shutdowns in other areas, the scenes in Delhi have become the brightest spark in the fire.

The fire spread all over the world. Protests began all over Delhi, and then in every metropolitan city in the country, from Mumbai to Bengalur to Chennai to Hyderabad. Campuses in BJP-bastions like Ahmedabad and Varanasi united against CAA/NRC. Wherever they had associated political leadership, the government sought desperately to tame the fire and sever the connective threads. They enforced further internet shutdowns and recalled the outdated code of Section 144 to curtail the assembly of any group of demonstrators. In BJP or allied states, demonstrators were hard hit by the police, and the media concentrated on property damage rather than human damage.

Back in the summer of 2019, one of the trends that emerged in the post-poll survey published by The Hindu after the May elections was the strong support of young voters (aged 18-22) for the BJP and the Modi 'brand.' These were mainly college-aged students, many of whom found a pan-India influence in Modi that other parties/leaders could not offer.

Yet there has been a significant change in the last month. The desperate efforts to put an end to dissension may have been seen as a frightening sign of things to come, of how long the government is willing to go to silence the people of democracy. Young people are fighting back. The government, by enforcing curfews and promoting police militarisation, inadvertently turned more citizens—especially young people—into revolutionaries.

Any new case of state violence is brushed off with 'what about' the past, as if public torment was a competitive sport, as if every BJP error and scandal could be excused by past congressional mistakes and scandals. It's a vicious snowball, accumulating more viciousness as it plunges into the future.

Yeah, the CAA/NRC is the binding cause behind the latest protests, but the public's discontent has far deeper roots. The protests are against the country's leaning towards dictatorship, the authoritative and undemocratic forms that the centre has used to censor its own people, the RSS' agendas that have swamped into the living-room conversations of the 'moderates,' WhatsApp, loaded with fake news and aggravated hate, economic failures, failures to raise India's farmers, large-scale corruption, Kashmir, etc.

The fulcrum of violence has moved primarily to my home province, Uttar Pradesh. Two years ago, BJP came to power here, and Modi handed over the reigns of the nation's most populous region—accustomed to past Hindu-Muslim riots—to the Yogi Adityanath firebrand. On the pretext of property damage and anti-India slogans, Adityanath ordered the UP Police to wreak havoc on the Muslim community of the state and on social activists of all faiths. Under the curtain of further internet shutdowns and curfews, stories of police thrashing, arresting, stealing, and killing have emerged. According to The Hindu, the death toll from December 10 to December 27 in the aftermath of the protests reached 19, with more than 1,000 arrests and nearly 6,000 arrests. These figures have been given by the UP Police themselves.

Adityanath's 'kingdom of terror' has spread to Varanasi, Modi's own constituency, and the presumed stronghold of his kingdom. Modi has long vowed to transform the ancient pilgrimage town into a 'smart city,' with the fantasies of turning it into Japan's sister city, Kyoto. But even here, internet cuts and curfews hit business and citizens' everyday lives. Social activists have been detained for nonviolent mass sit-ins, as have workers and students from Banaras Hindu University (BHU). In the old gullies, a nine-year-old boy died during a stampede.

In India's independent past, authoritative leadership uses the police to wield extreme force to silence dissension and spread terror among the innocent. Multiple political parties are to blame, which is why every new case of state violence is brushed off by 'what's wrong with the past, as if public torment was a competitive sport, as if every BJP error and scandal could be excused by past Congressional errors and scandals. It's a vicious snowball, accumulating more viciousness as it plunges into the future.

Fortunately, as our leaders have tried to curb it, India remains – for most of us fortunate – a democracy, granting us the freedom to select our next leaders. After the first few years of Modi's popularity for electoral success, the ruling party rapidly lost ground in the state elections, and the shades of saffron faded away from many pockets of the Indian map.

While the government tried to reduce the spirit of dissension and blame only the Muslim community, the reality on the streets was that Indians of every faith, region, and language had a common struggle to maintain the spirit of the Indian constitution. This, if anything, has been one of the great silver liners of the last few weeks.

As we begin a new year, a new decade, the problems faced by those who criticise the government are likely to get worse before they get better. But it was heartening to see Indians stand up for a just cause, and do so without the outside interference of political persuasion.

Back in the summer of the 2019 elections, Modi, Shah and most of the members and followers of the BJP applied the "Chowkidar" prefix to their social media names. Watchman, guy. It was their way of assuming the role of the country's security guard, the gatekeeper, the protector.

But what happens when the same Chowkidars turn a villain, when they don't let us into our own country, when they rob the same house they're supposed to protect?

We, the people, must keep our leaders—guardians—accountable, whether they are left, right, or centre. We must maintain the same passion seen in these demonstrations despite all the distractions that will be raised in the long run before the next general election. We're not allowed to forget.

The rampant police were the Watchmen, in Delhi, UP, Karnataka, and elsewhere in the world. Yogi Adityanath was a watchman. Shah, Modi, and the RSS were the Watchmen, shrugging the country in the curfew of their own storey. The regimes of the past, guilty of their own crimes, were Watchmen, too. Many of our political officials and armed forces acting under the direction of the leaders have become the Watchmen.

Who else is going to watch them, except us?

The year ended in New Delhi in Shaheen Bagh style, a short walk from the Jamia campus with a spirit of dissension, solidarity and transparency. Continuing from mid-December, the women-led dharna and protest here 'celebrated' the New Year in style, drawing hundreds outdoors, braving one of the coldest nights in the city in more than a century, braving the dangerous air pollution, and braving the authorities' wrath, to join forces against the CAA/NRC. Sing the national anthem. To wave the flag of India.