Suchitra Vijayan is a Barrister-at-Law, writer and photographer, working across research, visual practice and human rights. She is the founder and executive director of The Polis Project, New York. As an attorney, she has previously worked for the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal for Yugoslavia and Rwanda. She co-founded and was the Legal Director of the Resettlement Legal Aid Project, Cairo, which gives legal aid for Iraqi refugees. As a graduate student at Yale, she has been researching and documenting stories along the Af-Pak border. She writes about war, conflict, foreign policy, politics, literature and photography. Her writings and photographs have appeared in GQ, Boston Review, Washington, Foreign Policy, NPR, Huffington Post, NBC, The Guardian, among other publications. Her book Midnight’s Border is forthcoming.  

Does the spontaneous movement against the NRC/CAA excite you and others in the US?

The idea that this movement is spontaneous has to be reconsidered, and we have to place the current protests within the larger context and histories of localised resistance that has been ongoing in various parts of India. Along with the rise of an ethno-nationalist authoritarian regime which has shown absolute disregard for rules, laws and its people.

For instance, the student mobilisation that happened soon after scholar Rohith Vemula’s death is essential to this history.  Pinjra Tod similarly created a women-led, organic, localised organisation that started in Jamia in Delhi, and the many similar localised protests (not covered or reported), all have enabled a certain kind of struggle to reclaim public spaces and sowed the seeds of public political assertions.

These various mutinies happened as the truth became sedition.

The demonising of students, media’s normalisation of violence, propaganda that vilified and equated dissent as “anti-national” — all played out alongside a systematic roadmap to dismantle public education and the institutions.

This was accompanied by a consistent and systematic encroachment and erosion of rights.

Based on many conversations with activists, rights defenders, lawyers and organisers in India over the past few years, what became very clear was this — there is exhaustion, fatigue and fear — all existing alongside hope and immense courage.

People have been waiting for these protests to happen. While this feels spontaneous, this is something that has been in the making for quite some time. We didn’t quite know what was going to get people to the streets. We never know. I guess when one is completely alienated and pushed against the wall, there is no option but to rise up and push back.

When demonetisation happened, people should have taken to the streets, but they didn’t. Since then, there have been many instances of absolute abuse of State authority, and a series of unconstitutional acts and practices. The revocation of  Article 370 and the ongoing siege and violence in Kashmir should have brought people to the streets, but it didn’t.

So these protests do give me a sense of possibility.

The future of the movement, well, I want to be hopeful. Hope is the most radical thing that one can possess in these times. And, without hope, there is no change. And, without change, there is no politics.

The street is a symbol that can mobilise people. Seeing images from around the country, in cities and towns, is remarkable. What I am most hopeful about is the idea of people finally taking hold of the country, the democracy, the Constitution, in ways that we haven’t seen in the past few years.

Suchitra Vijayan, The Polis Project

How do you interpret the nationwide mass resistance in India from a Western perspective?

The Western perspective again is not one perspective. It’s a wide spectrum. If you look at the diaspora – and, specifically, the organising communities, what you really see is a rich history of resistance, mobilisation and organisation.  Especially, Dalit, Sikh and Muslim communities.

9/11 made it absolutely important to build those resistance and solidarity movements. Organisations like the South Asian Americans Learning Together (SAALT) have been building solidarities and resistance for a long time.

Then there is the Indian diaspora which is increasingly ‘Right’, Center, or, Centre-Right, who have a very different perspective on Narendra Modi, BJP, RSS and Hindutva. They are all drunk on the cool-aid of ‘development’.  However, one thing I do see is that even among those who have been strong supporters of Narendra Modi, there seems to be a certain sense of ‘defending Modi fatigue’.

Within the diplomatic circles in the US and globally, India has lost more face in the last year than it has ever had. The diplomatic successes that India achieved post 9/11 have been depleted. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar cancelled a meeting with a US congressional delegation after it refused to exclude Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who has been critical of the clampdown in Kashmir. Elizabeth Warren, Democratic candidate for the US presidential elections, tweeted soon after that the efforts to silence Rep Jayapal are “deeply troubling” and that  “the US and India have an important partnership — but our partnership can only succeed if it is rooted in honest dialogue and shared respect for religious pluralism, democracy, and human rights”.

The battle is multi-pronged and we have to think about these things, not in response to Modi in the next five years or more or BJP in the next 10 years. But, in the next 50, 60, 70 years.

This diplomatic loss of face was accompanied by persistent reporting that started with the revocation of Article 370 in Kashmir by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and now, The New Yorker. While these reports are far from perfect, there has been a major departure from the kind of pro-State reporting that was the norm until a few years back. 

Does the average American on the street know or even understand what is happening in India? The answer might be a no. But, at least for the American who reads the front pages of the New York Times, the idea of India as a liberal democracy, India as the world’s largest democracy, is all fast disappearing.

What is your assessment of the solidarity protests in the US, UK and Germany etc, in support of the students’ non-violent uprising in India? Is it a small section or does it have a larger resonance?

The protests in the US, UK and Germany has to be placed within the histories of global Left movements. Even in an age where there was no internet and surely not the kind of communication that exists now, the solidarity between communities in resistance has always existed.

The years leading up to 9/11 completely evacuated protest movements from the schools. Columbia, that aggressively went after South Africa for apartheid and forced the boycott, is not the same Columbia that exists today. We have seen a complete hollowing out of spaces of resistance, especially in university campuses globally. This is something that we have to keep in mind. In some ways, we are trying to rebuild, relearn and understand this history of resistance, rebuild a culture of criticality and resistance, while facing constant, violent assaults from the State.

The war in Iraq began a very specific kind of mobilisation. ‘Occupy Wall Street’ did something very similar. Today, the ‘no war against Iran’ seems to have a certain kind of global resonance.

What we really need to think now is connecting what’s happening in these various communities. This is because it’s not only the war on terror that was globalised; along with it, technologies of oppression and surveillance have also been globalised. Authoritarian leaders, even those elected within democracies, learn from each other very quickly.

On the day CAB was passed, a Sri Lankan friend sent a message saying, “What India has done has created a roadmap for the kind of authoritarian nightmare Srilanka has long been planning for.” For instance, Nepal recently passed a regressive legislation curbing internet freedom, very similar to the one Bangladesh has implemented.

Finally, one has to understand that the people who resist are, always, a very, very, very small group. Now, it’s our responsibility to transform this small number into a nation-wide civil disobedience movement.

Shaheen Bagh CAA

What about the crowds like those who gathered in the ‘Howdy Modi’ NRI show in Houston where Donald Trump too marked his presence? Will it impact the political mood in America?

 Of course.  The Indian diaspora, while diverse, has a considerable number of pro-Modi, pro-BJP/RSS/ Sangh following. What the ‘Howdy Modi’ event tells us or shows us is how the RSS and the BJP have been successful in occupying so many spaces in the diaspora, whether it’s universities, cultural institutions, and also the kind of snake oil that has been sold to the Indian communities.

Will that affect things? Yes, it will affect things because Indians are becoming a politically powerful diasporic group. They give a lot of money to not only the BJP in India. They also give money to other political parties in the United States. Increasingly, you have a lot of Americans of Indian origin running for public office.

The ideologies they are raised in make a huge difference. What we really need to do is create a culture where we are resisting this kind of fascist encroachment of diasporic spaces. The battle is multi-pronged and we have to think about these things, not in response to Modi in the next five years or more or BJP in the next 10 years. But, in the next 50, 60, 70 years.

Do you think Indian democracy and the Constitution is being subverted?

How one views the Indian democracy and the Constitution is like an Akira Kurosawa movie. Democracy and our Constitution have been fundamentally very different for many, many people. Indeed, when you look at communities that have constantly fought for and have been denied the basic dignity — the Constitution becomes something else altogether.

The Indian Constitution has been a battleground to demand rights, but also to defend the rights that have been guaranteed. For Muslims and other communities who have been at the receiving end of immense violence and injustice, our democracy and our Constitution has been a completely different experience.

Let us not forget that there have been communities demanding independence from the Indian Constitution, struggling against it. For Kashmiris, the Indian Constitution is a text that has legitimised their oppression. They don’t see it as a revolutionary text. They see it as a very oppressive text.

Indian democracy and our Constitution have to be seen from all these varied experiences. There is now a radically different kind of history of the Indian Constitution and the democracy that is emerging is the one written by those who have long struggled with it.

There is also this talk about the dismantling of India’s ‘Constitutional Republic’, and one has to understand that this did not really start with Modi. We have to take an honest accounting of our Constitution. That should be the roadmap that illuminates the way forward.

So what we are fighting is not for the survival of secular India, we are fighting against a Hindu Rashtra that is already established. Making this important distinction is important because fighting for a secular democracy to survive means that we still have some hope of rebuilding or resurrecting things.

We also need to radically rethink what all of this means. We need to radically rethink this because the existing Constitution and its morality is not the Constitution that Babasaheb Ambedkar gave us. It has either not served many citizens or has been dismantled and disrupted in ways that it can no longer serve that purpose.

How do you look at the future of the movement in India and the future of Indian secular democracy?

The future of the movement, well, I want to be hopeful. Hope is the most radical thing that one can possess in these times. And, without hope, there is no change. And, without change, there is no politics.

This is because politics is eventually about the idea that one can bring change.

Without hope politics is redundant.

What one then needs to figure out is how do we translate this? How do we sustain this commitment to take to the streets, because we have to keep taking to the streets?

In the face of a Supreme Court that has abdicated its duty to the people, to a neo-liberal cabal of oligarchs from the Ambanis to Adanis, and a fractured political opposition, the people is all that we are left with. So, how do we sustain this exuberance, this commitment, and this solidarity?

This is a marathon. It’s going to get hard when you have to keep taking to the streets for months on end. So, how do we do that?

India’s secularism is an idea, a mythology and an imaginative construct that keeps everything together. India’s secularism is functional, and, yet, this functionality of secularism has been consistently destroyed, watered down and put to siege — whether it is through legal judgments, or, through the act of everyday violence. What has now completely unravelled is this fiction; the myth of a secular India is now completely annihilated. What we are really seeing is the last of the boundaries of civility being breached.

Look at Kashmir, look at the violence in UP, or the constant enforcement of collective punishment against Muslims.

Or, what was done to students in Jamia when the police became the arm of the State or in JNU when they watched students being assaulted by masked, armed goons.

Checks and balances no longer exist. Institutions are made and stocked with ideological footsoldiers.

What we are really fighting is not for the survival of secular India, we are fighting against a Hindu Rashtra that is already established. Making this very important distinction is important because fighting for a secular democracy to survive means that we still have some hope of rebuilding or resurrecting things.

Fighting against a Hindu Rashtra means having this absolute clarity and understanding. This will also affect the strategies and tactical decisions one has to make.

I think that’s where we are, and I think it’s from here that one has to truly think about what is next for India.

 Pictures: Amit Sengupta/Nitika Kakkar 

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Suchitra Vijayan of The Polis Project, New York in conversation with Amit Sengupta on the current mass movement in India.
‘The street is a symbol that can mobilise people’