I write this article with goosebumps. Partly because, I write about living in an India where dissent is horrifically muzzled, but also because the air-conditioner in my office in New Delhi is too strong. This is not my attempt to trivialise the gravity of the situation of lawyer Sudha Bhardwaj, journalist Gautam Navlakha, poet-activist Varavara Rao, Arun Ferreira and Vernon Gonsalves, but to put it in hard-to-digest perspective, which brings into focus my privilege.
As a self-confessed young liberal woman, I stand for the rights that Bhardwaj, Navlakha and Rao have spent their entire lives fighting for. But, I can’t appropriate their victimisation by a powerful state. Not only would it be unfair, it will also give ammunition to those who’ve propped up the straw man of an “Urban Naxal” for us to collectively hate. We are not like Bhardwaj, Navlakha, Rao and others, because it’s not us who have been placed in house arrest till 6 September and who, in one fell stroke, are now enemies of the country we so fiercely love.
We can – and certainly should – stand in solidarity with them, come out on the streets to defend their rights, mobilise our friends and family to ensure that we don’t lose these patriots (yes, Republic TV, patriots) in a blaze of apathy. Their dangers might never be ours, but their sentiment of dissent certainly is.
The Myth of ‘Urban Naxals’
When I was young, my friends and I had a favourite game. We would make up a word and use it ad nauseam, till we forgot it was a word which didn’t exist. Outside our friend circle, no one could understand the word. Because, as we kept forgetting out of habit, it was a word which didn’t mean anything.
‘Urban Naxals’ is a word like that. Despite what TV anchors on prime-time, Twitter trolls and so-called ‘politicians’ would like you to believe, it’s a word which has no meaning. It’s a creation, by those who equate nationalism with patriotism, to define a common enemy.
Much like ‘anti-national,’ which has now dripped into everyday consciousness. We say “abbe anti-national” without realising that we have played into the hands of those who would like the Indian society (especially those who think rationally) to be neatly divided into two parts – national and ‘anti-national.’
#MeTooUrbanNaxal, and the proliferation of memes, tweets and newspaper headlines which have followed the term, is further polarisation of an already existing divide.
One which targets Dalits, tribals, labourers and those who work to highlight their struggles. It’s also a term which makes the enemy that much more indefensible.
I can always defend being called “anti-national,” because the boundaries are blurred. But how do I defend myself – or anyone, really – against a term which borrows on a heavily-misunderstood ideology? How can you defend being someone who propagates that India is in pieces? (Ask Umar Khalid, he of the “tukde tukde” gang. Another made-up word, another myth.)
Hiding Behind Hashtags & the Importance of Solidarity
When I tweet #MeTooUrbanNaxal, there’s a sense of security that accompanies my typing. I know I won’t be arrested. After all, I am an upper-caste, English-speaking, middle class journalist working in Delhi. But Sudha Bhardwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Varavara Rao and others are facing severe consequences – their life work questioned, their reputations in jeopardy, house arrest for a week and their physical security compromised. How many of us are willing to take on the consequences? Most of us, I’m sure, aren’t.
But does that negate the hashtag? No, it doesn’t. In any crisis in a democracy – and by all accounts, this is one – silence is not the better option.
If being an ‘Urban Naxal’ means thinking rationally, fighting for the rights of Dalits and tribals, speaking out against the government, then by all means, let’s join the numbers raising their hands in support. But when I brand myself an Urban Naxal, I’m not facing the entire might of a state machinery like the people arrested are. I’m just facing my computer. The nuance and differentiation are crucial, so that we as concerned Indians don’t forget the very real danger facing Bhardwaj, Navlakha, Rao and others, while using a trending hashtag.
After all, solidarity is powerful, but it’s even more so, when it acknowledges the privilege where it comes from.