The great Indian middle class has gained quite the reputation for its political disenchantment. At dinner parties, it goes to great lengths to assert, “I’m not into politics, yaar”. Yet every once in a while, an event like that of Junaid’s lynching, triggers the masses to pour into the streets and suddenly everyone has an opinion.
It seems that this otherwise silently observing mass, almost always concerned about protecting its own Hindutva privilege and securing its recent socio-economic gains, reaches a point where it realises that its aspirations may be threatened by the very forces that its usual silence emboldens.
And so, just to make a point to those in power that it can’t take their apathy for granted, it takes to the streets and shouts the slogans borrowed from the truly disenfranchised.
And while all opinions are welcome in such unusual moments of direct political engagement, there is one particular segment of this middle class whose involvement frightens me.
These are the people that will almost invariably seek to undermine any such movement with the same argument every time – “but why didn’t you protest when…”.
The corollary being, since you didn’t, you must not really be against whatever it is that you’re against.
In this case, that happens to be mob lynchings that find impunity against the backdrop of a violent neoliberal Hindutva agenda being unleashed by the state – and therefore, protesters must have a hidden agenda that can’t be trusted. As thousands gathered at the Jantar Mantar on Wednesday to protest Junaid’s lynching, Twitter was abuzz with comments such as the ones below:
You may brush these off as merely a set of people ready to jump onto the bandwagon of opinions and eager to collect ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’, but be careful because these people wield as much power to shape the current discourse as those who are out on the streets.
Where others see the possibility of change, they seek to make you wary of it.
Recognising the power of the ‘event’, philosopher Alain Badiou described it to be “...something that brings to light a possibility that was invisible or even unthinkable.”
Every now and then when such an ‘event’ brings people out of their homes in any show of political solidarity, what we do with this little window of social change that opens up briefly determines what history will remember.
But civil society’s political pushback is not inexhaustible, especially when the state takes up a strategy of protracted and dispersed violence against minorities as it is doing right now. It is hard to conjure up the same well of emotions every time a tragedy is created; it is draining to feel angry, upset or helpless, every time violence is perpetrated.
The current state knows this and counts on it, in this case to continue extending impunity to vigilante groups.
But sometimes when the ‘enough is enough’ moment shows itself unexpectedly, the state has to retreat in the face of popular resistance. Its only recourse then is to portray the existing paradigm as a permanent state of affairs. And when the boat is rocking, when people start to exercise their agency for change, the best way to do it is to remind the great Indian middle class of the respite apathy brings, while convincing it “kuch nahi badlega”.
This is dangerous. And this is exactly what it tries to do through its covert sympathisers who ask you why you didn’t march for Pehlu, Zafar, Akhlaq? Because it knows that you will see a contradiction and you will recognise your own limitations of time, energy and emotions to assert again and again that what is happening in India today is barbaric.
And it is these people you must protect your humanity and your desire for political change from, people who seek to diminish the potential of the great mass feeling ‘enough!’
So the next time someone asks you, ‘Why you are being so selective in your outrage?’ take a moment to reflect on that, but don’t let it stop you from stepping out when it is indeed enough. Tell them it’s because you stand for something, even if you don’t stand very often.
The thing is, you don’t always know which event will trigger change, but you have to always believe that there will be one that will. Maybe, Junaid.
The writer is a development professional with core expertise in economics and gender issues.