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Farmers’ Protest and #Hashtag Anarchy as Dissent in the Age of Social Media

Author: Kanchan Gupta
Publication: News18.com
Date: February 4, 2021
URL:    https://www.news18.com/news/opinion/farmers-protest-hashtag-anarchy-rihanna-greta-dissent-social-media-3388184.html

Anarchy now rides along with ‘dissent’ and ‘protest’. B.R. Ambedkar had warned the nascent Republic of India of the “grammar of anarchy”. That warning is coming true with disruptive regularity.

The anti-reforms protest by farmers of Punjab, Haryana and some parts of western Uttar Pradesh, targeting the three laws enacted by Parliament to make agriculture more market-friendly and offer more remunerative choices to cultivators, has transmogrified into a #hashtag campaign on social media. This completes the by-now-familiar cycle of disruptive and insurrectionary ‘dissent’ in the times we live in. There is nothing either amusing or asinine about this #hashtag campaign, especially after the violence on Republic Day when protesters ran riot at Red Fort.

In keeping with global trends, the #hashtag campaign is vicious and inflammatory. A hateful #hashtag, containing the word ‘genocide’, that was promoted and trended on social media platforms, bears out this point. With prominent foreign political and social media personalities, who are not known to have demonstrated any interest in or knowledge of Indian affairs in the past, wading in to bump up their numbers and grab eyeballs, the edge of the campaign has got sharper and more malicious, prompting a formal response from the Government of India.

In many ways, the evident disruptive anarchy in the guise of ‘democratic dissent’, which is not unique to India as recent events in the US and other countries would bear out, is reminiscent of the original Naxalite Movement and its subsequent avatars in various forms, spanning multiple shades of ideology and political impulses. The common thread binding them together has been the defiance of the Indian state and rejection of its constitutionally-mandated institutions.

Like the 2020s, the 1960s too were a decade of global turmoil. India was not untouched by the ferment. In 1967, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), born of a split in the Communist Party of India three years earlier, splintered with the Marxist-Leninist faction led by Charu Majumdar calling for an armed ‘democratic revolution’—a violent insurrection that would come to be known as the Naxalite Movement, named after remote Naxalbari in rural West Bengal, a place of which nobody had heard till then.

Majumdar’s aim was to ignite a ‘prairie fire’, fuelled by the ‘Historic Eight Documents’, encapsulating his Far Left extremist agenda of supplanting the Indian Republic with a revolutionary state. He was confident that the fire lit by him would sweep through India’s many villages and finally engulf the country’s too few towns and cities, and Robespierrean mimic men and women would seize power not through ballots but bullets.

The People’s Daily, propaganda organ of the Communist Party of China, ran a lengthy editorial on July 5, 1967, extolling the virtues of the Naxalite Movement and exaggerating its power to bring down the Indian state. “A peal of spring thunder has crashed over the land of India,” it wrote, “Our great leader, Chairman Mao, teaches us: ‘The seizure of power by armed force, the settlement of the issue by war, is the central task and the highest form of revolution’.”

The China-inspired Naxalite revolution failed, and miserably so, as did its latter day Maoist reincarnation some three decades later. “The road to world revolution,” Lenin is believed to have said, “lies through Peking, Shanghai and Calcutta.” Much to the disappointment of the ultra-Left, the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) did not come marching in and the road to revolution stopped at Shanghai.

But even in its failure the Naxalite Movement extracted a terrible price and left behind a dark legacy of anarchic extremism. Like an obstinately mutating virus, this extremism is persistent and its disruptive tactics continue to be invoked again and again, even as yesterday’s revolutionary pamphlets have morphed into social media hashtags. Anarchy now rides along with ‘dissent’ and ‘protest’. B.R. Ambedkar had warned the nascent Republic of India of the “grammar of anarchy”. That warning is coming true with disruptive regularity.

The Hashtag Naxal (#Naxal) is not necessarily a dyed-in-the-wool revolutionary motivated by Mao and the Marxist-Leninist ideology he espoused. But, like the pamphleteering Naxals of the 1960s, today’s #Naxal is both a disruptor and an instigator of violence in varying forms, deftly exploiting the faultlines of democracy and of an incredibly diverse populace. The nihilism lives on like a stubborn cancer, seemingly incurable and un-excisable.

For Naxals of the age of ferment the state was the enemy and its organs—the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary—were to be mocked and ridiculed, the elected were to be replaced by the proletariat, and the comprador bourgeoisie were to be put against the wall. The #Naxal of the social media era remarkably thinks similarly and rejects the constitutional mandate to Government, Parliament and Judiciary, even as it seeks the privilege of constitutional rights. If in the times of Mao’s Little Red Book power flew from the barrel of a gun, it now flows from tweets with hashtags.

Yesterday’s comprador bourgeoisie is today’s corporate sector, to be reviled and despised by the #Naxal who may have nothing to show by way of any alternative offering that may have worked in a pluralistic society. In the 1960s, India was on the verge of being defeated by poverty, hunger and disease, desperately struggling to stay afloat. In 2021, it’s an entirely different India. It could be argued that the faultlines of democracy remain and divisions in society are real, but that would be true for all democracies. Yet they become the reason for debunking Parliament and diminishing Judiciary, as has been attempted, for instance, by successive agitations of recent years.

The disruptive anarchy we are witnessing stands in sharp contrast to the realities of India today where the Government with no external support has rolled out the world’s largest Covid-19 vaccination programme with a ‘Made in India’ vaccine produced by an Indian enterprise and businesses. In the early-1970s, during another pandemic, it was abjectly dependent on the WHO for smallpox vaccine. Indian technology now sustains space science and indigenous drones. Indian fighter planes are set to add heft to India’s defence capabilities. India produces and procures more food than the country can consume. India’s growing entrepreneurial class creates millions of jobs and generates wealth for the humblest of homes.

The list is long, the comparisons well-known. That said, it is nobody’s case that things must not be better, and that missteps and failings are not part of the national story. It is also no one’s case that governance deficits are not aplenty. The answer, however, does not lie in weaponising either mass mobilisation in the streets or #hashtag mobilisations on social media platforms. Disinformation, irrespective of which corner it emerges from, is truly a curse in our otherwise exciting times.

The #Naxal is both unmindful of these realities and, as some would argue, willing to play the game of those who would want to see India halted in its tracks, weighed down by losses inflicted by anarchy that uses the Constitution as its shield. Make no mistake, this anarchy comes with a steep price—to be paid, ultimately, by the people. In the last three months the damage to strategic infrastructure has been incalculable, the losses of a single large Walmart store are reported to have crossed $8 million, and it will take months to calculate the losses on account of disruption of highway traffic.

Constitutional rights are now interpreted as a belligerent privilege to pollute the air the masses breathe—or, rather choke on—and the right to prevent the installation of smart electricity meters so as not to be deprived of the licence to consume power without paying for it. The entitlement stretches to disrupting Republic Day celebrations—something never done before—and bunkering down regardless of the consequent misery inflicted on millions of people. It was mind-numbing to see tweets by political actors urging their digital comrades to destroy economic infrastructure. It was frightening to note that there was complicity in most quarters in the acceptance of such #Naxal behaviour.

The 1960s’ People’s Daily is today’s Global Times which gleefully eggs on the #Naxal anarchy: “Failing to tame the pandemic and maintain economic growth, the Modi Government is cornered now. Domestic dissatisfaction is surging. It’s reported that thousands of farmers from several Indian states have been camping on the outskirts of New Delhi for weeks, rattling the administration…” China senses another ‘Spring Thunder’ moment.

It is silly to recall, as is the flavour of this silly season, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s satyagraha and compare the insurrections of our times with the Mahatma’s protests, thus seeking to legitimise anarchy. Gandhi used Truth as a weapon in his many protests to bring down a colonial, unelected, unrepresentative Government whose sovereign head was the British Crown. What we are witnessing now is an insidious attempt to change the outcome produced through ballots by unleashing unrest on the streets through tweets that trend #hashtags.

Nihilism still rules. But ballots must prevail.

- Kanchan Gupta is a senior journalist and political analyst.
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