Wrestlers’ protest and the shrinking space for dissent
Public protests have long served as a catalyst for social and policy change in India, allowing individuals, classes and communities to voice their grievances and advocate for their rights. Over the past few years, protests have risen with bewildering rapidity. Protests had opened up space for a new era of social activism in the decade that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was in power. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government too has faced considerable opposition from a range of groups but has treated it very differently from previous governments.
From Nirbhaya to the present
In December 2012, people around the world watched as thousands took to the streets in the Central Vista of New Delhi following the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student (Nirbhaya). The protests became so intense and the public outrage was so great that the UPA government was compelled to address issues of sexual violence at the policy level, through the introduction of the new Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013 to bring stricter punishments and broaden the scope of offences.
Fast forward to May 2023. Medal-winning wrestlers, who have brought honour to the country, have been on the streets for nearly four months to demand the arrest of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief and Kaiserganj Member of Parliament (MP), Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, of the BJP, who they have accused of sexually harassing women wrestlers and a minor. But the authorities did not respond for weeks. It took the Supreme Court of India’s intervention for Delhi Police to file two first information reports (FIRs).
The wrestlers have held negotiations with the Home Minister and Sports Minister, but no agreement was reached on the key demand of arresting him. That the ruling party MP faces no political censure in the face of serious allegations recorded in FIRs, clearly indicates that the institutional system has failed these remarkably brave wrestlers fighting for justice in the face of tremendous state pressure.
But what about civil society and the public at large? The protest has found some support from civil society, especially organisations representing workers, farmers, women, students, and youth, but it is very small when compared to the public support for other protests under this regime or previous ones. There have been no rallies, no demonstrations or marches that defined protests against sexual violence in the UPA era. People have not been stirred by the images of wrestlers being dragged by the police. Despite the potential for mass mobilisation, these protests have failed to garner significant support from the middle classes and women’s groups, which were in the forefront of the Nirbhaya protests in 2012.
Protests under the current regime are, no doubt, difficult as they are immediately branded as ‘anti-national’. Also, activists might feel the futility of protests against a government that does not listen; but the fact is that this regime has been forced to respond to some protests even if it has done so for reasons of political expediency. The withdrawal of the controversial farm laws and the back-tracking over the contentious National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) are two recent examples where the government had to back down.
The context of class politics
The Indian women’s movement has had a long history of organising around sexual violence against women. They have in the past organised direct action on the streets. But this time, except for Left groups and the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), women’s groups have been largely missing in action, even though it is an issue of gender justice. But it is not just about gender justice; it is about the wider issues of dissent, dignity and social justice. Moreover, in the Nirbhaya case, it was not only women who were mobilising but also a broader swathe of civil society that included men. The massive public mobilisation had virtually blocked the India Gate area for weeks, but this time, nothing of the kind has happened.
Wrestling is deeply ingrained in Indian culture and has a long history, particularly in the rural areas. However, traditional wrestling has not received the same level of attention and support as other sport in India, such as cricket. The protesting wrestlers mostly come from modest economic backgrounds; sports has helped them to achieve a measure of social and economic mobility. The lack of interest in this agitation must be seen in the broader context of class politics.
The active participation of the middle classes in the Anna Hazare Andolan (2011) and Nirbhaya protests presents a contrasting picture that highlights the importance given to social activism by this class. Their participation in the two movements catapulted them to the centre stage of the political discourse. The anti-corruption campaign was not averse to Hindutva politics; in fact, adopting its symbols and slogans added to its widening support. The urban middle class is also very well disposed to neo-liberalism; it has benefited from the opportunities available to it from the neo-liberal economy in the past three decades. Indeed, middle-class expansion has occurred since economic reforms through the private sector boom powered by economic liberalisation. This is the class that was enamoured by ‘India Shining’, and then shifted support to the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, before turning against him, as the UPA went on to introduce rights-based legislations and other broad-based social policies. Their shifting political loyalties, however, reflect an ideological consistency that characterises the middle class in its combined devotion to neo-liberalism and Hindutva. The middle-class opposition to the UPA played a crucial role in discrediting it; now, these very classes strongly back the current dispensation and see no reason to go against it, even on issues of sexual violence.
A form of polarisation
The support extended by khap panchayats underlines the complexities and challenges facing this protest. Their support highlights the social identity of the wrestlers but the identity issue could have been superseded had the wrestlers received greater support from civil society. Even so, this is not about caste politics but majoritarian politics that has encouraged a ready acceptance of ‘law will take its own course’ rhetoric, even when it is abundantly clear that the law does not take its own course when dealing with the powerful, unless they cannot and will not interfere with due process. Nonetheless, this rhetorical device facilitates an approval of the government’s narrative, including police mistreatment of grapplers. This is yet another indication of polarisation being reinforced by majoritarian politics in the country today.
Middle-class activism tends to prioritise the issues and concerns that directly impact them, often overlooking the needs and struggles of the disadvantaged classes and communities. This self-focus can perpetuate inequalities and hinders efforts to address broader social issues. Failing to consider the intersections of class, caste, gender, and other factors can result in a narrow understanding of social reality and marginalised voices. In the event, there is a sense of suspicion towards mass politics and egalitarian ideas and movements.
This tendency contributes to an unprecedented quiescence among the middle classes and even among the oppressed classes. Above all, it means inadequate public pressure is exerted on the government to penalise an infamous history-sheeter. It is emblematic of society’s normalisation of patriarchy and sexual harassment.
The lack of significant interest in this agitation, especially from the middle classes and women’s groups who shaped the protests in 2011 and 2012, must be seen in the broader context of class politics.
Same-sex marriage: Morality vs equality
is an advocate practising in the Madras High Court
Just a few days before the Supreme Court of India commenced hearings on the same-sex marriage issue, one of the world’s leading philosophers, Michael Sandel, was in India to take part in a media group’s conclave.
Introduced as a “rockstar” during the event and prodded to make comments on banal local politics, the significance of his ideas for deeper moral questions facing Indian society remained lost on most.
Supreme Court’s neutrality
For example, while arguments based on the various strands of liberalism were being marshalled before the Supreme Court, Sandel’s critique of contemporary liberalism should also have been part of the repertoire for consideration.
This critique highlights a difficulty in any attempt to sort out the issue of same-sex marriage within a liberal framework of individual rights.
For, if the Court were to adjudicate on the right to marry it would have to break its neutrality on moral questions about the desirability of marriage, what fits into the institution and what it means to people- a neutrality mandated by its jurisprudence on equal concern for all irrespective of social or personal morality.
In fact the idea of constitutional morality has been used by the Supreme Court in many cases to maintain neutrality on moral issues.
Following this neutrality would mean the Court should stop at ensuring that people’s legal rights are protected just like how it held that those in live-in relationships are entitled to legal protection irrespective of the societies’ moral view on such relationships.
But to mandate the state to recognise a particular kind of marriage on the basis of equality is to recognise marriage as a social honour and pronounce on its moral worth. It would be violating the liberal tenet of neutrality.
So even for an ardent votary of same-sex marriage like the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, state intervention in the matter is only the second best option- “[S]o long as the state is in the marrying business, concerns with equality require it to offer marriage to same-sex couples-but. . . it would be a lot better, as a matter of both political theory and public policy, if the state withdrew from the marrying business” [emphasis added].
The idea that the state should be neutral to moral concerns about institutions like marriage is what Sandel calls “bracketing” of moral issues. It assumes human ability to detach oneself from his/ her “stories” or “social and historical roles and statuses.”
Equality or privacy
In the context of same-sex marriages, the Court will be following this approach if it were to decide in favour of the petitioners only on the basis of equality or privacy. Sandel says “if…social and economic rights are required as a matter of equal respect for persons (only), the question remains why these persons…have a claim on my concern that others do not.”
In other words, citizens who see and value marriage as a heterosexual institution would be asked to recognise same-sex marriages, through their state of course, not as a matter of shared understanding but as “a duty we owe to strangers.”
On the other hand if the matter were to be decided on the basis of “intrinsic value or social importance of the practice”, one avoids the alienation that gives rise to fundamentalist tendencies.
This now takes us to the more important question as to whether the Court, or for that matter even a centralised State, is capable of deciding on or resolving moral issues in society.
Sandel cites the example of Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s decision in Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health (2003) which legalised same-sex marriage not just on grounds of equality and freedom of choice but by pronouncing on the virtues of marriage. In the American context, the Court only had to choose between whether marriage is about “procreation” or “loving relationships”.
In India, the significance of marriage for those who look at it in traditional terms is much more than both. The significance was captured by the Calcutta High Court in 1901 as follows- “it is a ‘union of flesh with flesh, bone with bone’… the union is a sacred tie and subsists even after the death…”
Yale Professor Helen Landemore says “compared to liberal court decisions imposed on a reluctant public, with the potential for backfiring… the most radical and ultimately sustainable changes to have come for gay rights… were forced on parties and electoral assemblies by ad hoc citizens’ assemblies (Ireland) and the pressure of citizens’ initiatives (Finland)” [emphasis added].
It has been noted by scholars that historically Indian society has not shared the same sense of disgust or hatred with which homosexuals were treated in other parts of the world.
Understandably, there were no social rumblings when homosexuality was decriminalised. It reflected the society’s shared values. Can the same be said about homosexual marriage? Have we, like some western societies, accepted “romantic-love” or companionship and nothing else to be the basis of marriage?
Can the honorific value of marriage be sustained without a heterosexual couple? Ideally these questions should be left for citizens’ assemblies or citizens’ initiatives like in Ireland or Finland. In India too one could look for equivalents. Reviving Gandhi’s “little republics” could be a good starting point.
The question of same-sex marriage should be left to citizens’ initiatives to resolve, rather than to the state.
Kerala govt. comes under fire after strays maul disabled boy
The inquest report of Nihal Naushad, an 11-year-old disabled boy who was mauled to death by stray dogs near the Muzhappilangad Kitinakam mosque in Kannur on Sunday, suggests he was attacked by several dogs.
He sustained deep injuries on his neck, face, and behind his ear besides some on his left leg as well. His body was handed over to his relatives after a post-mortem. The boy was laid to rest on Monday.
Stray dog menace
The incident has sparked State-wide condemnation with Opposition parties accusing the government of ignoring the growing stray dog menace in the State. Leader of Opposition in Kerala Assembly V. D. Satheesan said the animal birth control and anti-rabies vaccination drive in the State has stalled due to government apathy.
Social media also erupted in outrage, accusing the government of allowing the vaccination and sterilisation drive — launched with much fanfare in September as a “knee-jerk” reaction to a similar tragedy — to peter out slowly.
In an acerbic Facebook post, Union Minister of State for External Affairs V. Muraleedharan said strays tore up the child even as Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan showcased Kerala as a model State to the expatriate Malayali community at Times Square in New York. “Luckily for him, there are no aggressive feral dogs at Times Square,” he said.
In the government’s defence, Minister for Local Self Government M.B. Rajesh said stray dog attacks had come down considerably following the animal birth control programme launched in September last year, but some local bodies have been lax in carrying out the operations.
Although a shortage of anti-rabies vaccines was reported last year, the Animal Husbandry Department on Monday said that it has enough stocks now.
China could have as many ICBMs as U.S. or Russia by turn of decade: think tank
China increased its nuclear arsenal to 410 warheads in January 2023 from 350 in January 2022, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said in its annual report on Monday.
“Depending on how it decides to structure its forces, China could potentially have at least as many intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) as either the U.S. or Russia by the turn of the decade, the stockholm-based think tank said.
“China has started a significant expansion of its nuclear arsenal. It is increasingly difficult to square this trend with China’s declared aim of having only the minimum nuclear forces needed to maintain its national security,” Hans M. Kristensen, Associate Senior Fellow with SIPRI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Programme, said.
India and Pakistan also expanded their nuclear arsenal. Both countries introduced and continued to develop new types of nuclear delivery system in 2022, the report noted. “While Pakistan remains the main focus of India’s nuclear deterrent, India appears to be placing growing emphasis on longer-range weapons, including those capable of reaching targets across China.”
According to SIPRI estimates, India’s arsenal grew to 164 warheads in 2023 from 160 in 2022 and that of Pakistan from 165 to 170.
Of the total global inventory of 12, 512 warheads in January 2023, about 9,576 were in military stockpiles for potential use — 86 more than in January 2022. Russia and the U.S. together possessed almost 90% of all nuclear weapons. The size of their respective nuclear arsenal (useable warheads) seemed to have remained relatively stable in 2022, although transparency regarding nuclear forces declined in both countries in the wake of Ukraine war, SIPRI said.
SOURCE : THE HINDU