In the past six years, two things have happened. Activism has become a dirty ‘anti-national’ word and activists have started feeling the heavy burden of futility under the Narendra Modi government. No matter what happens, the state will still run roughshod over activists’ well-intentioned concerns and pass legislation keeping its own petty politics in mind.
But the activists are wrong. Activism pays. Three events in the recent past prove that it actually works. The Supreme Court taking suo motu cognisance of lapses in the government’s handling of the jobless labourers’ crisis, Aarogya Setu becoming open source, and the back-tracking of Modi-Amit Shah government over the contentious National Register of Citizens were possible only because of the dogged perseverance of activists.
Facing constant abuse by the organised, well-greased IT cell, violence, imminent threat of arrests and risking draconian charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, activists kept at it to achieve the end goal or the next best thing — elbow room to fight, corner and expose a failed, vindictive state trying to desperately cling to power using any means possible.
Labourers – orphans in their own motherland
The coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath have brought to the fore the Indian government’s lack of planning and utter disregard for human suffering.
The drop-of-a-hat decision to go from a 14-hour janata curfew to a strict country-wide lockdown with fours of notice, without planning or considering its effect on millions of poor, marginalised, daily wage earners, left many on the road. The pictures were there for all to see.
On 27 May, the SC took suo motu cognisance of the problems being faced by labourers during lockdown, admitting there were lapses in the central and state government measures in dealing with the issue. This was after over 60 days of the lockdown. The court ordered the Centre and the States to immediately provide transport, food and shelter free of cost to the stranded workers. The matter is scheduled to be heard today.
This order came after the Supreme Court received a letter from Delhi and Mumbai-based senior lawyers who were critical of its “self-effacing deference” to the government, “unwillingness” and “apparent indifference” in the face of the “enormous humanitarian crisis”. The same court had earlier refused to intervene in its own wisdom. So, the letter appears to have pushed the Supreme Court toward action.
On 7 April, while hearing a plea by Harsh Mander and Anjali Bharadwaj asking the SC to direct the government to give monetary support to workers left without resources, the court said: “We are not experts and don’t intend to interfere without knowing what it is all about. We do not plan to supplant the wisdom of the government with our wisdom. We will ask the government to create a helpline for complaints.”
Again, on 15 May, the SC dismissed an application seeking urgent direction to all district magistrates across India to identify and transport workers free of cost to their home states. The court said: “How can we stop them from walking? It is impossible for this Court to monitor who is walking and who is not walking?”
Privacy concerns over Aarogya Setu
Giving in to pressure by privacy activists, the Modi government Wednesday made the Covid tracking Aarogya Setu app open source and available on Github.
With contact tracing becoming the main tool in the government’s arsenal to tackle the pandemic, Aarogya Setu app was launched to identify and contain the spread of the coronavirus. Immediately, concerns were raised by activists flagging the app’s overreach in terms of data collected.
Allegations were also raised over the app being a surveillance tool. French ethical hacker Elliot Alderson took to Twitter tagging the app’s official account, alleging security flaws in the application that enabled him to see that five people at the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and two people at the Indian Army headquarters were unwell, tagging the apps official account.
As expected, the team behind the app denied the allegations, but immediately got in touch with Alderson. Amid calls for opening up the source code, the government then backtracked from mandatory usage of the app to merely advising it in its subsequent lockdown guidelines.
Anti-NRC protests and brave women of Shaheen Bagh
The relentless anti-CAA and NRC protests forced the BJP-led government, fresh out of the euphoria of winning a second term in 2019, to backtrack and concede that there were no plans to conduct a nationwide NRC.
With NRC and CAA being invoked in the run-up to the Lok Sabha election, it was no surprise that the government went ahead with it after retaining power.
Perhaps, hoodwinked with the ease with which it was able to scrap Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, the Modi government enacted the Citizenship (Amendment) Act on 12 December 2019. What followed were women and student-led protests that soon spread to the entire country and beyond.
With the opposition still twiddling its thumbs trying to figure out the electoral math before taking a stand on the contentious bill, it was left to civil society groups to take charge.
The women of Shaheen Bagh sat on an indefinite protest and finally left the venue over health concerns after the coronavirus outbreak.
Even threats of violence, and a shooting incident, failed to deter these women braving one of the harshest winters the capital has seen in recent times.
The grit and resolve of these women and students, and the PR nightmare it was for the government in the international press, even led to a riot in Delhi. But Shaheen Bagh remained.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had to step in and negate what his home minister had been canvassing since the Lok Sabha polls, and say there were no plans yet on bringing in an all-India NRC.
Activists are the firewall that India needs because a fractured opposition is often ineffective and self-serving. Activists are called ‘urban Naxals’, ‘tukde-tukde gang’, ‘libtards’, ‘Commies’ and ‘Modi-haters’. But if they wade through all the sea of abuse, BJP IT Cell, WhatsApp forwards and UAPA-like laws, there is a real possibility of a push back.
Activism works, and activists are the knight in shining armour providing us hope in these dark times.
Views are personal.