In India, merely saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ is not enough

Emir Suljagic Shreshtha Das & Arshi Showkat

Shreshtha Das & Arshi Showkat

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests which led to growing calls for abolishing the police and demilitarising communities in the United States, people around the world started to have serious discussions about racism and police brutality in their own countries. In India, however, with the exception of some spaces, the support for the movement has remained superficial, with no real engagement with the underlying issues. 

While Indian celebrities were quick to provide lip service in support of the protests, they did little to examine the effect of militarism (of which police brutality is a part) in their own country. If they were to look closely, they would see that militarism in India is spreading increasingly and surreptitiously, without any check or much uproar.

Broadly understood, militarism is the gradual spread of militaristic values into civilian life. Left unchecked, it paves the way for militaristic values such as violence, surveillance and control to become primary tools in the state’s handling of internal conflict and dissent. It is closely intertwined with nationalism and patriarchy and involves setting up masculine ideals of service to the nation, based on aggression and the willingness to commit violent acts, as the basis of ideal citizenship.

Overt police and military brutality, especially against marginalised groups, has long been rampant in India. But recent moves by the state signal an attempt to covertly extend military forms of control in the civilian sphere. Indeed, as seen in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, militarism is increasingly becoming the Indian state’s go-to approach in handling crisis situations. This calls for urgent scrutiny.

The rise of covert militarism in India

Today, the Indian state and armed forces are attempting to present militarism as a natural extension of nationalist sentiment through seemingly innocuous but highly dangerous moves, comments and policies. 

Last month, for example, the Indian Army announced an internship programme based on the Israeli model called “Tour of Duty”. It allows any Indian citizen to join the army for three years and receive military training. The programme has been appreciated by industrialists in India, who not only hope to win points riding on the tide of nationalism, but perhaps also stand to benefit from the creation of a cadre of disciplined workers who will learn to follow orders without raising questions.

Another worrying trend that brings India closer to becoming a police state is the state’s attempts to involve civilians in policing activities. The Indian state has previously engaged in creating civilian armies in areas of high conflict, such as the infamous Salwa Judum campaign and Ikhwan Ul Muslimoon. Today, demands for arming civilians have once again surfaced.

The former Jammu and Kashmir Deputy General of Police S P Vaid, for example, recently called for civilians to be armed in Muslim-majority Indian-administered Kashmir to “protect Hindu minorities and the vulnerable Muslim communities”. Vaid’s statement raised concerns about the possible expansion of Village Defence Committees that are alleged to have instigated riots and communal tensions in the region.

In a more subtle attempt to expand militarism in the country, citizen volunteers have been asked to help the state in enforcing strict compliance with COVID-19 lockdown measures. This is likely to encourage vigilantism and provide an opportunity for these volunteers to exercise unchecked power over other members of their communities, and especially already marginalised minorities.

We have already seen instances of this in how Muslims were treated after a controversy regarding a religious congregation in Delhi and accused of knowingly spreading coronavirus. With Indian police officers already using excessive force to make civilians comply with lockdown measures, there is little doubt that these volunteers will replicate these excesses in their attempts to get “disobedient citizens” to follow the state’s instructions.

Capitalising on patriarchal and nationalist fervour

The timing of these measures has been extremely opportunistic. Economic slowdown and restrictions imposed on account of the pandemic limited many citizens’ ability to realise their masculine nationalist aspirations, creating an opportunity for militarist practices to fill the gap. 

In India, traditional family units are often shaped by the patriarchal and caste and class based understanding that the man is the natural breadwinner. However, the ongoing pandemic and the economic slowdown that came with it made it impossible for many to fulfil that role, causing them to feel insecure about their ability to meet dominant masculinity ideals. The Indian military quickly capitalised on this sentiment by introducing the three-year Tour of Duty internship programme.

The military cited “unemployment” as one of the reasons behind the internship programme and suggested that by temporarily joining the armed forces, unemployed youth could not only earn money to provide for their families, but also “experience the thrill and adventure of military professionalism”.

The programme offers those who are unable to fulfil the traditional role of the provider and exercise power and control that comes with it in the private sphere an opportunity to regain this sense of dominance in the public sphere. The “thrill and adventure” that comes from exercising militaristic power and control, also provides an alternative to the compulsory domesticity that many have been forced into on account of unemployment and pandemic enforced lockdowns.

However, the ongoing expansion of militarism in India cannot be explained solely through the military’s  attempt to capitalise on some people’s perceived inability to meet dominant masculine ideals. Also at the heart of these strategies, as the Tour of Duty proposal indicates, is the “resurgence of nationalism and patriotism” which paves the way for increased militarism.

Nationalism and militarism have always been mutually reinforcing

The perception of a constant threat, the “enemy other” is central to militarism. At the root of nationalism is the construction of a national identity that necessarily relies on the creation of an “enemy other” in racialised terms. Nationalism, therefore, supplies this “enemy other” as the source of threat, which then justifies militarism.

In India, a “Hindu Nationalism” is cementing under the Modi government, and the link between nationalism and Hinduism is stronger today than ever before.

The severe consequences people face for refusing to recite problematic, Hindu Nationalist chants such as “Bharat Mata ki Jai” (victory to mother India), the delineation of those who question Hindu supremacy as “anti-national”, the criminalisation and vilification of religious minorities and the ongoing exclusion and abuse of Dalits, stand as a tall testimony to how “nationalism” is peddled in India.

Increasing militarism is then yet another avenue for people to attend to a call for service to the nation by policing those who fall outside the imagination of the “Hindu nation”, and in doing so realising traditional masculine roles as well. But this is not without dire consequences.

Ramifications of increasing militarism

With militarism infiltrating all aspects of life in India, from education and media to cricket and policing, the tactics of violent suppression and the use of disproportionate force against civilians have been normalised.

This normalisation of violence is a serious cause for concern.

First, as violence is now the norm in the country, perpetrators are enjoying immense impunity for their unlawful and unethical actions. With prevailing apathy to the use of violence in society, it becomes increasingly difficult to create public outrage against the use of violence on unarmed civilians. We witnessed this in India during the widespread protests against the new citizenship law, where police used disproportionate force against students and civil society members. It has also been seen in the violent methods security forces use against civilian populations in Kashmir, Assam, Manipur and other heavily militarised states. To this day, no charges have been filed against state officials who ordered or encouraged violent attacks on unarmed and peaceful civilians. Student leaders and other activists, who did nothing other than use their right to peaceful protest, however, are being arrested en masse.

Second, increasing normalisation of violence linked to the creation of a militarised masculinity as the ideal trope, also normalises gender-based violence against those who do not share or conform to this aggressive militarised masculinity. With militarised masculinity being hailed as the ideal, gender roles and hierarchies are reinforced in a manner that directly culminates in growing violence against women and queer people, even in private spheres. Research, such as the one conducted by Madelaine Adelman from Arizona State University, has revealed a strong link between militarism and prevalence of domestic violence in highly militarised societies.

Another key value of militarism is a strong sense of obedience to command. With militarism being injected into civilian life, strong obedience is expected from the citizenry, and anyone who fails to comply with the state’s demands, or question the legitimacy of its actions, faces harsh punishment. The booking of student protesters under anti-terror laws for protesting against fundamental changes to how citizenship is understood and enjoyed in India, is one of the prime examples of the state dictating citizens to be passive and fall in line.

The escalating use of militarism and its normalisation, raise some very worrying questions about the values that are being privileged by societies and who stands to benefit from them and who suffers. These questions lie at the heart of the global Black Lives Matter movement and for that matter, all solidarity movements led by marginalised groups across the world.

The counter to this dangerous imagination of society, as these movements have shown us, lies in reimagining security in ways that encompass removing structural inequalities, ending militarism and militaristic police practices, strengthening communities, and placing their rights above masculine constructs of sovereignty and nationhood.

 

 

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