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By Crushing Wrestlers’ Protest, Did Modi Government Birth a Broader Rebellion Against Itself?

The attempt to quell the protest by champion wrestlers may well turn out to be one of his biggest strategic miscalculations of the BJP government to date.
Photo: Shivansh Srivastava

Anyone who has frequented democratic protests in Delhi and elsewhere over the past few years will remember certain distinct slogans being raised at different protests. 

When JNU was first attacked in 2016, the slogan chanted most often to the beat of the famous JNU dafli (tambourine), was ‘Inqilaba, inqilaba, inqilaba, inqilaba, zindabad, zindabad, zindabad, zindabad.”  (Long live revolution) along with ‘Tanashahi nahi chalegi, nahi chalegi, nahi chalegi’ (Down with dictatorship). 

At the time of the 2019-2020 anti-CAA/NRC protest, the slogan one remembers hearing the most was “Hindu Muslim Sikh Isaai, aapas me sab bhai bhai.” (Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians, are all brothers.)

The slogans that reverberated the most at the 2020-2021 farmers’ protest at Delhi’s borders were ‘Kisan-mazdoor ekta zindabad’ (Long live farmer-labourer unity) and of course the Sikh cry, ‘Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal’.

Each of these slogans managed to capture well the essence of that particular protest. But the slogan that will most likely be remembered from the 35-day-long women wrestlers’ protest at Jantar Mantar that was brutally uprooted on May 28 is “Jab jab Modi dartaa hai, police ko aage kartaa hai.” (Whenever Modi is afraid, he hides behind the police.)

One had but to look at the massive deployment of police and paramilitary forces to see the truth in the chant. There is general consensus amongst those who were present at the scene that at least 2,000 security personnel had been deployed on the morning of the wrestlers’ proposed march to the new parliament. 

The state’s action against the wrestlers on Sunday may have ended their protest for the time being. But it has also claimed an unintended victim. Modi’s ‘Beti bachao, beti padhao’ slogan, on which his government has doubtless spent thousands of crores promoting over the years, has been rendered hollow.

The betis weren’t saved. They were lifted up by their arms and legs and carried away screaming into police buses. (A photojournalist present at the spot did note, though, that it took approximately 20 policewomen to finally overpower Sakshi Malik, who is an Olympic wrestler after all.) Horrifically, Malik’s mother was also carried off into a police bus in a similar manner. 

Sakshi Malik’s mother being carried away. Photo: Shivansh Srivastava

Perhaps the most heartrending scene of the day was the sight of Satyavrat, Sakshi’s husband, also an accomplished wrestler, holding his wife tightly in the middle of the mayhem while security forces tried to pry her away. 

Satyavrat and Sakshi Malik. Photo: Shivansh Srivastava

But the defining image of the day, probably, was the photo of Vinesh Phogat and her sister clutching the tri-colour, clinging to each other, with a policeman’s shoe also visible in the frame. One could not help but recall Orwell’s prescient line from 1984: ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’ 

Thankfully, this did not literally happen, though, under the circumstances, it could very easily have. 

A mere two kilometres away, Prime Minister Modi basked in the applause of his party’s MPs, and mouthed phrases like, “The laws passed in this new parliament will create new opportunities for the women and the youth of our country.”

Confidently declaring that ‘India has now well and truly entered amrit kaal’, he also exhorted his party members to be ‘exemplars and models of good behaviour’. Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the six-time MP and President of the Indian Wrestling Federation against whom the wrestlers have levelled serious allegations of sexual harassment, and who should have been arrested by now, was also in the audience.

A man is known by the company he keeps. The prime minister would do well to understand that he, too, will be remembered by the MPs he refused to fire. 

The makeshift tarpaulin shelter at Jantar Mantar that the wrestlers lived under for 35 days has been torn down and completely dismantled, and their mattresses, belongings, water coolers and banners removed. 

Their struggle, however, is far from over. 

Modi’s attempt to crush the wrestlers’ protest may well turn out to be one of his biggest strategic miscalculations to date. If Vinesh Phogat’s tweet the morning after the crackdown is anything to go by, the emperor of the new parliament may have just birthed a broader resistance than the one he crushed, one that could cause even the women in his fan base to think twice about supporting him.

Phogat tweeted:

दरिया अब तेरी ख़ैर नहीं, बूँदो ने बग़ावत कर ली है
नादां ना समझ रे बुज़दिल, लहरों ने बग़ावत कर ली है,
हम परवाने हैं मौत समाँ, मरने का किसको ख़ौफ़ यहाँ
रे तलवार तुझे झुकना होगा, गर्दन ने बग़ावत कर ली है॥

‘River, beware!
The very drops of the water in you have risen up in revolt.
We are not the naïve ones, coward!
The very waves will now rise against you.
There is no fear of death here
The sword will now have to bow before the head.’ 

Rohit Kumar is an educator.

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