The Anatomy of Labelling

“Why is the tukde-tukde gang resorting to violence?,” stated the headline of one of the foremost Hindi television news channels.

Another channel was carrying a debate on the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), where a person belonging to the clan of the ruling party stated that the ongoing protests were a conspiracy of ‘urban naxals’ in an attempt to instigate the citizens of the nation against the state.

Many on Twitter were following the same script, with countless tweets claiming that only ‘jihadis’, ‘liberals’ and ‘anti-nationals’ were on the streets protesting the issue of NRC and CAA. In his speech on December 22 at Ramlila Maidan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that the Congress and ‘urban naxals’ are trying to create restlessness within the nation.

Among the staunch adherents of the ruling government, many can be seen using these terminologies to the extent that the focus revolves more around the identity of protestors than the message they carry.

The secret of shifting the focus from the message to the identity is contained in the phenomena of labelling – a tool that is crucial to the ruling party and its supporters. In light of the protests happening around India, it becomes important to understand this mechanism of labelling – what it does, how it is used, and why it has become a crucial tool for those in power.

Us versus them

The tendency of an individual to identify with a larger group based on shared identity, core beliefs and ideals is an innate human tendency. In polarised societies, this takes the form of an “us versus them” narrative. A characteristic feature of polarisation is operating in binaries – if you are not x, then you are y, or more simply, if you are not with ‘us’, you are with ‘them’.

Consequently, a scenario such as this leads to the “otherisation” of individuals. Human history is replete with examples of this narrative, as it plays out in all domains – social, cultural, economic and political.

While it has taken many shapes and forms in the Indian context, it can best be understood through the standpoint of the Hindu-Muslim divide in the country. Both communities have struggled to maintain communal harmony even when insecurity and fear has gripped them considering their shared history of violence. Multiple riots have occurred across the nation resulting in thousands of deaths.

At the turn of the decade, and after more than seven decades of attaining freedom, the ruling party is doing its best to widen the rift once again.

Also read: Why I Fight

That the country is falling for such propaganda is clear: the BJP, a right-wing Hindu nationalist party, has been voted to power for two consecutive terms since 2014. Among the many reasons behind the BJP’s stellar performance at the polls, one of the predominant remains the public perception that the party prioritises and safeguards Hindu interests. Many leaders of the BJP have served as members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological wing of the BJP.

The party, too, has never held back from its stance of a nation built on a Hindu nationalistic model. Leaders and spokespersons of the BJP have repeatedly alleged that Hindus residing in India face the threat of becoming a minority in their own country due to the supposed rapid multiplication of the Muslim populous. They have alleged that Hindus have suffered at the behest of the Congress, which sought the appeasement of Muslims, and that Hindus had to live in an atmosphere of fear.

They have constantly called for the awakening of the Hindu masses, claiming that a real Hindu would protect their religion, culture, and tradition from “foreign” forces, with regular hints as to who these “foreign” entities are.

The party has stressed on how India as a nation would crumble if Hindus were to become a minority. Thus, if Hindus love their nation, they have to ensure the prevention of this situation. Therefore, in the process, the saffron party has been able to redefine the meaning of Hinduism and nationalism – with both being intertwined.

This political climate has given rise to a new sphere of the ‘us versus them’ narrative.

The use of labelling and its implications

In post-war America, communism was considered a threat. Political campaigns revolved around the need to suppress a communist uprising around the world. For years, the Americans and Soviets grappled in the Cold War – two ideologies stacked against one another.

During the 1960s, when the Vietnam War was at its peak, students and professors from universities across the US. took part in massive protests against the government. They demanded a complete withdrawal of the US troops from Vietnam. The police violently cracked down on protestors in many regions and the government was swift in accusing students of being communist sympathisers being funded by the Soviets and tagging them as “anti-nationals”.

The government actively pursued to categorise the protestors as the “other”. One can find parallels with the current scenario in the country that is accompanying the movement against the CAA and NRC.

A sizeable proportion of people on social media use the terms “liberals”, “sickulars”, “communists”, “jihadis” and “anti-national” in the same breath for protestors. It becomes important to understand the framework in which this labelling operates, and the implications it carries.

The right-wing has consistently denounced liberalism, secularism and communism as they consider this trifecta to be the bedrock of the suffering of Hindus. With the help of mainstream media houses and a dedicated social media army, they have been able to sell the idea that people who function on these principles are the enemies of Hinduism and consequently, the nation.

Hence, whenever any of the aforementioned labels are used against protestors or critics of the government, it is done in an attempt to delegitimise their voice. As soon as the protestors are shifted into the bracket of “them”, it becomes easy to discredit their arguments, their logic, their rationale, their pain and their demands.

Also read: Women Against CAA, NRC: Breaking the Patriarchy From Within

It is no surprise that for protestors – right from an ordinary citizen to people like film stars, renowned academicians and public intellectuals – terms like liberals and jihadis are used in the same breath as these groups have been placed under the larger group of “anti-nationals”.

And so, a cognitive map is set up where terms like “liberal” will lead to “anti-Hindu” or “jihadi”, which will lead to “urban naxal” which, in turn, will lead to “anti-national”. As a result, the message gets lost and the identity of protestors becomes the focal point.

What is striking is how these labels have seeped into the vocabularies and have persistently been used by elected representatives of the BJP, right from the prime minster and the home minister, to cabinet ministers, to MPs and MLAs. Even in the discourse that exists amidst BJP supporters, such labels have become a matter of common parlance.

Labelling has become an indispensable tool for those in power.

The price of labelling

When the protests against the Vietnam War kept growing in the US, it became a major talking point in political campaigns. One of the promises made by Richard Nixon was the eventual withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam. After he won the elections, he began the process of ‘Vietnamization’ which aimed at reducing the direct involvement of American soldiers in the war.

During the era of Emergency in India, the JP movement captivated the masses which led to enormous protests against Indira Gandhi and her government. The protestors were thrown in jails, journalists who wrote against the government were put behind bars and students were labelled ‘anti-nationals’. In the general assembly elections that followed the Emergency, Indira Gandhi’s government could not get the vote of confidence.

The Modi government, along with its supporters should peer back into the pages of history and recognise that while labelling might be successful in discrediting voices of protest, it has seldom been enough to break down a movement.

Aditya Chauhan graduated with Psychology honours from Ashoka University and is currently working in Jamshedpur.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty