Can the Popular Disembody Populism?

<<The canonical version of this content is accessible on This preprint – SMUR version – is a manuscript submitted for review to the journal Postcolonial Studies. If accepted, the version of record will be available online on the publisher’s website. A copy of the submitted manuscript is archived on (incl. keywords). Citation will be downloadable on the Hal repository. The original title of the article is: “Can the Popular Disembody Populism? India’s Anti-CAA Protests.”
Table of contents
3.Popular vs populism
4.Enacting the popular discourse
5.Sustaining the popular wave
6.The waning of the popular


This ethnographic account chronicles the journey of one of the largest anti-government protests since India’s independence. It examines the pivotal role of students – initially activists and then first-time participants – in crystallising challenges to the ruling dispensation, not only by opposing it directly, but through subverting its way of claiming representation. More specifically, it is the strategic reuse of the pervasive anti-institutional and anti-elite discourse at the top – while replacing its majoritarianism with inclusiveness – that enabled protesters to disembody the populist modality of the current Indian Prime Minister. Protesters’ short-lived success was achieved through an enactment of the popular, embodied in a diffused fashion by faceless, peaceful and feminised protesting masses. The popular successfully appropriated the claim to be the people through invoking a ‘derivative’ nationalist repertoire in part shared by the government, emptying its anti-minorities subtext through appropriating floating signifiers of patriotic belonging such as the Indian constitution, the flag and the anthem. By engaging on how relatively small communities of politicised students used the campus ecology and its neighbouring spaces as territorial and ideational nodal points for the mobilisation of less politicised cohorts, the article underlines their significance in the political articulation of dissent in contemporary Indian democracy.

Keywords: popular; populism; nationalism; floating signifier; social movements; student politics; India


Since the re-election of Narendra Modi as Indian Prime Minister in May 2019, his political party and the central state machinery have accelerated the implementation of its Hindu-centric ethno-nationalist agenda, progressively recasting “what it means to be an Indian.”[1] Among other things, the government revoked a customary divorce law for Muslim men, scrapped the special constitutional status of the only Muslim-dominated Indian state and decided to build on a Ram (i.e. a Hindu deity) temple in place of a Mosque destroyed in the 1990s by Hindu militants. The latest major blow to the secular interpretation of Indian politics was introduced in December 2019. The vote of a new law for the accession to citizenship for pre-2015 ‘refugees’ of neighbouring countries has made Muslims ostensibly ineligible for consideration. The law forecasts a campaign promise of the ruling party, who aims at assessing the validity of the citizenship documentation of the entire population. The December reform was rightly understood by many – in particular by the nearly 200 million Indian Muslims – as a first step towards a which-hunt of non-Hindus, non-Buddhists, non-Jain, non-Christians, non-Sikhs and non-Parsis who would find themselves incapable of ‘proving’ their nationality. As a result, the new law triggered all-India protests of an unprecedented scale stretching over a hundred-day period,[2] mobilising in particular educated youth.[3]

This article revisits the movement as it unfolded, unveiling how its main vehicle of collective action, dharnas (sit-ins in Hindi) succeeded in challenging the ruling dispensation, not only by opposing it directly, but through subverting its way of claiming representation. More specifically, it is the strategic reuse of the pervasive anti-institutional and anti-elite discourse at the top – while replacing its majoritarianism with inclusiveness – that enabled protesters to disembody the populist modality of Prime Minister Narendra Modi through an enactment of the popular,[4] embodied in a diffused fashion by faceless, peaceful and feminised protesting masses. The popular successfully appropriated the claim to be the people through invoking a nationalist repertoire shared by the government, emptying its anti-minorities subtext through appropriating floating signifiers[5] of patriotic belonging such as the Indian constitution, the flag and the anthem. Such a narrative enabled symbolic and physical nodal points of relatively small groups of previously politicised students to garner, through dharnas and protests, the support of otherwise fearful Muslim populations and mobilisation-averse liberal sections.

After introducing the contending – and in part overlapping – mechanisms in which popular and populist discourses claim the representation of the people, the remainder of this article follows a chronological order, from the inception to the demise of the movement. It examines how the fuzzy yet generative claim of the popular challenged the otherwise dominant populist narrative, mainly through creatively drawing from its media-savvy nationalist repertoire,[6] yet ‘detaching’ it from the majority community.

Popular vs Populism

While populism and popular protests share a willingness to appeal to the people, they differ substantially in their approach. On the one hand, populism is a practice of power seeking to conquer and run representative institutions,[7] on the other, popular movements articulate grievances that are only occasionally aimed at institutional or regime change. Furthermore, popular mobilisations tend to be headless while populist attitudes are incarnated phenomena. Because populist claims aim at generating electoral successes, they are articulated by a leader who treats institutional procedures and political culture as a matter of property and possession.[8] Lastly, popular, as an adjective,[9] points at the characteristics of – often contested – sites of mass cultural production,[10] but their putative flagbearers are entities – hence nouns – acting at different levels of the social order. Simply put, popular movements’ aspirations are grassroot, and that of populisms are governmental. Considering their constitutive distinctiveness, what makes these two modalities of political participation so effective in asserting the representation of the people?

First, it can be argued that the type of representation claimed by both populists and popular movements taps in the widely shared aspiration of the citizenry for direct democracy and what Ankersmit calls “mimetic likeness.”[11] Populism and popular movements prosper on a critique of a political class they label as elitist and estranged, whose arrogance and privilege is presented as a betrayal of the “real people” – from which they are irremediably separated. Popular and populist movements point at the paradox of representative democracy; such regime is on the one hand legitimised as the “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” But on the other hand, it is presented as the outcome of an institutionalisation of check and balances enshrining the autonomy of few professional representatives over the mass of putatively uninformed represented. It is through asserting their unmediated, sincere and tribunician[12] connect with the alienated people that both popular movements and populists instrumentalise and reject what is seen as a patronisation and infantilization of the subalterns by the ruling dispensation.

In this contest over the shortening of the distance between representatives and represented, the political appeal of both popular movements and populism lies on what Spivak calls synecdochial representation,[13] that is the possibility of a part (either protesters or leaders) to perform as the whole through putting forward the stand: “I am the people.” In her words, such process enables a handful few to obliterate entrenched social, economic, and ideational divides in society and “self-synecdochise to form collectivity.”[14] Such type of representation fuses the act of representation to the social body in a way that legislative representation cannot perform, since contemporary law-making supposes elected members to be autonomous, metaphorically “above and outside” the people.[15]

Second, popular and populist movements have in common an ambiguous use of the term people, whose vagueness is purposively mobilised to garner support of those who, despite their differences, are ready to subsume themselves under the label people. Following Brubaker, it can be said that both modalities of representation exploit at their best the “productive polysemy of ‘the people’.”[16] To be more specific, populists and protesters tend to coin people indistinctively as plebs (i.e. ordinary/common people), as unique bearers of sovereignty (i.e. sovereign people), and as an identifiable political community (i.e. specific people of bounded solidarity and culture).[17] This definitional woolliness does not only reveal that people is primarily not a datum but a construct,[18] it also enables to articulate eclectic political content that would not ‘stick together’ otherwise. The facelessness of popular movements is often presented as evidence of protesters’ commonness, even if their participants belong to specific and rather ‘uncommon’ sociological strata. For populists, ordinariness must be performed through what Ostiguy calls the “flaunting of the low,” that is through the display of folksier, uncouth and un-cosmopolitan attitudes, which in the Indian context includes devotional tropes, fatherly postures, street-level language, praise of Hindu festivals, yoga, and the political use of epics.[19]

Third, the language of nationalism is often invoked alongside with ‘the people’ in both the repertoires of the popular/populists, precisely because they reclaim such people as sovereign and distinct. Indeed, because nationalist discourses tend to be restorative, they are tuned towards giving back the ‘ownership’ of the polity to the nation and its people.[20] Nationalism is essentially an ideology enabling boundary making[21] and the identification of outsiders. Similarly ‘otherising’, popular movements and populisms identify enemies of the people, with the difference that their “internal frontier”[22] between members and outsiders is often placed within a specific polity, and not outside of it as it is for most nationalist narratives.[23] All-in-all, the affinity of the popular and the populist towards nationalist registers creates the possibility of a political contest, in which nationalism is lodged in-between rival hegemonic projects – the first brought forward by a populist leader and the second by popular protests. It is in this context that nationalism can become a “floating signifier,” making it possible for the signifier of political action to circulate between movements that share opposite visions of society. Laclau, the theoriser of such unexpected linkages between two rival political projects describes floating signifiers as follows: “As the central signifiers of a popular discourse become partially empty, they weaken their former links with some particular contents – those contents become perfectly open to a variety of equivalent rearticulations.”[24]

What is missing in these accounts is the empirical process by which, in a given socio-political space, a floating signifier such as nationalism shifts from populist to popular movements. I suggest that it is the paradoxical reuse of the dominant political national narrative around symbolic objects of patriotic pride – the constitution, the flag, the anthem, founding fathers – that enabled a temporary undoing of the gradual yet historical slippage between Hindu and Indian nationalism in the dominant popular culture.[25]

In the next sections, I discuss the way in which a handful of young politicised students from left and Islamist leanings, overcame their ideational suspicion of nationalist symbolic paraphernalia partly on tactical grounds, and foregrounded the emergence of a popular movement through mobilising strategically these symbols, ultimately reclaiming the floating signifier of the motherland.  

Enacting the popular discourse

In the wake of the December 2019-March 2020 Indian movement, veteran cartoonist E. P. Unny portrayed in a political satire a somewhat sardonic student activist, draped with swelling bandages, compress and arm-plaster.[26] On the plaster, one can read: “WE, the PEOPLE.” It sketches the social media profile picture of the Students’ Union president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University – the nerve centre of value-based student activism in the capital[27] – in the aftermath of her being attacked by a pro-government student group on campus early January. Placed in the larger context, the E. P. Unny’s cartoon epitomises for many the formidable momentum of student- and youth-led protests against the Indian government’s redefinition of Indian citizenship along religious lines. As a student-spearheaded coalition challenges to unprecedented heights the majoritarian turn of Indian democracy headed by Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, how did protesting students all over the country come to represent, synecdochally, the image of the people?

Figure 1. Cartoon by E.P. Unny, January 2020.

The resource-starved protesting students appear to have thrived by subverting the ubiquitous state-sponsored populist narrative. In a deeply polarised political context in which institutional representation is disfigured by the permanent acclamation of one man – the Prime Minister (PM) – as the incarnation of the people, protesters and favourable media sources emerged as a symbol of the popular. They replicated the aspiration for direct representation glorified by PM Narendra Modi. Yet these different occurrences of dharnas[28] (sit-ins)[29] made such representation impersonal and disincarnated by re-appropriating the incantatory symbolic fetishes of Indian nationhood: the freedom struggle, patriotic youthhood, the flag, the constitution, the national anthem as well as principles of non-violence and gender empowerment.

By opposing populism to the popular, students emulated a similar noninstitutional and anti-establishment ‘audience democracy’ ethos championed by Modi, but they substituted its majoritarian agenda with a pluralist and minority-friendly motto. Such a discourse gave the movement tactical unity beyond the conflicting political agendas of Muslim communities fighting for equal rights and multiconfessional Left collectives in quest of political mileage away from Hindutva-saturated[30] political arenas. This alliance of ideologically distinct groups ironically reminds one of another student movement. The 1974 “JP movement”[31] in India’s Bihar and Gujarat was made possible by the improbable convergence of socialist and Hindu nationalist forces. Today, student activists in select universities,[32] while being demonised as antinationals by a ruling party in constant quest for internal enemies, distinguished themselves as political fast-movers, both as ‘movement initiators’ and as ‘early adopters’.[33] Using the political ecology of centrally funded public campuses in the social sciences to their advantage, they built on student community feelings to cut across social divides among youth. From there, they constituted nodal points for the political participation of Muslim groups and opposition parties otherwise paralysed by fear of losing chunks of the Hindu vote.

Students very imperfectly mirror the sociological layering of the country; this becomes evident if we unpack the Indian educational matryoshka. Three fourth of Indians of the age suitable for studying are not enrolled in any higher education programme. Faithful to its historical legacies, the core of the current student agitations originates from the now declining public higher education sector. In fact, less than half of the nearly thousand universities in India are publicly funded and three-fourths of its colleges are privately managed.[34] Further disaggregation reinforces the picture: the backbone of the initial protests originated from three centrally funded universities teaching mostly social sciences and hosting a significant share of postgraduate students. Eighty percent of Indian students are however enrolled at ungraduated levels, less than five percent of universities are funded by the federal state and barely three percent of the country’s students study political, social and economic subjects.

In any case, politically driven educated youth who are part of coordination committees, students’ unions and other activist networks are numerically limited and informed by previous political experiences. Acting independently at times, political students are more often than not linked with parental political parties, community organisations and civil groups.[35] Core organising committees of students in charge of coordinating student protests in various cities are also vicariously divided along ideological lines. A member of an Islamic student organisation active in the Jamia Coordination Committee (JCC) – a temporary structure that emerged in the aftermath of the police violence against protesting students in the Muslim-dominated Jamia Milia Islamia – acknowledges the uneasy entente struck with Left groups:

You have to defeat an enemy, so you need to keep your agenda minimum. It is not about compromise, it is about strategy. You have to get everybody with you. It is not as if you are compromising your ideals, whatever idea we have we are keeping it, we have a lot of differences with left people, we have a lot of differences with secular people […] without compromising those differences, we are ready to work together because there is an urgency. We are keeping all our differences with the left people but we are working together right now.

Considering this uneven assemblage, how are these fragments of youthfulness coalescing into a potent oppositional block in coalition with other sections of the civil society such as Muslim communities? The answer emerges when examining how the discourse that elevated these fragmented collectives into incarnations of the popular has tapped into similar unmediated and media-savvy incarnations of the people – otherwise outspread by their archenemy. Mobilised students represent the future of India; by enacting this metaphor, protestors subverted the content of patriotic idioms, pluralised voices by claiming that “everyone is the leader” and reclaimed the identity of India as a multi-community structure with equal rights rather than glorifying one part (the Hindu fold) as the whole. 

New Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, where a handful of student activists successfully ignited the mobilisation of Muslim residents, female and male alike, is an illustration of the popular capture by students of metaphors of the nation. On the then occupied few highway lanes that connect New Delhi with one of its main employment pool, a neon-cum-iron structure representing India was erected, flaunting the aphorism ham bharat ke log (we the people of India). Worded after the preamble of the Indian constitution, it convoked an object of pride, while enabling non-ideological, Leftist and Islamic-leaning participants to interpret the values they most cherish: secularism or Muslim dignity. Reflecting on the constitution preamble displayed in front of the gate of New Delhi’s Jamia Milia Islamia, a JCC member admits that the ambiguity over the meaning of the constitution as text and symbol was purposefully mobilised by organisers:

If you say “save the constitution”, it is included that the things, the content of the constitution is indirectly going to be sent. All the content is going to be sent indirectly. So why we go to select one topic. I am going to save the secularism, I am going to save that right…[instead]…I am going to save the all constitution, I am going to save the idea of India on which Mahatma Gandhi built the narrative against these RSS thinkers, I am going to save that thing. I am going to save the work of Bhim Rao Ambedkar, that is the all narrative… others, Bhagat Singh, Jauhar [Mohammad Ali Jauhar], the founder of Jamia Milia Islamia, freedom fighters, the founders of this university are also freedom fighters, this university emerges from the non-cooperation movement against the British rule, colonial rule.

Gravitating around the centripetal emblems of the constitution, other tokens of nationalist expression were successfully mobilised by students. These include the national anthem, the flag, the Indian map, the freedom struggle, as well as a range of pious declarations of patriotism by self-labelled desh bhakts (devotees of the country). The following declaration by a former left student leader of Jawaharlal Nehru University is particularly telling:

Jana Gana Mana Adhinayaka [national anthem] is being defined by the people of India, at Jama Masjid, Delhi. It is the Jan [people], Gan [masses] that determine their own fate, future and character of the nation. The people are their own Adhinayaka [leader], not those with power. When the government is merely power and not representation of people of the land, the spirit of freedom struggle is reborn. Resist CAA-NRC-NPR!

Figure 3. Posters, placards and banners from three sites of student mobilisation in New Delhi: Jamia Millia Islamia, Jantar Mantar et India Gate. The pre-independence young freedom fighter and student activists’ icon Bhagat Singh is displayed on the two lower images. Transation of the couplet by Faiz on the bottom left image: “The way someone goes to get martyrdom. That glory remains safe. This life comes and goes. This life indeed doesn’t matter.” Photos by author

The emergence of participating students as a statement of the popular was enabled by their capacity to act as “generational communities,” that is networked cohorts of educated youth activating differential experiments of the larger polity.[36] Such differential experiences of youthhood in India are increasingly shaped by the Modi government’s ambition to identify politicised centrally-funded universities as the enemies within. Championing delegative interpretations of Indian democracy,[37] the ruling party scapegoats non-Hindutva engaged students in order to further mobilisation in favour of the Hindu nationalist leader, using electoral authorisation of elections as a way to annihilate democratic accountability.[38] On the re-election night of Modi as Prime Minister, the current Home Minister declared that such students were antinationals, which he names as tukre-tukre (break into pieces) gang: Ye vijay tukra tukra gang ki vichardhara ke khilaf shuddh rashtravad ke vijay ka, ye vijay pratik hai (This is a victory against the ideology of the ‘break into pieces’ gang, it is the victory of pure nationalism, this victory is the symbol of that).[39] A few days later, further clarification was issued by the national general secretary of the ruling party, who compared them to a cartel: “Under Modi-II, the remnants of that cartel need to be discarded from the country’s academic, cultural and intellectual landscape.[40]

Sustaining the popular wave

Embodiments of the popular by students can be read as a subversion of the populist narrative of the real people against the corrupt, antinational elites who have been in power since Modi’s Prime-Ministerial election in 2014. As contributing factors, generational communities within campuses were the first to protest as they hosted small batches of politicised individuals who could gather biographically available peers. Police repression triggered overwhelming sympathy and convinced other students around the country to mobilise, pushed by what a former student leader calls a community feeling: “There is a community feeling you know. Like caste. You are young, you feel connected to those attacked. 61 percent are young [across the country], no-one wants to be the enemy of youth. JNU, AMU, Jamia, [universities at the forefront of the protests] those might be distant places, but you feel connected to them, that’s why, it’s a community feeling.” Initial student protests seemingly convinced Muslim populations that collective action was possible. On his way back from a political rally in Uttar Pradesh – a state that has witnessed the killing of more than thirty protesters – the aforementioned former student activist declared:

JNU, Jamia types of protest gives him [Muslim] the sense that, educated class, qualified class is protesting against something… our [Muslims] apprehension about that law is correct. We have protested about that law because we are Muslims. No. It is also that even university students are protesting against it which mean it is wrong. And we are right.

As non-hostile media outlets started rallying in favour of students’ interpretation of ‘the people’, campus spaces served as nodal points for the circulation of political strategies, as well as mobilising spots for surrounding university neighbourhoods such as Jamia Nagar in New Delhi. The political ecology of campuses, including their alumni with experiences of politicisation, coordinated calls for action and imported electorally successful idioms from the democratic culture on campus. A student from an Islamic organisation for instance reflects on the way the notion of Islamophobia circulated from one campus to the other, becoming a successful protest epithet along with the nationalist narrative.

The usage of ‘islamophobia’ was not very common in India, mostly coming from Europe and America. But some sections of our people used it. In HCU [Hyderabad Central University] in the last student elections ‘islamophobia’ was in discussion because SIO [Islamic Student Organisation] members were kept out of the alliance [with Dalit and leftist student organizations]. They articulated that through the language of islamophobia, they familiarised people to the use of this language. Most of the left organisations here will not even recognize Muslim organizations, they will say these groups are terrorists’ organizations. At least conservative. So people say it is because of the islamophobia of the left, that is why they are like that. In HCU, they [left] were not ready to go in alliance with a Muslim organization. SFI [Students’ Federation of India] was not ready. People said it is because of islamophobia of the left. They are saying they are fighting with fascists, but at the same time the first victim of fascists are Muslims, and they are not even ready to have an alliance with Muslim groups, that’s a pretty Islamophobic thing. X and Y [names anonymised] were raising that slogan, using that language. It becomes common now.

The circulation of activists’ mobilisational idioms from experienced participants to newcomers has been steady and farfetched, enabling large pockets of political learning to be formed across the city landscape. This is particularly true for those women for whom the first call for joining one of the dharnas was initiated by (usually male) relatives in touch with student activists, or by student activists themselves through house-to-house campaigning. For instance, a girl studying in Class 8 (13-14 years old) indicates that it is her brother, a PhD student from Delhi University who asked her to join. Additionally, an activist from a feminist student organisation stresses the role of one of her particularly proactive colleagues in convincing people to join the sit-in of Hauz Rani in South Delhi: “She has a strong personality. She went door-to-door. She could not sleep for two nights. She stayed up for two nights, and the people came to like her because of her nature and everything.” Irrespective of the way incipient participation is initiated, protesting adolescents stressed how much they were learning politically along with their close kinship and friends. A volunteer in the final year of secondary school (17-18 years old) in the same protest site stresses her new political awareness, while another volunteer, in eleventh standard (16-17 years old), emphasises the importance of activist role models in her articulation and learning about Indian society.

Before we were not giving a shit about anything, now we are trying to educate people, we are trying to educate ourselves, what is going around. Everyone is more curious now, what is happening, what is the government doing. We are learning from students, from leaders, from social media. (Zulfa, 2 February)

Before I didn’t have those points, strong points, now I have them. There are you know, so many personalities which come here, and I have got the chance to meet them, talk to them, it was an immense honour to meet them, Umar Khalid [former student activist in JNU] came here […] I will join a student organization…I have not decided which one because my first dream was MBBS [a standard university medical degree]. I was just working hard from 9 to 11 for it. […] I am more interested in the left. AISA [All India Students’ Association]. I have met X [anonymized] didi [sister, here affectionately refers to an older female], they have become my friends. (Thamra, 4 February)

Before we were not giving a shit about anything, now we are trying to educate people, we are trying to educate ourselves, what is going around. Everyone is more curious now, what is happening, what is the government doing. We are learning from students, from leaders, from social media. (Zulfa, 2 February)

Before I didn’t have those points, strong points, now I have them. There are you know, so many personalities which come here, and I have got the chance to meet them, talk to them, it was an immense honour to meet them, Umar Khalid [former student activist in JNU] came here […] I will join a student organisation…I have not decided which one because my first dream was MBBS [a standard university medical degree]. I was just working hard from 9 to 11 for it. […] I am more interested in the left. AISA [All India Students’ Association]. I have met X [anonymised] didi [sister, here affectionately refers to an older female], they have become my friends. (Thamra, 4 February)

Indubitably, the network of student activists across universities is limited and so it is feasible that it may be curbed by the state and university administrations around the country. However, the set of metaphors triggered by the protests was particularly resilient as it enabled the collation of the patriotic ideals of the people with gender-equal, non-violent and future-oriented representative claims, which in turn attract the support of regional political parties. This can be best summarised by the ground activist report Unafraid, which presents accounts of female student activists in New Delhi after the police crackdown in Jamia Milia Islamia: “We hope the testimonies of these women tell us, and tell the state, that you cannot silence the unafraid voices of India’s future.”

The waning of the popular

Three months after its inception, the movement encountered one internal and two external obstacles that gradually led to its demise in its current form. First, profound political and strategic disagreements among protest organisers engendered a proliferation of dharnas, leading to the fragmentation of political initiatives, diluting the media focus and exposing ideological rifts. Thus, New Delhi’s Jaffrabad[41] progressively became a marked political offshoot of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (an Islamic cultural and political organisation), while places such as Hauz Rani became more resolutely leftist and feminist, as promoted by the two student groups in charge of daily programmes there. These conflicts among dharnas tended to reroute activists’ efforts towards the daily managements of sit-ins,[42] thus diverting organisational efforts from coordinated and media-geared mass demonstrations. Such inter-dharna tensions were noticeable in the account of a student activist from Jamia Millia Islamia, part of the organisation team of the Hauz Rani site:

This is what is happening with the JCC people. They were men trying to capture the stage, bringing their own people to speak only. Then Deepika [anonymized] said ki [that] no, the women from here should speak. Once the university will start, we all will go back to our places. The movement will be sustained by them, so it should be the people who are living here, who are staying in the protest all the time that should get a chance to speak.

This is what is happening with the JCC people. They were men trying to capture the stage, bringing their own people to speak only. Then Deepika [anonymised] said ki [that] no, the women from here should speak. Once the university will start, we all will go back to our places. The movement will be sustained by them, so it should be the people who are living here, who are staying in the protest all the time that should get a chance to speak.

In addition to generating more scattered and less-visible protest sites, two contextual factors increasingly eroded the public purchase of the patriotic and non-violent paraphernalia of the dharnas. First, the deadly pogroms in North-east Delhi at the end of February – which killed more than 50 people, mostly Muslims – tarnished the non-violent overtone of the sit-ins. Presented in a biased way by many media outlets as an occurrence of communal violence in which neighbouring Muslims took the initiative to recklessly kill Hindus, including a representative of the Indian intelligence services,[43] these pogroms flattered the Hindutva imaginary of Muslims as innately belligerent and vindictive, thus breaking the peaceful overtone of dharnas such as Shaheen Bagh. A JNU activist in charge of the campus student wing of the main opposition party comments on his visits to the sit-ins of Kureji and Jaffrabad in New Delhi:

Neither in Shaheen bagh or the JCC or any other Muslim organisation gave a call for that Jaffrabad metro station protest [where the pogrom started]. Nobody. It was given by the Jamaat section only. Jamaat section actually derailed the whole CAA Shaheen Bagh movement. After that day onwards… the moment BJP and media are able to show that this is a two-sided conflict, you will lose the moral authority of the Gandhian protest. Now go and see Shaheen Bagh, it is dead. Now there won’t be any other Shaheen Bagh. Any protest cannot sustain for always, you have to give a given time, and know when to take it back.

Figure 4. Cover page of a Hindutva propaganda report portraying Shaheen Bagh’s female participants as violent rioters taking active part in the February killings in northeast of New Delhi. In the title danga means riot in Hindi. See note 44.

As the national political focus began to drift away from the symbolic of non-violence advocated by protesters of Shaheen Bagh, progressively replaced by the less flattering framework of co-instigated communal riots, weariness and fear of state-enabled repression continued to grow among protesters, while pro- and para-government commentaries accusing students and participants of violence intensified.[44] On March 7, a volunteer active in several dharnas acknowledged widespread exhaustion among protesters: “there is a fatigue, people are more afraid.” In the wake of this decline in mobilisation, the lockdown imposed by India as part of the global health threat posed by the Covid-19 (SARS-CoV-2 virus) brought the movement to an end, at least temporarily. In such a context, multiple calls, including those of fierce supporters of the mobilisation advocated the halt of the sit-ins. For instance, a former Muslim left activist from JNU appealed on social networks to the organisers of Shaheen Bagh, asking them to stop their protests:

We must listen to the situation, with attention, intelligence and sensitivity to the events that have unfolded throughout the world due to the pandemic of Covid-19 virus. Applying our inner logic we should act accordingly. I request the organizers of the nationwide dharnas on the lines of Shaheen Bagh, to halt them till we deal with this extraordinary situation. The threat is real. The world is watching us.

Three days later, in the early hours of March 24, major dharnas in New Delhi such as Shaheen Bagh were dispersed by the police, which chased and arrested the few demonstrators who had remained there. In times when confinement is the new worldwide policy watchword, the public nature of the dharnas had become an official threat to citizens’ health, delegitimising large scale gatherings while granting additional executive authority to head of states.[45]

Suring those 100 days of protest – and despite the demise of the movement – the ideational conglomerate of vocal opponents to the new citizenship law has propelled the students as the unlikely unelected face of the opposition in India’s democracy, demonstrating that the popular is more than capable of subverting the populist. The politicisation of generational communities structured around a handful of India’s public universities in the social sciences suggests that activists’ core mobilisation structures and networks will continue to exist in a state of abeyance,[46] constituting potential nodal points for future anti-Hindutva mobilisations looming on the democratic horizon of the country.


This article has retraced the journey of an impactful social mobilisation, which struck a dynamic political contest through claiming the representation of the people, opposing a populist leadership through the invocation of a popular modality. The political effectiveness of the student-spearheaded coalition in challenging a law that further ratifies the division of Indian polity on religious lines did not rely uniquely on its oppositional stand. Somewhat paradoxically, the success of the protesters in mobilising around popular tropes did not mainly build on an anti-Modi narrative. It rested instead on a derivative discourse[47] of nationhood, relying on its imitation of the patriotic appeal of the nationalist government at the centre while emptying it of its majoritarian substance.

This finding can be read in two concurrent ways. First, this indicates that in the current Indian context nationalism can be ‘detached’ from so-called nationalist politicians. This ‘ism’, particularly enduring in postcolonial societies[48] is hence not bound to be monopolised by the tenets of the currently dominant Hindu nationalist paradigm, but can be effectively ‘re-captured’ by its historical rivals, by drawing from a larger repertoire of patriotic idioms running from the independence struggle till date. Yet, protesters’ discursive and tactical appropriation of a floating signifier such as nationalism signals the deepening of the ideational shift of Indian politics towards a stand of identity politics primarily endorsed by the current ruling party. In such an environment, the secular argument alone is not potent enough to contend widespread majoritarianism. The collective decision to subvert rather than attack the language of patriotism flaunted at the top indicates that the existing state narrative might be becoming increasingly paradigmatic, structuring for the foreseeable future[49] the political imagination of contemporary India.

When considering the organisational aspects of the protests, small communities of politicised students demonstrated their ability to be political fast-movers, serving both as initiators and early adopters of social movements. It is the common threat to the rights of the Muslims in India that fuelled participation of noncollective actors,[50] mostly less politicised cohorts of youth from Muslim and Hindu liberal sections. Yet, the ability of student activists to trigger high-risk proto-mobilisations proved necessary to constitute rallying points for the multitude[51]of aggrieved groups and individuals, eventually facilitating the convergence of passive networks[52] of shared indignation.


[1] Aiyar, Yamini. 2020. “Remaking the Idea of Who Is ‘Indian.’” Seminar 725(1):5–18.

[2] BBC reporter. 2020. “Shaheen Bagh: Coronavirus Clears Long-Running India Citizenship Protest.” BBC News, March 24.

[3] Martelli, Jean-Thomas and Garalytė, Kristina. 2020. “How Campuses Mediate a Nationwide Upsurge Against India’s Communalization. An Account from Jamia Millia Islamia and Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi.” SAMAJ: South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal 22.

[4] For a definition of the term popular, see Pandey, Gyanendra. 2005. “Notions of Community: Popular and Subaltern.” Postcolonial Studies 8(4):409–19.

[5] Laclau, Ernesto. 2007. “Why Do Empty Signifiers Matter to Politics?” Pp. 36–47 in Emancipation(s), Radical thinkers. London: Verso.

[6] Rajagopal, Arvind. 2016. “The Counterrevolution Will Be Televised: On the Current Crisis of Indian Universities.” Los Angeles Review of Books, May 5.

[7] See pp.1-40 in Urbinati, Nadia. 2019. Me the People: How Populism Transforms Democracy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

[8] C.f. pp.129-120 in Urbinati, Nadia. 2014. Democracy Disfigured: Opinion, Truth, and the People. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

[9] Mignolo, Walter D. 2005. “On Subalterns and Other Agencies.” Postcolonial Studies 8(4):381–407.

[10] Lloyd, David. 2005. “The Subaltern in Motion: Subalternity, the Popular and Irish Working Class History.” Postcolonial Studies 8(4):421–37.

[11] See p.45 in Ankersmit, F. R. 1996. Aesthetic Politics: Political Philosophy beyond Fact and Value. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

[12] Lavau, Georges E. 1981. A Quoi Sert Le Parti Communiste Français? Paris: Fayard.

[13] Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 2005. “Scattered Speculations on the Subaltern and the Popular.” Postcolonial Studies 8(4):475–86.

[14] Ibid, p.481

[15] Frank, Ankersmit. 2019. “Synecdochical and Metaphorical Political Representation Then and Now.” Pp. 231–54 in Creating political presence: the new politics of democratic representation, edited by D. Castiglione and J. Pollak. Chicago, US; London, UK: The University of Chicago Press.

[16] See p.50 in Brubaker, Rogers. 2020. “Populism and Nationalism.” Nations and Nationalism 26(1):44–66.

[17] C.f., pp.3-4, Canovan, Margaret. 1999. “Trust the People! Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy.” Political Studies 47(1):2–16.

[18] Laclau, Ernesto. 2005. “Populism: What’s in a Name?” Pp. 32–50 in Populism and the mirror of democracy, edited by F. Panizza. London, UK; New York, NY: Verso.

[19] Pollock, Sheldon. 1993. “Rāmāyaṇa and Political Imagination in India.” The Journal of Asian Studies 52(2):261–97.

[20] Brubaker, Rogers. 2020. “Populism and Nationalism.” Nations and Nationalism 26(1):44–66.

[21] Wimmer, Andreas. 2008. “Elementary Strategies of Ethnic Boundary Making.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 31(6):1025–55.

[22] See p.38, Laclau, Ernesto. 2005. “Populism: What’s in a Name?” Pp. 32–50 in Populism and the mirror of democracy, edited by F. Panizza. London, UK; New York, NY: Verso.

[23] Brubaker, Rogers. 2020. “Populism and Nationalism.” Nations and Nationalism 26(1):44–66.

[24] C.f. p.48, Laclau, Ernesto. 2005. “Populism: What’s in a Name?” Pp. 32–50 in Populism and the mirror of democracy, edited by F. Panizza. London, UK; New York, NY: Verso.

[25] See chapters 4 and 5 in Mankekar, Purnima. 1999. Screening Culture, Viewing Politics: An Ethnography of Television, Womanhood, and Nation in Postcolonial India. Durham, UK: Duke University Press.

[26] Punny, E P. 2020. “Business as Usual by E P Unny, January 2020.” The Indian Express, January. Retrieved March 6, 2020 (

[27] Singh, Mohinder, and Rajarshi Dasgupta. 2019. “Exceptionalising Democratic Dissent: A Study of the JNU Event and Its Representations.” Postcolonial Studies 22(1):59–78.

[28] In January 2020, Delhi comprised a small dozen mobilization sites. The main ones were located in Aazaad Market, Chand Bagh, Hauz Rani, Inderlok, Seelampur, Shaheen Bagh, Shahi Eidgah and Turkman Gate.

[29] As a method of mobilization, dharnas along with protests were usually preferred to bandhs (general strikes) and gheraos (picketing).

[30] Hindutva (roughly translatable as ‘Hinduness’) refers to the family of organizations professing a Hindu-centric ethno-nationalism.

[31] The 1974 “JP movement” led by students and youth at large protested against corruption and the doubling price of food grain in Bihar. Kent Carrasco, Daniel. 2016. “Jayaprakash Narayan and Lok Niti : Socialism, Gandhism and Political Cultures of Protest in XX Century India.” Ph.D., King’s College London.

[32] Among them we can mention Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Milia Islamia, Hyderabad Central University, University of Hyderabad, Osmania University, Jadavpur University, Presidency University, University of Allahabad and Aligarh Muslim University.

[33] Strang, David, and Sarah A. Soule. 1998. “Diffusion in Organizations and Social Movements: From Hybrid Corn to Poison Pills.” Annual Review of Sociology 24(1):265–90.

[34] Ministry of Human Resource Development. 2019. All India Survey on Higher Education 2018-2019. New Delhi: MHRD.

[35] Martelli, Jean-Thomas. 2020. “The Spillovers of Competition: Value-based Activism and Political Cross-fertilization in an Indian Campus.” SAMAJ: South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal 22.

[36] Generational communities are defined as “ascriptive or self-selected communities in which a set of networked and youthful cohorts are engaged, directly or indirectly with formal or informal education. Their distinctiveness lays in their production at the micro-level of ways of collective thinking, grids of understandings, framing interpretations and positional engagements with key macro socio-political turns.” See p.2 in Martelli, Jean-Thomas and Garalytė, Kristina. 2020. “Generational Communities: Student Activism and the Politics of Becoming in South Asia.” SAMAJ: South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal 22.

[37] O’Donell, Guillermo A. 1994. “Delegative Democracy.” Journal of Democracy 5(1):55–69.

[38] Urbinati, Nadia. 2019. “Political Theory of Populism.” Annual Review of Political Science 22(1):111–27.

[39] Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). 2019. Shri Amit Shah’s Address to BJP Karyakarta [Workers] at BJP HQ. New Delhi. Retrieved March 6, 2020 (

[40] Madhav, Ram. 2019. “This Election Result Is a Positive Mandate in Favour of Narendra Modi.” The Indian Express. Retrieved March 6, 2020 (

[41] This neighbourhood is located next to Chand Bagh and Mustafabad in North-east Delhi.

[42] Karnad, Raghu. 2020. “Farewell to Shaheen Bagh, as Political Togetherness Yields to Social Distance.” The Wire, March 24.

[43] Times of India Reporter. 2020. “Delhi Violence: Autopsy Report Shows over 200 Injuries on IB.” The Times of India, February 28.

[44] Following are sections of one of the ‘reports’ issued by the pro-government propaganda in the aftermaths of New Delhi pogroms: “ISIS [acronym of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria organization] type of brutal killings point[s] towards links across the border [refers to Pakistani ‘ennemy’]. [p.2] […] The Delhi riots are not genocide or a pogrom targeted at any community. They are a tragic outcome of a planned and systematic radicalization of the minorities by a Far left-Urban Naxal [groupe armé d’obédience Maoïste] network operating in Universities in Delhi. [p.45] […] There are a large number of victims belonging to Scheduled Caste communities [i.e. way to suggest that victims are not Muslims but lower caste Hindus]. [p.46] […] Locals in areas as far as Chand Bagh and Malviya Nagar have reported the presence of women students from JNU who were constantly instigating crowds in these areas over a period of weeks before 23 February 2020. […] The Anti CAA [the new citizenship law] protestors from sidelanes came on roads, accompanied by armed Jehadi mobs who targeted the Delhi Police and civilians alike [p.47].” in Group of Intellectuals and Academicians (GIA). 2020. Delhi Riots 2020: Report from Ground Zero. New Delhi.

[45] Jaffrelot, Christophe. 2020. “L’Inde à l’heure Du Coronavirus : Une Bombe à Retardement Globale ?” Institut Montaigne.

[46] Taylor, Verta. 1989. “Social Movement Continuity: The Women’s Movement in Abeyance.” American Sociological Review 54(5):761.

[47] Chatterjee, Partha. 1993. Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[48] Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London, UK: Verso.

[49] Chhibber, Pradeep, and Rahul Verma. 2019. “The Rise of the Second Dominant Party System in India: BJP’s New Social Coalition in 2019.” Studies in Indian Politics 7(2):131–48.

[50] Bayat, Asef. 2010. Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East. Amsterdam, NL: Amsterdam University Press.

[51] Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. 2005. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York, USA: Penguin Books.

[52] Bayat, Asef. 2017. “Is There A Youth Politics?”. Middle East – Topics & Arguments 9 (December), 16-24.

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