In its 70th year, the Indian Republic lies battered and bruised in Intensive Care, gasping for breath, its lungs congested with noxious toxins and one can only hope that its brain is still alive.

Many who have been following events in the country since 2014 have been disquieted and ill at ease with the direction in which we are headed but the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has brought the miasma of despair to the surface. The visuals of the violent attacks on students in Jamia and Jawaharlal Nehru University were seen by all on live television and even those who would usually prefer to stay silent have been compelled to say that something is indeed rotten in the State of India.

As citizens’ protests mushroom across the country in opposition to the CAA and its adjunct the National Register of Citizens, Shaheen Bagh has become the metaphor for constitutional Gandhian protest. By appropriating the so-called symbols of nationalism, the Tricolour, the Preamble and the National Anthem, citizens led by Muslim women have asserted their identity as Indian citizens who will not tolerate any effort to divide or discriminate on religious particularity.

That the protests have stayed, but for a few stray incidents, peaceful and nondenominational, is testimony to their commitment to democracy and a telling rebuff to the Islamophobic diatribe being unleashed by the top echelons of the ruling dispensation. Even as the Prime Minister identified the rioters by ‘the clothes they wear’, Muslim women, covered in their veils and hijabs, articulate a progressive and secular syntax, making a mockery of his claim.

The ‘chronology’ of the CAA, National Population Register and the NRC has been explained by the Home Minister unequivocally. Inspite of some strategic back footing by the Prime Minister, his words have failed to instil confidence in the Muslims, on whose heads hangs the dreaded sword of Damocles, as unlike their Hindu brethren, they will need to prove their Indian citizenship.

Stung by its defeat in Jharkhand and deprived of government formation in Mumbai, Shah, BJP’s defacto Party President had identified Shaheen Bagh as the focus of his party’s electoral agenda for the just concluded Delhi Assembly polls.

Sharjeel Imam’s ‘seditious’ video made viral by the BJP’s ‘ cyber yodhas’ upped the communal ante. He is the newly discovered member of the “tukde tukde” gang. Ironically the Home Ministry has already disclaimed any knowledge of the existence of this infamous gang. Unlike former JNU Students Union president Kanhaiya, Sharjeel is neither a student leader nor does he have any political affiliations. Although a volunteer there, the Shaheen Bagh women paid little heed to his advice of suspending their agitation, so minimal was his influence. Yet, his appeal in Aligarh calling Muslims to unite and “cut off” Assam to send out a strong message to the Government to address the issues of Muslims there had the Home Minister declare him as “more dangerous than Kanhaiya”. That the “cut off” could have referred to a ‘blockade’ rather than ‘secession’ has been conveniently obscured. Whether one agrees with Sharjeel or not, his views are his own and he is emphatic in his advocacy of nonviolent protest.

Sharjeel is a disillusioned Muslim student who has had a lifetime of being at the receiving end of ‘otherization’ and was trying to find/ suggest a way for his community to break out of it. If anything he compels one to ask why a student like him should feel so alienated only on account of his religion. Have our educational institutions failed him, as have the so-called secular parties whom he criticizes? If they had been sincerely committed to the Muslim cause, would the community have been at the bottom of the pile even 72 years after Independence, more demonized and excluded from the political, social and economic mainstream than ever before?

Unfortunately, since Sharjeel is not a political being, his timing was far from perfect. The BJP looking for a face to ‘otherize’ found their man. That he happens to be from the ‘urban naxal breeding ground’ that JNU is made out to be, makes him an even more suitable candidate as it kills two birds with one stone for where else would an anti -national come from but JNU? Or so they would have us believe.

If Sharjeel is the fractured face of alienated Muslim youth, we were confronted with his Hindutva counterpart on Martyr’s Day. Ironically, 72 years later, on the very day that Godse assasinated the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, a teen aged Ram Bhakt opened fire at protestors outside Jamia, in broad daylight and in full view of a police contingent, injuring a Muslim student. He fired the shot in the name of the most revered God of the Hindus, proudly live streaming his dastardly act on social media.

Gopal, nurtured by a right wing ecosystem, hailing from adjoining Uttar Pradesh, Hindutva’s newest laboratory, represents the lumpenization of the rurban youth, especially in the Hindi heartland. Lacking skills and quality education , jobless youngsters like him face a bleak future as unemployment figures keep climbing. Their hopelessness makes them very vulnerable to the continuous propaganda based bombardment on social media which holds the ‘other’, in this case the Muslims, as the raison d’être for their plight. Their alienation is no less real and tragic.

Could it be a mere coincidence that only a day earlier the Minister of State of Finance, Anurag Thakur, had been captured on camera exhorting his audience to perform their national duty and use ‘golis’ to shoot the ‘gaddars’? The Home Minister had similarly talked of expressing ‘anger’, albeit via the EVM, to send ‘currents’ to Shaheen Bagh.

Sharjeel and Gopal could well be mirror images but only in a cracked mirror. The despondency and desperation of dashed hopes unite them but whereas one with the greater maturity of age and education chose to walk the nonviolent path, the Ram Bhakt indoctrinated by the ugly rhetoric of hatred chose the bullet. Two young men whose lives are permanently damaged, as one faces sedition charges in four courts and the other, a juvenile, will also have to face the consequences of his actions. He is equally a victim as he is an aggressor.

But what of the unrepentant Minister whose irresponsible and incendiary slogans could still incite more Gopals? What of his oath on the constitution to protect it, first as a Member of Parliament and then as a cabinet member? He has been let off by our venerable EC with a mild punishment of a temporary ban from campaigning.

Elections come and go. Victories and losses are par for the course. But we need to ask if we, the people of the country, are paying too high a cost as we see more and more provocation, vilification, anger and polarization tear our social fabric asunder. We live in an echo chamber of conflict, chaos and despair. The only glimmer of hope comes from the ongoing citizens’ protests. Will they be able to infuse some much needed oxygen into the body Republic? Or is it already too late to revive it?

Nandita Sehgal is a Jawaharlal Nehru University alumnus and a former civil servant.