A good citizen in Shelton, a small town in the US state of Connecticut, was upset that his town police were not diligent in enforcing the parking regulations in town. So he parked his car illegally in a space reserved for the handicapped and called the police to report his own violation!

You can put that down as a creative form of protest. After all, a protest is meant to draw attention to a cause with the intent to cause a change and so being creative can help. I doubt if one can study whether a particular form of protest is more effective than another. You are not happy with the state of affairs, and therefore protest.

That's what Anders Breivik did in Norway in July 2011 when he decided that he was not happy with the policies of the government in Norway, and not only set off bombs near government offices but took it upon himself to kill 69 young adults in a camp. He admitted to his actions and was looking for a way to explain his manifesto.

That was a terrorist act, of which we have seen many. The various Islamic fundamentalist groups seem to have adopted it as their reason for existence. Breaking down the Bamiyan statues, or idols in the museum at Maldives only establishes their religious feelings but does not prevent new idols. The more dominant reason is political power, perhaps to help establish religious power.

The Maoists too want their view of the world to be adopted and resort to violent means. They may not expect change, but at least a negotiating position. The senas, which protested Valentine's Day in the past, seem to have decided that it is not working and have left those heart-shaped cards alone.

When it strikes a chord

But suicide bombers are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for their cause. Solo protests, such as the one by Breivik, rarely bring about the change they desire, especially when the cause is not necessarily a popular one. Suicide bombers, usually instigated by a group behind them, also seek to cause harm to others in the process and thereby gain attention to their cause. Japanese soldiers, Sri Lankan Tamil rebels, Palestinians, have all used the method in the past.

Sometimes, the actual destruction is not as important as the fear and panic, and so the Irish Republican Army would plant a bomb in a station in London and then call the authorities with minutes to spare. You can imagine the panic as the commuters are evicted from the station and the police desperately search and defuse the bomb while the bomber probably sits in a café across the street sipping coffee.

Even when the solo violent protest is only self-inflicted and does not cause harm to others, it may just capture the headline in the next day's paper and then quickly move to the inner pages while the next protest takes over the headlines. The numerous self-immolations of monks in Vietnam many years ago and currently in Tibet have not overthrown any regimes. But when the Tunisian fruit vendor decided to set himself on fire in protest against the treatment the local officials were dishing out to him, he struck a chord by igniting a latent but deeply felt resentment in his country; it not only overturned his government but also spread further across the region.

Sometimes, it does not seem to matter who is killed. The Afghans managed to have several people killed, to show how passionately they value their holy book, and to protest the disrespect shown by some careless American official.

Of course, the most common form of protest that we see is when people march out onto the streets. Sometimes, they may not be protesting, but only affirming their support for world peace. Then, the commuters protest vocally for having been discomfited. Labour unions, instead, also march with an intent to upset!

Undercurrents

It is time to bring up the subject of fasting. It works if there is a large following for the person/cause, and the person undertaking the fast is regarded well enough for his or her demise to lead to further protests. It worked for Anna Hazare but is slow in getting mass support for Irom Sharmila. Numerous relay fasts take place without anybody batting an eyelid and the fasters not losing any weight. What if fasting is a form of blackmail? Aren't all protests so? Gandhiji, the grand master of fasts, was himself conflicted about it. He insisted they were a form of penance and self-purification, but the British saw him as a wily politician.

The actions that make up the protest are often as interesting and revealing of the undercurrents and feelings, as the stated objectives of the protest.

The Velvet and Rose revolutions in Czechoslovakia and Georgia, respectively, were led by hundreds of citizens camping out in public places. The protestors against the regime of Mr Hosni Mubarak in Egypt made Tahrir Square in Cairo famous; so, the Bahraini authorities decided not to allow the protests to gain significance because of the venue. They broke down the monument that gave Pearl Square its name.

To get back to our story, the man in Shelton had to pay a price for his protest. He had to call the police, reportedly, about twelve times before they responded. When they turned up, the police are said to have used a gun to calm him down. They arrested him because officials said he became combative and was screaming at the police for not doing their job.

Well, who said all protests are successful? You win some and you lose some.

(The author is professor of International Business and Strategic Management at Suffolk University, Boston, US.)

(This article was published on March 11, 2012)
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