Shades of freedom: Streets ahead

P Anima | Updated on August 10, 2018

Slogan zone: Jantar Mantar was reinstated as the country’s protest central by the Supreme Court in July this year. Kamal Narang   -  BusinessLine

Why public protests will never go out of fashion even in an age of social media activism

The cacophony of overlapping rhetoric is back at Jantar Mantar. Ten months after the National Green Tribunal (NGT) silenced the country’s protest central, and a fortnight after the Supreme Court (SC) reinstated it, Jantar Mantar in the Capital is throbbing with voices. The scene is albeit smaller, with more police bandobast and fewer protesters. On a muggy August afternoon, hundreds of senior citizens from Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra are demanding minimum pension. There are several speakers on the makeshift podium, while rows of elderly men and women in Gandhi caps sit listening, occasionally rising up to disagree. Sushma Yadav and Saroj Khan, both former workers at a watch assembly unit, had arrived in the morning from Betul, Madhya Pradesh. “Some of us get ₹750, others ₹800 a month. We are here to demand minimum pension,” says Khan. “Most of us are over 60 and have worked in different sectors,” says Yadav. On being told the protest venue would have been shut to them a few days ago, Khan asks: “If not here where would we put forth our problems?”

Within earshot of Parliament and Rashtrapati Bhavan, Jantar Mantar was long a hub of dissent until the NGT stepped in, citing noise pollution and inconvenience to the neighbourhood. After an appeal by Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) and other organisations, the SC upheld the citizen’s right to protest, calling it crucial in a democracy.

“Public places for protest are extremely important for a democracy,” says social activist and MKSS functionary Aruna Roy. “It is a place for anyone who believes they are not getting justice to come and make their case,” she adds.

Jantar Mantar is a veritable microcosm, where the language, issue and mode of protest change every few steps. So you have men and women on a three-day relay hunger strike, demanding the SC/ST Atrocities Act be included in the ninth schedule. Nearby is another sloganeering group demanding special status for Andhra Pradesh; elsewhere someone is holding forth on greater recognition for Bhojpuri. The Youth Congress is protesting, so too are taekwondo athletes who have been “denied entry” to the Asian Games. All of them are ringed by yellow barricades and police officials. Exchanges unfold on the sidelines as well, as protesters break for coffee, snacks, or small buys from vendors — a hand fan, a travel bag, an ATM card holder, a toothbrush. His bag of goods slung over his shoulder, seller Kisan Lal, a fixture at Jantar Mantar for close to 10 years, returned to the venue along with the protesters on August 1.

The big protests — be it the anti-corruption movement, December 16, Not In My Name, #MeToo, or the farmer’s march — have culminated at popular venues such as Jantar Mantar, Azad Maidan in Mumbai, Brigade Parade ground in Kolkata or the Marina beach in Chennai. In March, 50,000-odd farmers walked into public consciousness when they covered the 180 km from Nashik to Mumbai over five days, in searing heat and on blistered feet, to vent their distress. “The way the Kisan Long March captured the imagination of the people will spur future protests,” says Vijoo Krishnan, joint secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), which organised the march. “Whenever a government is seen as insensitive, protests will become inevitable. Some modes of protest are time-tested. However, nothing works without the masses. Mass mobilisation is at the heart of a struggle’s success,” says Krishnan.

For the farmers’ march, the AIKS had mobilised support through village-level campaigns, pamphlets and meetings. “The village units are our life cell,” says Krishnan. But it broke the mould when it reached out and impacted newer sections through social media and brought together disparate but aggrieved people. “We convey the message of protest innovatively through street theatre and songs, and social media takes it to a section that has hitherto been indifferent to these movements,” adds Krishnan. Even as large sections of the mainstream media initially looked away, social media managed to catapult the Kisan Long March into international consciousness. “We were covered largely by the Marathi media the first two days,” he says. Soon, however, images of the farmers navigating treacherous ghat roads on blistered feet grabbed eyeballs. Krishnan sees more protests gathering steam as the distressed come together. “There is a new wave as diverse groups are forging issue-based unity. After the Mandsaur firing, almost 193 organisations came together to take up the issue of remunerative prices and debt relief for farmers,” he says.

In the offing is a Long March of the Dispossessed later this year, bringing together farmers, labourers and others to force Parliament to discuss the crisis in the countryside. “Sections of the academia and the scientific community have expressed solidarity with it,” says Krishnan.

As social media whips up its own storms, hashtags and movements, Roy asserts there is no substitute for public protests, thanks to its open-ended nature. “There are no curtains, no walls, no doors. The right to information campaign spread because of the open-ended nature of protest,” she says. A march has its trajectory. It spurs curiosity, then engages and involves. “It first draws attention because it irritates. People are irritated that you are marching, you are a traffic hazard. Then they watch and ask questions. At this point we distribute pamphlets with telephone numbers to reach us. People respond in many ways. Some join, others try to understand it better and gather perspectives from newspapers,” says Roy. Public protests evolve and aim to resolve issues. It will never be redundant, she asserts. “It stays.”

Published on August 10, 2018

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