Know your place

Urvashi Butalia | Updated on October 16, 2020

In a spot: The Supreme Court verdict gives more power to the State to regulate democratic dissent   -  THE HINDU/ SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

The apex court’s ruling on designated spots for protests marks a new low in the equation between the State and its people

Even infants know, by some kind of imbibed knowledge, that if they want to attract the attention of their parents, they need to howl.

They also know that the most effective kind of howling is in the presence of the parent. When parents are over-attentive to guests, infants and children howl louder, disrupt conversations, and demand attention through the only means to get it.

Now imagine if a parent told an infant, “No, you can’t cry here; go off into that corner and cry in your designated space.”

Most parents don’t do that, though — some may do and some may use other, often violent methods. But most of them accept the howling and crying for what it is — a demand, a need, a plea, a protest. And one that recognises the relationship between the two entities — the parent and the child — that is built on the more powerful one acknowledging and respecting the needs of the less powerful one.

At the heart of the parent-child relationship lies a well-known truth: That the needs, the demands are legitimate, and it is right to express them. The parent may not always be in a position to provide everything, but at least they can do what they can.

The relationship between a State and its citizens is not quite that of a parent and child, but we can perhaps draw parallels. The State is powerful, but in a democracy that power is tempered. It is given in trust to the State by its citizens. In return, the State acts on behalf of the citizens; and when citizens perceive it to be unfair, or unjust, they protest and place their demands in front of the State.

The modes of protest can be many and varied — black armbands, strikes, work stoppages, human chains, songs, protest poetry, and all those words that have found their way into our vocabulary: Dharnas, gheraos, bandhs and more. What gives these protests value and power is that they are public, they have to be seen and heard.

But now our judges have decided otherwise. We must, the Supreme Court ruled on October 7, go to designated spaces. The judgment was passed on a batch of petitions seeking the removal of Shaheen Bagh protesters.

Who designates these spaces? The very same people we are protesting against? So if I want to protest the gruesome rape and murder of a young Dalit woman in Hathras, I must first go to the police (but they didn’t even allow her mother to see her body, so how can I trust them?) and ask them to designate a place.

What if they ask me to stand in the dark under a bridge in a corner of Delhi? I could be standing there indefinitely and no one would care. The judges have also ruled that we can’t protest indefinitely, so what then are my options?

Like many citizens of this country, I find it difficult to believe that such a direction — that citizens can only protest in designated places — could have come from the highest court in what is meant to be a democracy. If ever there was a sign that there is no hope at all, it is this.

I recall our protests in Delhi when I was young. We walked up to the Boat Club at India Gate and, then, a delegation would go on to the houses of Parliament, meet the official concerned and hand over a list of demands.

Sometimes, officials came to see us and tried to explain themselves. They were listened to, often heckled. But the important thing is that there was engagement.

I recall a protest at the British High Commission when we took busloads of women to speak against those dreadful things called virginity tests. We scaled the walls, went in, demanded to see the high commissioner and raised a stink. Our protest was effective.

Then the State became fearful of its people, new lines were drawn and a place designated: Jantar Mantar. Protesters improvised: They walked to the venue and this walk became a form of protest in itself, with Jantar Mantar as the end point.

Often, at the end of the protest, we would be euphoric. Even if nothing had been gained, we had at least engaged, we’d made our voices heard, we’d convinced a handful of people, and we had worked collectively, bonding with hundreds of others.

In an odd kind of way, these engagements, especially when they elicited a State response, brought us closer to the very entity we were opposing. It was our State, we had a right on it. We would fight it, and we’d own it.

All that is history. Today, the apex court has shown that citizens are enemies who threaten the sovereignty of the State. Best then to show them their place, a designated one where they can protest till they’re blue in the face.


Urvashi Butalia is an editor, writer and director of Zubaan;


Published on October 15, 2020

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