A fast that helped people reclaim their space for protests

In the process, Jantar Mantar regained its space for democratic protests which had been ‘lost’ over the years because of police restrictions and encroachments of all hues.Those who were regulars at the protest venue for many years had noticed with dismay how the place had been usurped by the ruling establishment. The police had been implementing a government order requiring protesters to vacate the space before 5 pm.

The protesters from other parts of the country were also facing a lot of difficulties in organising protests in Delhi as they had to stay away from Jantar Mantar during night hours. However, the response to Anna’s fast was so overwhelming that the police could not dare to get the place vacated during night time. In a sense, it was a symbolic victory for the conscientious citizens who believe in peaceful democratic protest. Earlier to Jantar Mantar, the Boat Club ground was providing space for protesters before it was taken away by the authorities. No political party ever objected or tried to regain the space.

“While democracy was expending its base, the space for protest was shrinking”, says Bhupendra Singh Rawat  of the National Alliance for People’s Movement (NAPM).

Anna’s indefinite fast also changed the character of the venue in a big way. After he started the fast, the Jantar Mantar Road did not remain a simple protest street. Over the next  four days, the site turned into a festive ground which resembled a mini-Kumbh.

Here, protesters of all the hues gathered to express their anguish over corruption and all those things which made the lives of common people miserable.  Apart from the middle classes and the elderly, the youth turned up in big numbers. Many of them were taking part in any kind of agitation for the first time, but they were highly articulate and fully involved. This apolitical section of the society played a vital role in the success of the agitation as they had no agenda of their own and remained totally determined and non-violent till the end. The venue was a congregation of an assortment of people. One could see a marketing manager distributing mineral water; an accomplished artist explaining his painting to ordinary people; a blind man being helped by the young; boys and girls from public schools chanting slogans against the state. All these scenes could easily be identified as a part of some self-organised programme by the common people to educate themselves about democratic participation.

Express people’s dissent

The slogans being chanted there had a touch of coloured patriotism with shades of Hindu fundamentalism. Slogans like Vande Mataram and  Bharat Mata ki Jai were repeatedly heard, but it was more reminiscent of the days of freedom than of the Hindutva brigade.

The open space provided by this non-political fight had some other advantages too. One of these was of providing space to all those who wanted to express their dissent. The neglected sections of the people at once grabbed the opportunity. Organisations of Auto-rikshaw drivers, retrenched teachers of government schools in Delhi or that of the contract workers, came over there and marched.

Though, those engaged in the non-political mass mobilisation also had divisions on political lines, they had the maturity of not showing it.  While the team of Arvind Kejriwal, was managing the show, Medha Patkar led  National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements and Swami Agnivesh led Bandhua Mukti Morcha had their differences. Kejriwal’s team had the full faith in Anna’s process. NAPM people said, “The process should not be limited to the Jan Lokpal Bill as it may help the UPA government in the long run.” Medha Patkar too declared that corporate loot of resources is a big source of corruption and it must be added to the agenda. But all the differences were forgotten once the government caved in on the main demands of the agitators. Hazare’s fast and the consequent developments show a completely new trend in Indian politics, that is of an increased strength of  civil society to intervene and negotiate an issue which is essentially in political sphere.

The manner in which the government has conceded to the demand of constituting a joint  committee of civil society and the government to frame legislation on Lokpal, it  only shows the moral weakness of an elected government. No government with an adequate moral power would have done it. The constitution of a joint committee signifies an erosion of power of political parties to negotiate on such issues which are necessary for a democratic process.

The civil society grabbed the opportunity of stepping into a domain which so far belonged to the government and the opposition. It does not augur well for political parties. But then, this agitation has shown that unless they begin to identify with the concerns of the masses, they too will be reduced to that of spectators.

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