Let me begin this with a confession: I’m a bit of a joiner (also, a bit of a leaver; but that is another story). I often join groups, online fora, communities. And protests. The first protest I remember joining was a dharna, or sit-in. We were students in a hostel and there was some cribbing about the quality — and quantity — of food served in the mess. I no longer remember who started it, or how I managed to get involved because I kind of liked the food. But I felt I had to show solidarity with other students who were seriously upset.
So there we were, at lunch time: A few dozen 20-year-old girls sitting on the floor of the corridor leading into the hostel, just outside the mess. We sat in silence facing each other in two neat rows. I read a book. Some girls did their crocheting and sewing, or worked on project reports. The warden noticed, of course. Eventually, we were told to disperse and then reassemble in another room.
In retrospect, I wonder why it was such a quiet, controlled affair. We did not shout slogans or even voice our concerns. Yet, we only had to sit there at lunch time instead of going into the mess to indicate that we were not just hanging out in the corridor but were in a state of protest. What we were doing was breaking the pattern of everyday routines. True, we got a dressing down. The principal expressed disappointment in me, personally — ‘Et tu, Annie?’ etc — and the warden threatened to shut down the hostel altogether. But the point is: We stood or rather sat (which is always the more sensible thing to do) as one, regardless of our individual attitudes to hostel food. And we got our point across with minimum hostility.
That was a first essential lesson in protesting: Thou shalt keep it simple, and visible. Thou shalt not do the daily thing. Thou shalt unnerve authority by not behaving in expected ways.
Most people assume that the average protester is a certain type: A loose clothes-wearing, cloth bag-carrying, barefoot, or sandal-wearing, careless-of-hair-and-nails, aggressive kind of person. They are not entirely wrong. Many protestors are affiliated with rights groups, NGOs, political outfits, and like everybody else, they too try and fit in with the rest of their crowd.
I don’t, but that is because I don’t belong to a real group though I’ve joined a few campaigns now and then. Held a banner at an anniversary of the Bhopal Gas tragedy, asking Dow to take its shit back. Participated in a token one-day fast to express solidarity with fasting activists from Bhopal. Stood still in the midst of disorienting chaos in busy subways or market places as part of Blank Noise’s public interventions against street sexual harassment. Lit candles. Sent off pink undies to the Sri Ram Sena in Karnataka as part of the Pink Chaddi campaign.
In India, there is hardly any respite on the protest front. Every year, tens of thousands of citizens are taking to the streets, or going on the rampage. There was the headline-smashing Gujjar protest in 2008, and the Jet employees protesting at the airport, and anti-China protests led by Tibetans. And before that, there was Nandigram and protests against an OBC quota. An endless succession of protests, each one clamouring for public — and government — attention. Last year was no different.
The much talked about protests included the ones at the Climate Summit in Copenhagen, and since the participating nations — India included — were walking out in protest, the impact was immediate and plain to see.
Nevertheless, 2009 has been an interesting year — a mix of new forms of protest along with tried and tested methods of satyagraha and mass mobilisation.
We heard news of protests in Iran, from the run-up to the presidential election to the announcement of the results. There are continuing protests against the government, which the opposition now describes as a dictatorship. Since there were curbs on media, protesters began to use twitter and cell phones to send word out about the scale of the protests and the backlash. And the world woke up to the power of twitter as a democratic tool.
The other big trend was the phenomenon called ‘slacktivism’, defined as ‘feel-good online activism that has little or no political and social impact’. Blogger Evgeny Morozov describes slacktivism as being particularly suited to a lazy generation that does not want to bother with sit-ins, and the risk of arrest or police brutality.
He’s probably right. I’ve joined dozens of facebook groups that protest everything from child trafficking to the military regime in Burma. But I know that real protests mean real action, in the real world. Particularly in countries like India, where the Internet is not spread wide enough to impact political decisions amongst voters. The Internet does help through a call to arms, though, so word spreads quickly and relatively painlessly. Both the Pink Chaddi and the Blank Noise campaigns, for instance, took off from the Internet, but led to real action in the physical realm.
Last year also marked the 25th anniversary of two great tragedies. Sikh groups in Delhi protested the delay in justice, and earlier, the giving of a clean chit to Jagdish Tytler for his alleged role in the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984. And journalist Jarnail Singh protested by throwing a shoe at home minister P Chidambaram during a press conference.
Survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy held a weeklong protest against government inaction and the 25 year delay in cleaning up toxic waste. Titled ‘Jhoot bole kauwa kaate’ (crow bites him who lies), the campaign set out to expose the lies of political leaders, including Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan who claimed that the water in the hand-pumps and the grounds around the former Union Carbide factory were now safe. Activists prepared a feast using water from their locality, and invited the chief minister and other politicians to come and eat. None of the invitees turned up, it seems.
Kashmir was swept by violent protests in the wake of the alleged murders of two young women in Shopian. The armed forces were accused, and while it isn’t yet clear whether the deaths were murders at all, the commission of enquiry did discover police negligence and several police officers were suspended as a result.
Telangana continues to burn, even as I write. Irom Sharmila’s on-going fast against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Manipur entered its ninth year. That, sadly, hasn’t quite caused the government to blink.
There were protests demanding the release of Dr Binayak Sen who had been in jail for nearly two years, on the charge of being a Naxal supporter. Hundreds of activists and supporters courted arrest in Raipur. Soon after, Dr Sen was released on bail.
Also, in a somewhat incomprehensible and — to my mind, very insensitive — protest, a bunch of parents in Delhi protested the hike in school fees by selling vegetables and shining shoes.
Some protests worked. Some didn’t. But the shape of recent protests has been revelatory. It has taught me that a stereotype is as dangerous to the health of a campaign as it is to a community. Stereotypes feed into prejudice, which complicates an already ignorant social climate with pointed indifference.
Nobody cares if they see you doing what you do all the time, what everyone already expects you to do, you end up becoming a media diversion at best, and a traffic distraction, at worst, like oversized billboards advertising underwear. People look, and then look away.
Nothing harms a protest as much as indifference. Jantar Mantar in Delhi is a case in point. Protestors have been sitting on their neatly hemmed-in patch of footpath for years and years. Hardly anybody notices. Certainly, nobody in the government can be bothered.
It is so in most cities. Administrations usually allow protests only in certain venues — a park or maidan, or a stretch of pavement — which is the best way of containing and neutralising a protest, really. No matter how visible, how colourful and how urgent the protest is, the impact is reduced to nearly nil because the average bystander can only glance at a bunch of protesters in a place where protests happen.
Protests work best when they snap out of the comfortable routine of banner-marches-slogan. Violent protests bring attention easily, but are also easily countered; there is plenty of force and ammunition on the other side. What really helps a cause is to do something new to grab public attention.
And every little bit of attention helps. Marching helps. Shouting and screaming and lying down on the road helps. Writing a poem or a blog might help, although not as much as getting arrested. Throwing shoes definitely helps. Wearing a T-shirt with a message, or handing out a pamphlet helps. Even joining an online forum might help. Because each time you do any of the above, you take a stand. In effect, you declare: “Look, I am not part of this horrible thing going on in our society, and I think it is time we all did something about it.” Which is all a protest is.
This year, one can look forward to at least a few good, visible protests. Telangana is simmering even now and while the center has made soothing noises, for now, any step — forward or back — on the issue of statehood is likely to cause a fresh round of protests.
Chhattisgarh has been in shock for the last few years. At least, those large swathes of displaced citizens seem to have been in shock for they suffered terribly and, thus far, silently. If they do not speak up in 2010, it is unlikely that they will be able to return to their homes, or even salvage their livelihoods. However, with so many guns around, the protests would have to be really innovative and really brave to have much impact.