A big lesson from a small protest

A big lesson from a small protest

The day I learnt the importance of asking a question

Reuters file photo for representation

How empowering it can be to simply ask a question.

And yet, as a journalist of many years, I had forgotten what great privilege it is to ask a question, assert a right and occupy a space. I had unfortunately taken it for granted.

I had a transformative moment last month, when a few of us showed up at the Indian embassy where we live, during an event on Republic Day.

I had of course shown up as a concerned Indian citizen, similar to those elsewhere in the world – with the aim of registering a protest. I was there, not as a journalist, but as a companion and a compatriot to other passionate and concerned Indians.

There were very few of us – a cute gang made up of academics, researchers, IT folks and a toddler. On an icy morning, the temperature nearing zero degree Celsius, we found ourselves on deserted streets, like many roads in this country are on sleepy Sundays typical of winter.

As we proceeded to our venue, a police vehicle stopped us and demanded to see our identity cards. No problem so far. But at the end of that discussion, our hand-made posters – invested with feeling and conviction – decrying police brutality, internet shutdown, fascism and extolling the virtues of the Indian Constitution, were taken away from us.

This can seem like a routine affair these days in many parts of the world. But I felt as though someone had just hit me in the stomach. It is hard to explain how attached and protective I felt towards those tastefully done placards and colourful scrolls that had transformed into living documents in the few hours that they were alive with possibility.

All of us present had discussed and shared our excitement about how the posters would look; most had made some of our own.

It was only later I realised what this confiscation had put in perspective. How little I had understood about the state of those whose freedoms had been squashed, identities violated and dreams burned.

Cruelly symbolic was also the way the ‘friendly’ policeman – just doing his job – took away our pens to prevent any attempts to make new posters!

It is debatable whether the police had the right to take away our materials. They probably had a right to check (and make a note of) our identities. But they had no right to take away our ‘expressions’. I believe this can be contested, but obviously we are not going to use expensive legal options in order to get back what we lost forever that morning.

The point is, none of us were actually protesting at the time the police intervened. So this was a sort of a preventive step by the police – clearly instructed as per local administration rules and possibly even Indian authorities. We found the police stationed in a number of different places, unusual for an otherwise ‘safe’ country where there are hardly any security checks even during large public events.

It is scarily universal, how police sometimes does not use its discretion on who can potentially be trouble-makers – at best we were wet-behind-the-ears, political protestors with day jobs. Not to mention the toddler in the pram, who got branded as a “naughty little boy” by our non-aggressive policeman.

Although the police effectively robbed us of our enthusiasm that morning, we were glad that we were not formally charged. Most immigrants would want to avoid a situation like that if they can help it.

Fuelled by this sense of unexpected loss and yet optimistic, we strode along till we reached our destination to find more policemen stationed outside the venue.

Some patriotic songs performed by a local indie band floated in the air, flavors of Indian food wafted through the crowd of saree-clad women and men too cold to be outside.

We sought a senior embassy official in the crowd. We introduced ourselves, mentioning that we had travelled from different cities for the event. And that we wanted to talk about the discriminatory citizenship law. In the background, the singer was crooning a recent patriotic song from a Bollywood film. The voice of my friend, straining above the din, was courteous, polite and even hurt as she articulated the concerns we all had about the policies of the government with respect to the new law. The senior official’s expression suddenly changed. Already endowed with a short attention span, as is the wont of many bureaucrats when they meet common folks like us, his glare became icy. He told us not to interrupt his “cultural program” and informed us that we were disturbing him.

At one point during the brief exchange he curtly asked my friend to keep quiet. To put us off, he said we could talk sometime later. But he was unwillingly to engage with us on the eve of Republic Day. Without getting into the details here, suffice to say we made enough attempts at polite engagement.

It is hard to describe what I felt at that point. During interactions with government authorities, one ever so often comes across this kind of high-handed behaviour typical of Indian bureaucrats. As professionals we learn to brush it off. But this was different. I let my friend, several years senior, to do the talking but he was rude enough to make me realise that he was incapable of conducting a conversation. I felt injured. More so for my friend, a minority who had drafted a detailed letter seeking details on how the law would impact her. Her letter when offered was folded away and I do not know what he did with it.

As a group we had not expect much. We just wanted to be heard. It cost this official nothing to be polite. But, the mere act of entertaining a question on the citizenship law was enough to make him feel threatened.

That morning, brought home to me, the importance of asking a question.

We were not physically removed from the premises – after all we were just regular, boring folks. We continued to hang around and speak to others. Some did speak with us, others did not. We had made a point, and stood out to say that the Indian diaspora is not all homogeneous.

Putting ourselves out there, on the street, in the crosshairs of the police and getting shouted down by an embassy official, was indeed a humbling experience. In solidarity, with those braving a harsher winter – one that is unfortunately likely to last long.

(M S Dash is a security analyst)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.


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