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Has space for protests shrunk in democratic India?

Has space for protests shrunk in democratic India?

Globally protests, movements, and campaigns have been powerful instruments for not only seeking political, economic, and social justice but also for spreading awareness and awakening people to a cause.

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Last Updated : 01 June 2024, 05:35 IST
Last Updated : 01 June 2024, 05:35 IST
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The pre-election period when ruling parties often seek another term makes it an opportune time for citizens to draw attention to their unmet demands. This period is also seen as ideal for highlighting the shortcomings of the incumbent government, as illustrated by the farmers’ unrest for adequate agricultural returns. When questioned about their timing, the agitating farmers retorted, “If not now, then when?”

In addition to the longstanding demand for political attention from Manipur, heightened by the atrocities on women, the prolonged unrest for statehood in Ladakh, and the sit-ins over the Citizen (Amendment) Act (CAA), similar sentiments have emerged across India before the elections — this includes agitations by the Marathas, the Rajputs, and the Jats for affirmative action. Additionally, students have been protesting against issues such as question paper leaks, fee hikes, changes in curriculum, and discrimination.

In India, which is a ‘Socialist Secular Democratic Republic’, the liberty of expression is a constitutional right. Raising concerns, expressing dissent, and engaging in civil society movements and people’s campaigns are fundamental to democracy by law. Demonstrations and sit-ins that aim to question policies or prompt governments to come out of their indifference are generally peaceful, and turn disorderly when met with high-handedness or repression.

In today’s world, corporate interests heavily influence political decision-making, and even democratically-elected governments are becoming increasingly opaque and intolerant of public scrutiny. Citizens, who empower elected politicians through their votes, rarely get to participate in or significantly influence decisions made in their name. The space for public dissent has shrunk.

Farmers protest

The farmers’ protests represent a poignant struggle for justice and fair treatment, highlighting the plight of agricultural workers. Despite their essential role in feeding the nation, farmers are grappling with inadequate compensation for their produce. Frustrated by unsuccessful attempts to secure remunerative prices, they took to the streets hoping to amplify their demands for a Minimum Support Price (MSP).

The government's response to such protests has largely been uncompromising. After feeble attempts at talks failed, farmers seeking to march towards Delhi were met with physical barriers and aggressive policing tactics. Such measures have only exacerbated tensions, leaving many farmers still camped at state borders, continuing their fight for justice.

In their 2020-2021 agitation, a substantial and organised group of agitating farmers under the Kisan Samyukta Morcha banner compelled the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance government to retract three contentious farm laws. Though this was a significant victory, farmers’ broader demands, particularly concerning MSP and electricity tariffs, remained unaddressed, leaving farmers in a state of uncertainty and continued struggle.

Power of protest

Globally protests, movements, and campaigns have been powerful instruments for not only seeking political, economic, and social justice but also for spreading awareness and awakening people to a cause. India’s struggle for Independence is a prime example of the impact of sustained non-violent campaigns. Mahatma Gandhi's campaigns, be it Satyagraha for Swadeshi, the Salt March, or the Quit India Movement, galvanised the masses and highlighted the power of peaceful resistance.

The game changer ‘Sampoorna Kranti’ (Total Revolution) movement in the 1970s led by socialist leader Jayaprakash Narain against Emergency had its roots in the ‘Navnirman Andolan’ (reconstruction) students’ movement in Gujarat sparked by a hike in hostel food charges. The radical movement against an entrenched Congress government gave birth to several non-Congress leaders, and led to the formation of the Janata Party government at the Centre.

The recent consecration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya is perceived as the culmination of a decades-long effort highlighted by the Ram Janmabhoomi Rath Yatra campaign organised by the BJP. The movement played a substantive role in shaping public opinion and political discourse around the issue.

There are several examples of significant political and social movements at various points in history, such as the students’ movement in Assam, Punjab, and against the Mandal Commission recommendations, against economic liberalisation reforms, genetically-modified crops, the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the India Against Corruption Movement, and the unrest over CAA that saw a spate of protests in various states and universities.

Loss of voice

Civil society movements during the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime successfully advocated and influenced the enactment of significant rights-based legislation, including the Right to Information Act, the Right to Education Act, the Right to Food Act, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), and amended the Land Acquisition Act, 2013.

The subsequent NDA government continued several schemes such as subsidised rations and the MGNREGA programme, albeit with measured budgetary allocations and alleged implementation delays.

Between 2017 and 2021, Parliament was informed that the government cancelled the registration of 6,677 NGOs for violation of provisions under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010. Later some licenses were revived. The amended rules spell out procedures and conditions for utilising funds for cultural, economic, educational, religious, or social purposes. Many NGOs in advocacy and involved in development, poverty alleviation, literacy, health, and environment, are now grappling with existential challenges. Social groups keen on highlighting issues are increasingly discouraged from holding demonstrations, dharnas, and campaigns.

No space for protests

Academia, social activists, and voluntary organisations expressing a contrary view to the government’s stance increasingly face pressure and risk of being labelled ‘anti-national’ or `seditious’ under draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). The government justifies stringent regulations by citing its concerns over alleged misuse of funds for faith conversion or anti-national activities. However, these measures often stifle legitimate advocacy and movements.

For instance, the Narmada dam agitation has often been dubbed ‘anti-development’ to put down the campaign. Likewise, popular opposition to GM crops has been labelled ‘seditious’. This is in stark contrast to the UPA government’s approach, which included holding public hearings on contentious issues as was done before a decision was made on permission to introduce GM brinjal. The ‘jan sunwai’ (people’s court) led to a moratorium on the commercialisation of GM brinjal seeds.

Earlier, the protest venue at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi would be swarmed with labour unions, associations, displaced and aggrieved people from all parts of India trying to make themselves heard and catch mainstream media attention. In the last few years, however, police permissions for sit-ins have not come in easy, and even if they do, they are only for limited hours. Protestors coming from outside Delhi find it difficult to financially cope with such truncated permissions, which discourages protests.

Coverage of non-political protests and agitations was never a favourite with the mainstream political press, especially the electronic media. But lately, many media outlets have largely abandoned their watchdog role, leading to a near-total lack of coverage of grassroots issues and protests. Common people are central to any democracy, but it seems their coverage depends on their star value.

Highlighting the lack of interest among various sections of people to take to the streets over a cause, senior Supreme Court lawyer Sanjay Parikh, who takes up cudgels for human rights and environmental issues, points out that while the business class has a nexus with the political party in power, there is a general apathy among the middle class and a fear of reprisal which curbs broader public support for protests.

Social media activism

Be that as it may, thinking individuals and groups continue to raise their voice through legal challenges, public speeches, articles, signature campaigns, and social media activism.

Social media activism has transformed the organisation and sustainability of movements, offering an alternative platform for freedom of expression. The Nirbhaya gangrape case exemplifies digital mobilisation leading to widespread participation and immediate public outcry leading to significant legal and social change.

In recent years, the government’s shift in focus to national pride, security, and economic achievements, has diverted attention from equally important issues of unemployment, price rise, and corruption. The emphasis on nationalistic themes such as the construction of the Ram temple, removal of Article 370, and hosting of the G20 summit seems to have overshadowed grassroots discontent.

Protests serve as a vital feedback mechanism for the government on policy impacts. They are not personal attacks. The ability of civil society to express its concerns is crucial for democratic governance and accountability.

(Gargi Parsai is a New Delhi-based senior journalist.)

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

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