As a protest captures popular imagination and becomes a topic of conversation in every home, we examine the various facets of dissent
Visuals of an unruly mob, said to be a segment of protesting farmers — a claim denied by farmer groups — storming the Red Fort in the national capital will be etched in minds for years to come. Just as America will not forget anytime soon the invasion of the Capitol, reportedly at the behest of then incumbent president. Protests in Russia, Hong Kong, France – the past few years have seen several movements that have been talked about the world over.
Whatever be the cause — pro-policy or anti-policy, pro-event or anti-event, pro-person or anti-person—outrage resulting into protests is nothing new. Whether the rulers granted it or not, the right to dissent has been seized and implemented to the full since time immemorial.
“Where there is no democracy, there is no contestation, and we should be seriously worried about the health of the country if there are no protests. Of course, democratic and peaceful protests are very much a sign of a living democracy. In the words of socialist political leader Ram Manohar Lohia, ‘Agar sadkein khamosh ho jayein to sansad awara ho jayegi’ (If the roads become silent then the Parliament will stray),” says Yogendra Yadav, the founder of Jai Kisan Andolan of Swaraj Abhiyan, a socio-political organisation in Gurugram.
Yadav has been associated with farmers for more than two decades. He is one of the farm leaders named in an FIR that includes charges of rioting, criminal conspiracy and attempt to murder, among others, following the violence on Republic Day in Delhi. A known psephologist and former member of the national executive of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Yadav says, “Contestation is woven into the texture of democracy. If governance provides the warp then protests provide the woof, without which you cannot weave democracy. Unfortunately, in the past few years, the current regime has gone out of its way to demonise and criminalise any possible dissent.”
As a social phenomenon, protests are very important for public awareness of the social conditions of the world and modes of negotiation, feels Savyasaachi, professor of sociology, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi. He says, “The tone and tenor of everyday life is textured with risks and uncertainties on account of multiple complex predicaments, and protests form the basis of dissent. Like the farmers’ protest is an unprecedented spectacle noticed by everyone. It has become a subject of conversation in every home.”
As the pandemic hit the world, 2020 was a year of activism. Besides climate strikes and anti-lockdown protests, the Black Lives Matter movement, Black Friday Amazon protests, the siege of the US Capitol, protests in Hong Kong, Shaheen Bagh and the farmers’ protest in Delhi hit the headlines.
Many had politics behind them, and some were alleged to be motivated by politics. Professor Kapil Kumar, historian and former director of Centre for Freedom Struggle & Diaspora Studies, IGNOU, is of the opinion that protests based on false propaganda are designed to suit political aspirations. “We have seen many false charges made for electoral gains, and engineered protests, when challenged in courts, led to apologies. The electorate of today is different than yesteryears and understands, weighs and votes. Rather, I would say people enjoy political clowns and nautanki to entertain themselves but don’t take them as serious political statements. Else the chor-chor campaign would have given dividends to INC rather than routing it,” he adds.
But major movements have become strong voices of resistance, and resulted in uniting people. Protests on anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) started in Assam in December 2019, after the bill was introduced in Parliament, and by January 2020, the focus of the protest had shifted to Delhi, with Shaheen Bagh becoming its epicentre. Protests against and in support of the controversial legislation snowballed into communal violence in northeast Delhi in February 2020.
However, ‘success’ is not guaranteed every time or the deadlock would bring luck as several protests culminate without leaving any impact or achieving any goal. “We had not thought about the end result when we started the farmers’ agitation but we are sure that we will succeed. The three laws have several discrepancies. Since MSP remains on paper and its benefit doesn’t reach the farmers, this has been the case for years. When the laws were promulgated, no organisation or even a single farmer was consulted. We approached all the people who matter in the government before starting this agitation. After protesting in Punjab, we decided to move to Delhi when the government did not agree to our demands. Hence, we were left with no option but to protest as this is our right in democracy. If medical doctors, sanitation workers or the CM can sit in protest then why can’t farmers? The circumstances have compelled us to do so,” says Virender Dagar, Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) Delhi unit in-charge.
Yet, several factors like organisation, ideology or tactics affect the success or failure of movements to produce social change, apart from public opinion, that has an important mediating role in determining a movement. As in the case of mass protests at Rajpath post the brutal gang rape-cum-murder of a paramedic in Delhi in December 2012. The country witnessed an outpouring of anguish and anger as people poured onto the streets demanding justice. The agitation was not pulled off by individuals or any group but rattled the then UPA government and led to change in laws regarding crimes against women.
A protest falls flat if it cannot explain the issue to the public; there are no credible faces or the voice of dissent goes against the country instead of the regime. The ongoing farmers’ protest is a major stalemate largely in absence of leadership.
Academics feel the protests of yesteryears brought a revolution largely because of leadership. Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X were colossal figures of non-violent protest and great outcomes.
In India, revolutionary freedom fighter Jatin Das, Bhagat Singh, Subhas Chandra Bose, and, of course, Mahatma Gandhi fired the independence movement.
Kumar of IGNOU feels today’s leaders have no comparison with their historical counterparts. “Compare the peasant movements led by Baba Ram Chandra, Swami Sahajanand, Motilal Tejawat, Sita Ram Raju and in modern times by Charan Singh and even Mahendra Singh Tikait with the ones today,” he points out.
Dharnas have a special mention in protests. In 2011, the Jan Lokpal Bill movement was one, when anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare began a hunger strike at Ramlila Maidan to put pressure on Indian government for bringing in a strong ombudsman. Arvind Kejriwal sat in dharna along with his cabinet even as chief minister against actions of the lieutenant governor of Delhi in 2018.
One of the celebrated faces associated with the Anna Hazare protest believes that the dignity of a protest has gone down after whatever transpired politically — formation of AAP and departure of its founder members. “I believe parents will think twice before allowing young adults to join any movement in the future, as the Anna andolan created a ‘crisis’ for future protests. Farmers’ agitation is in a similar predicament. A protest has to struggle a lot to protect its sanctity,” says the member of the core team associated with the Anna movement, requesting anonymity.
Sympathetic to farmers’ cause, he feels that anti-national slogans raised at the Delhi border should have been condemned by the organisers straight away. “It’s easier to discredit any movement. The pro-separatist slogans raised at farmers’ agitation should have been immediately shunned and disowned by the organisers,” he adds.
Delhi-based author and political scientist Sanjay Kumar, who is also a professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), an Indian research institute for the social sciences and humanities, feels the number of protests by political parties have decreased as compared to a decade ago.
“For those in power, social media has helped in putting their point across. Now common people frequently use the dharna route instead of political parties. A decade ago, this wasn’t the case.”
Social media sword
A crucial factor in deciding the course of a protest these days is social media. A hotbed for comments, information, unfiltered images and videos, such platforms not only incite social change from the public or leaders, but also affect public sentiments.
The ease of access to floating information transcends the limitations of communication, and this sort of digital engagement can have detrimental effects, leading to fake news and partial judgment, thus misleading economic, social, or political goals, also at times, prompting ‘slacktivism’, the practice of supporting a political or social cause by social media or online petitions.
If history is known for mass mobilisation in the streets, present day calls for mobilisation on social media. Like the farmers’ protest this week intensified into a hashtag war across the world, with celebrities, politicians, activists and almost every Twitter user in India reacting to pop star Rihanna’s tweet highlighting the farmers’ protest, followed by Greta Thunberg’s tweet in solidarity and subsequent news of an FIR being registered against the toolkit shared by her. Even the government reacted by issuing a stern statement of caution.
Both amusive and provocative, social media creates disruption, taking away the reality of the situation with trolling and mockery. The farmers’ protest has also been mocked many times as netizens uploaded footage of pizzas, consumption of dry fruits, tea being served, huge roti-makers, comfortable bedding, waterproof tents, and foot massage machines, which went viral on social media.
Delhi-based author and political scientist Sanjay Kumar feels the farmer movement was not a photo opportunity. “Shaheen Bagh, NRC, Anna Hazare or Nirbhaya were non-political movements and powerful tools to attract the attention of the policymakers. Why defame farmers’ protest as a five-star movement if they have facilities for comfortable living? They are not on a hunger strike and have every right to survive,” says Kumar.
Services available for farmers at protest sites are a deliberate attempt to discredit or weaken the protest in order to divert attention from real issues, feels Dagar of BKU. “What’s the hullabaloo about? The same luxuries are enjoyed by many, but it’s a problem when the poor have access to them,” he says.
Despite movements arising from different circumstances and environments, social media also helps in amplifying the message of protests. Visuals are always appealing to senses, like the footage of George Floyd’s death.
Many have been arrested for ‘objectionable’ tweets and posts too. Yogendra Yadav feels there is a deliberate crackdown by the current regime against dissenters. “The only challenge that comes is from protest and movements and thus there is an attempt to criminalise dissent and use various means— social or news media, use of income tax laws against NGOs, use of anti-terrorist points of laws against social activists, etc.
Calling a protest as trivialisation is to trivialise the issue. To my mind protest and contestation are the lifelines of democracy, therefore, it’s a full-blown onslaught on the foundation of a democracy,” he says.
Recently in a social media post, Hindi poet Kumar Vishwas also lamented how the ongoing farmers’ protest is being discredited. He wrote that it is not right to dismiss movements just because they are against our ‘favourite’ government, regime or political parties.
Where there is no democracy, there is no contestation. We should be seriously worried about the health of the country if there are no protests — Yogendra Yadav, founder, Jai Kisan Andolan of Swaraj Abhiyan, a socio-political organisation in Gurugram
Today’s leaders have no comparison with their historical counterparts. Compare the peasant movements led by Baba Ram Chandra, Swami Sahajanand, and in modern times by Charan Singh and even Mahendra Singh Tikait with the ones today — Kapil Kumar, professor & historian, and former director, Centre for Freedom Struggle & Diaspora Studies, IGNOU
For those in power, social media has helped in putting their point across. Now, common people frequently use the dharna route instead of political parties. A decade ago, this wasn’t the case — Sanjay Kumar, Delhi-based author & political scientist, and professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, an Indian research institute for the social sciences and humanities
If medical doctors, sanitation workers or the CM can sit in protest, then why can’t farmers? The circumstances have compelled us to do so— Virender Dagar, unit in-charge, Delhi, Bharatiya Kisan Union
A history of protests
Protests and protesters never go by the playbook. Right from the freedom movement, eradication of social evils, or amendment in archaic legislations, several reforms are a result of concentrated efforts and campaigns initiated by leaders and reformers.
Violent, non-violent, writings, poems, rallies, demonstrations, resistance movements, marches or revolutionary struggles in social, economic, political, religious and cultural power structures or the idea of human freedom from bondages of slavery, feudalism, colonialism and capitalism form the basis of protest and thus become a powerful tool of social change to shape the present or assure a better future.
India’s journey to independence dates back to extraordinary campaigns of protests from 1857 to 1947. Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement through Satyagraha in 1915, Salt March or Dandi March in 1930, protest over discrimination against ‘untouchables’ in 1932 or the Quit India movement in 1942 were a few major struggles for Indian independence.
Several others were faces of the independence movement, including Subhas Chandra Bose, who led an Indian national force against western powers, and Bhagat Singh, who popularised the phrase ‘inquilab zindabad’.
American history signifies protests punctuated by race riots, massacres and clashes to advocate change. Like the Great Migration during the Silent Protest Parade of about 10,000 African-Americans in New York City in 1917 is among the most important early events in the long civil rights movement against racial violence.
The nature of protests encompassed other things over the years. Like the peaceful protest in The March for Science in 2017 in Washington where 100,000 people marched on Earth Day to stand up for scientific enterprise. They felt threatened by the policies of former US president Trump, who mocked climate change as a hoax. Non-violent demonstrations like the 1973 Chipko Movement in India became the strongest form of resistance by women farmers against rampant cutting of trees. Under the direction of Sunderlal Bahuguna, a Gandhian activist and philosopher, the protest helped spread a crucial message and led to the uprising in other states in north India. More recently, climate activist Greta Thunberg has been at the forefront of Fridays for Future, urging schoolchildren to protest against climate change.
Last year, New York City saw more than a thousand protests — peaceful and violent—caused by the outrage at the death of George Floyd in May 2020. The death ignited a wave of outrage in the US over law enforcement’s repeated use of lethal force against African-Americans.
In India, Delhi has been at the centre of dissent right from the British era. Hartals, satyagraha against the British rule, movements after independence like the Emergency protests, kisan agitations, Mandal Commission protests, Jan Lokpal andolan, December 16 gangrape protests and farmers’ protest, to name some. Ramlila Maidan and Jantar Mantar are known as protest sites more than anything else.