Civil but not Disobedient

A FEW MONTHS AGO, the Bengaluru Police drafted a set of regulations for holding public assemblies in the city. If the draft is pushed through the cabinet and gazetted, then you can conduct public assemblies of any sort (political or religious or miscellaneous) in Bengaluru only after applying for a license — seven working days in advance. The authorities can take three days to process your Rs 100 application and then deny you permission on the basis of anything from the potential to disrupt traffic or offence to cultural groups. One of the organisations that pushed for guidelines to regulate rallies in Bengaluru is Janaagraha — the power behind the extremely well-organised Jaago Re! One Billion Votes campaign. The latest strand of this campaign is appropriately called Shut up and Vote.

You always had to inform the Bengaluru police if you were organising large public gatherings to which they would respond with suggestions about the venue in terms of security and traffic. That process, however timidly done by organisers, was never about permission. The new draft regulations point to formalisation of a conception of protest as an activity that is an indulgence of the citizen that the State allows, while real men go off to make war or business. This draft is being formulated in a city where the old central prison was renamed Freedom Park before it was set aside for rallies and protests. As if the American euphemism was not soothing enough, the authorities have also been exclaiming that it will be just like Hyde Park. What a treat it will be for groups to protest behind the highest walls of the city when they could be standing sullen on major street corners instead, trying to make eye contact with people in cars.

Is it particularly revelatory that the commonest reference points for protest are Rang de Basanti and Munnabhai MBBS? Not really, when all our cultural references are related to Bollywood. The newer, more acceptable form of political activity is getting movie stars to encourage people to vote. Star after star is ‘rocking the vote’ pretty and wide-eyed, carefully avoiding telling you that perhaps you should look really hard at who you are voting for. Rock the vote campaigns can be seen as symptomatic of what is happening to the idea of protest. All that is actually disruptive about protest is being steadily leached out. One is inclined to ask if this bare minimum is all we can expect from public figures. But that would be cynical and also joining the annoying people who criticise all political action by saying it that it is not enough. (A natural corollary is that these annoying people will not get involved in political action themselves.)

One way to render political action meaningless is to set aside particular locations in cities where protests are ‘allowed’. At Jantar Mantar in Delhi, for decades, victims of the still unfurling Bhopal gas tragedy have been allowed permission to wilt in the sun, shiver in winter. They can join the farmers, Tibetans, the Manipuris, the victims of dams, the child labourers, Nandigram villagers and Binayak Sen supporters. Every city has its locations where protestors can be ignored as part of grey, urban clutter. A place to be civil but not disobedient. If groups that crave smooth flow of traffic and the respect of public property have their way, then the 6,000 angry farmers can only protest outside city limits. Sajan Poovayya, chairman of FICCI’s Karnataka council, said recently, “The passerby’s right to use a road is more important than a demonstrator’s right to self-expression on the streets.” The choice of the word self-expression is interesting, evoking summer theatre workshops or pottery classes or perhaps classes where you make the millions of candles used in middle-class protests in India every year.


Placing a premium on neatness and discipline is another way in which protest is quelled. The rag-tag marches of the poor and the dispossessed, whatever their numbers, and no matter how old their protests, can be ignored precisely because they are rag-tag. Hijras, whose survival sometimes depends on their ability to shock, must not flash the public by lifting their saris, they are advised. Why alienate the public, they are asked reasonably. Hold placards instead.

THE BIGGEST, and most confusing, power to change the way protests are conducted is held by the media. An easy arithmetic makes a protest of 150 middle class citizens greater than 4,000 people from the slums in terms of its worthiness of media coverage. A protest with 150 middle class protestors in matching t-shirts is equal to 5,000 farmers. Feminists have observed that women in patriarchal societies begin to think of their skins only in terms of how it would feel to someone else’s touch. Similarly, protest can no longer be conceived in a way other than spectacle. Organisations like Greenpeace, once widely criticised in India for their media advocacy through large and small-scale spectacle, are now seen as ‘smarter’.

Like the trees that fall in the forest unwitnessed, do you have a protest if you haven’t got in the papers? The understanding that if you don’t give the media a picture you have no protest has permeated deep. Placing the media as an interlocutor then further places a premium on neatness. At a Narmada Bachao Andolan rally a few years ago, one of the bandobust cops was seen telling the protestors in a conspiratorial tone to put the younger, prettier girls in front of the group for the cameras. At the same meeting was overheard a discussion about Medha Patkar’s hair and sarees. Why is she so messy on camera, someone asked. ‘Getting in the papers’ must be reassessed as a sign of success of a protest.

A much discussed public action was the 2001 adivasi protests in Kerala. 32 starvation deaths among the adivasis had been brushed aside by a senior Kerala minister. He said they had died by drinking illicit liquor. Adivasis, tired of protesting outside the state secretariat (Kerala’s allotted protest spot), erected ‘refugee huts’ before the offices of government, saying that if they could not live in their lands then they would live where the government sat. It is an action that certainly got its share of media attention but also lodged like a burr in the skin of the government. If CK Janu of the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha undertook similar political protests today she might be liable to pay damages for vandalism under the guidelines being proposed by the Supreme Court this month.

Where the middle-class protestor is concerned, there is unfortunately more introspection to be done. When the mythical instruction of ‘Take to the streets, young woman’ is read most literally as an afternoon in the sun, it’s assumed that discomfort has already been suffered by the protestor. Does that mean there is no need to think through whether the discomfort should be extended to the rest of our lives?

All this might be academic since increasingly we are not sure about who is allowed to protest at all. Not you because you have way too much money to protest. And not the other guys because they don’t have enough money to understand what is important to this country. Hence the media currently loves and hates funky internet campaigns. If it is not sweaty it can’t be a real campaign, we feel intuitively, but if it is sweaty then we may not cover the campaign. To quote the ever quotable Piyush Mishra, Har ek baat pe democracy me lagne lagyo ban.

3 comments:

Loved this. It can't be just me that thinks the reporter's been writing extremely well of late, heart in the right place and all. :-)

I worked in Kochi for less than a year right after college, and managed to lose count of working days lost to hartals and other forms of forced protest. Still I must say what we get to see here in Bangalore is the other extreme of ridiculousness. So when Kumaraswamy righteously defend himself after making a traffic mess with that rally of distressed farmers (ahem), saying the urban dwellers hardly vote and don't deserve to raise a voice, you could only sadly nod.

And the Supreme Court often comes across as borderline scary with its attempts to teach the nation some discipline.

April 13, 2009 at 10:20 AM  

hello, hello,

You have spotted the big gap in my story. I wondered about including some discussion on the Kerala extreme but lost it in my final draft. The Kerala example should have been included.

April 13, 2009 at 10:56 AM  

and thanks:)

April 13, 2009 at 11:00 AM  

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