The farmers-led agitation has continued to shake the national capital this week, with protesters refusing to budge from their demands, even rejecting the Narendra Modi government’s proposal to dilute major provisions of the three contentious farm laws. From driving tractors to Delhi’s borders, to organising langars and playing DJ music, to having actor Diljit Dosanjh by their side, and even a Bharat bandh — the farmers’ protest has basically followed all tropes of recent agitations.
Farmers have stood their ground, even amid sections of society as well as members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accusing them of spreading the ‘Khalistani’ agenda, and also claiming that the movement has been hijacked by the ‘tukde tukde gang’. Abhijit Mukherjee, son of former president Pranab Mukherjee had called the Nirbhaya protesters “dented, painted women”.
Subtle and blatant attempts to demonise protesters aren’t new — it is straight out of the playbook that was most recently employed during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) movement, with Shaheen Bagh protesters being termed rapists, rioters, and killers.
During the freedom movement, the British were quick to criminalise the revolutionaries and call them terrorists.
“The British designated revolutionaries as criminals. Calling a protester criminal is an instant way of delegitimising them and their political voice. But there is something very sinister about how easy it has become to do that today, especially with technology and social media,” said Surinder Jodhka, Sociology professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and editor of Community and Identities: Contemporary Discourses on Culture and Politics in India.
But what is even older than the act of demonising protesters is, in fact, protests themselves. Protests go hand-in-hand with the idea of Indian democracy, in more ways than one. For this reason, India’s protest culture is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
1857: our revolt their mutiny
The very existence of modern India as we know it today can be credited to one of the initial protests that sparked it all — the 1857 revolt or uprising, or ‘mutiny’ as the British had described it. Albeit unsuccessful, it paved the way for a series of protests that marked the Indian freedom movement, including the civil disobedience led by Mahatma Gandhi — a simple, non-violent refusal to obey laws that stifled the Indian masses. But that was then. Gandhi found non-violence as an effective tool to achieve his political/social agenda. Not everybody does. When protests in Chauri Chaura turned violent, Gandhi halted the agitation.
From the massive protests against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, to the umpteen trade union strikes and to the countless farmer agitation, the Mandal protests, to the ‘Nirbhaya’ protests, the Anna Hazare movement, the ‘Not In My Name’ protests against lynchings, and the anti-CAA sit-ins to the ongoing farmers’ protest who have, quite literally, gheraoed the national capital to make their voice reach the power corridors. India’s history is laden with protest culture, one we dare not forget.
It might be easy to discount protests or dismiss them as being a nascent phenomenon, but that is hardly the case.
The recent ones
For many Indians who identify as millennials or border gen-Zs, the ‘Nirbhaya’ protests in 2012 were the first big, eye-opening jolt to their conscience. Seeing hundreds and thousands take to the streets for something as commonplace as rape — because we are used to turning a blind eye to them — was unnerving for many.
The year before ‘Nirbhaya’, Delhi witnessed the Anna Hazare movement. The campaign, as far as public participation is concerned, had all the traits of a successful protest — an anti-corruption crusader, a septuagenarian social activist and an idea of making a clean sweep on the graft culture eating away the country. India Against Corruption (IAC) invoked the honest and diligent Indian.
The power of both these protests is irrefutable — Nirbhaya’s convicted rapists were given capital punishment, and the Anna movement can be largely credited for the fall of the UPA-2 in 2014, and starting a debate around corruption.
But these agitations were also not seen without skepticism — it has been argued by many sociologists that the Nirbhaya protests, instead of bringing long-term, sustainable change vis-à-vis the safety of Indian women, only served to make a public spectacle and satisfy the collective conscience. Lawyer Prashant Bhushan, who was a core member of the IAC, has gone on to claim that the Anna movement was “propped up by BJP-RSS”.
The long tradition of protests in India notwithstanding, their characteristics have definitely changed over time.
Protests and strikes were a common and regular feature in pre-liberalisation India — with bandhs or complete shutdowns a marked feature of the same. But a bandh back in the day meant a complete halt to life-as-we-know-it with schools, colleges, workplaces all shut for the day.
Disruption has often been one of the methods to get public attention — rail roko, chakka jam, picketing borders, stopping trucks carrying essentials, attacking police. Some protests also involve rampant violence and damage to public property, like in the aftermath of the conviction of Dera Sachha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim in a rape case. The 2016 Jat agitation saw protesters torch a goods train engine, buildings and even a police station.
But, the Bharat bandh that was announced by the farmers on Tuesday, came with the caveat that ‘no one should be forced to observe’ it and that many services ought to continue as normal. It was not mandatory. Mindful of losing any public sympathy, the farmers have kept the protest peaceful.
The political residue of protest…
The 1970s saw a slew of heightened protests against then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, most notably the JP movement led by socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan. Masses, largely constituting of students, took to the streets in hordes and protested against the excessive control of institutions by the government. Indira Gandhi imposed the brutal Emergency in 1975 to crush the protests, but the movement was successful. The churning gave India the next line of political leaders. Arun Jaitely, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury were among the notable ones. The Anna movement gave Delhi its chief minister.
Like in the 1970s, student protests have remained a regular feature of the Indian democracy. JNU, Jamia Millia Islamia and Jadavpur University are some of the educational institutions that have protest culture embedded in their DNA. The picture of three students from Jamia on top of a wall, raising slogans, with the crowd applauding them became the poster image of the anti-CAA movement. Messaging is key for media-savvy protesters, and a picture is worth a thousand words.
…and the residue of violence
Another important protest that took place in the 1970s is the Chipko Movement led by women from parts of Uttarakhand. It was an attempt to protect our forests. The campaign ultimately became a historical struggle for environmental conservation, world over. This non-violent protest shook the conscience of society, even leading to policy changes.
Despite a general insistence to adhere to non-violent protests, many movements did take an unfortunate violent turn — most notably the Mandal protests of 1990 against OBC reservation in government jobs. The agitation also saw a series of immolations by students.
In February this year, the clash between pro-CAA and anti-CAA protesters eventually snowballed into a riot in the national capital, resulting in the death of 53 people. What came in its aftermath were arrests of the anti-CAA protesters like Pinjra Tod members and JNU students Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, Jamia Millia Islamia student Asif Iqbal Tanha and student activist Gulfisha Fatima. Some of the protesters like Umar Khalid and JNU student Sharjeel Imam were also booked under the stringent UAPA.
The shade of protest
According to Jodhka, all protests bring something of their ‘community-specific culture’ into the movement, while also maintaining a certain universality to it.
“For instance, the farmers are using old Sikhi idioms such as ‘Jo bole So Nihal’ or ‘Charhdi Kala’ in the protest. Every community mobilises its culture as a means to protest, we witnessed the same during Shaheen Bagh,” Jodhka said.
Protests often also take a more symbolic turn. For instance, the Dalit protests that swept the country four years ago. In 2016, Dalit groups in Gujarat decided to not dispose of cow carcasses, after the Una atrocity where many from the community were flogged for allegedly skinning a dead cow in a village in the region.
In recent years, stone pelting has become the signature image of street protests in Kashmir.
Amid all of this, there are also protests against art, movies and books that have become more frequent with time — the agitation against Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses eventually led to the government banning the book in the country. The protests against Deepika Padukone starrer Padmaavat led to the censor board demanding that its name be changed (it was earlier called Padmavati). The backlash over Pakistani actor Fawad Khan playing a small role in Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil led to the actor’s being left out from the movie’s promotional events.
Whatever be the cause, motive, method or agenda of a protest, India’s democracy has come to allow room for what V.S. Naipaul called A Million Mutinies. Some like Amartya Sen may view it as a fallout of The Argumentative Indian. Others, like NITI Aayog’s Amitabh Kant, will explain the difficulty of implementing deep economic reforms. India, he said “is too much of a democracy to mirror a China model.”
Social and political movements have been a pivotal part of India’s history, and perhaps, it will continue to be the case.
Views are personal.