“Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.”
– Howard Zinn
Protests form an important element of any democratic movement. The right to free speech and the right to dissent cannot be taken away from the citizens. Governments which deny the above stand the risk of losing not only their stature, but also their respect amongst the voters. In the Sanskrit epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata too, the importance of protests are explained through various stories of valour and courage — that which the Indian psyche continues to refer to every now and then when in doubt.
The Gandhian protest
Protests are important for the survival of any democracy, and India has been through its legacy of protests to emerge as a strong democratic nation. Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India Movement against the British to leave India forever, laid the foundation for protests that would later take place the world over, and encourage leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. to lead the Civil Disobedience Movement in the 1960s in America.
Who knew protesting through non-violence could prove to be such an effective weapon that it would inspire democracies not only in India, but the world over, to survive?
During my student days, I would read about Gandhi’s Quit India Movement as part of my study material. It wasn’t until I visited the National Archives library to research on newspapers of the colonial era of Bombay that I realised how humongous his efforts and the movement actually were. Unlike newspapers today, periodicals of the colonial era did not report on protests and independence movements that were enveloping and spreading to the country. It was while poring through those several old copies of Bombay Herald and Bombay Chronicle, did I realise that there was no mention of India or Indians in particular in any of those papers then. A majority of the reports featured articles on local interests in Bombay, advertisements on sales of bungalows and British artefacts and crockery, announcements of deaths, marriages, births, public gatherings etc., of who else but the British.
The papers were devoid of the vast protests that were taking place across the country by Indians who were demanding their freedom from colonial rule. The efforts that Gandhi and many like him undertook to get their protests heard and recorded in these very British newspapers, spoke volumes of their enormous sacrifices and dedication to the cause and the nation in particular. Something we should not let go in vain.
Unfortunately, the new India is grappling to understand and realise the true meaning and importance of the sacrifices that he made. Bombay, the same city that hosted Gandhi’s protests and was the centre of the independence movement, continues to witness agitations even today. On a positive note, while this may confirm that democracy is alive and kicking, on the other hand, it also gives root to the fact that this ‘freedom’ is being misused to benefit only a certain section of society.
In the land of Gandhi, his methods of protests have taken on a different hue altogether. Today, protests aren’t just spontaneous reactions to serious issues anymore, but are made to resemble one. Leaders are unfortunately resorting to host protests to further their own cause, than that of the cause and the people they represent.
When political parties resort to tactics like demonstrating for rights to empower a particular community or caste to win votes, or when certain religious groups or sects manipulate public sentiment to avail of special concessions to get elected to power, democracy gets taken for a ride. When protests are no longer being used as a means to uplift the poor or the underprivileged, but to mislead and misinform, there is havoc. The poor, especially those from the backward communities, when faced with the reality of having nowhere to go, end up alienated and hurt.
This alienation, when not recognised and corrected in time, may prove costly for the nation, and more importantly, its democratic fabric. Its backlash may further damage democracy in itself.
In January this year, clashes between the Dalits and Marathas in Mumbai dominated the headlines. Mumbai city came to a standstill as protesters blocked roads, shut shops and local trains in agitation against the killing of one of their own at an event held in Pune to mark the 200th anniversary of the Bhima-Koregaon battle, in which forces of the East India Company defeated the Peshwa’s army.
Two months post the Dalit protest, the city yet again witnessed a protest rally of over 35,000 farmers, who took to the streets to demand loan waiver. In both of the above cases, it was the poor and the backward classes who took to the streets as a final resort to get their voice heard. It is not yet clear what they gained out of this protest, but the fact is that this agitation surely led to some very uncomfortable questions being raised.
Why as a democratic nation, are we still in doubt of our own? Why do our own need to agitate on the streets to ask for something that is rightfully theirs? Why hasn’t education empowered us to identify these problems and correct them on time?
The democratic fabric of a nation is truly tested when its people take their revenge – not through violence, but through the ballot box. All said and done, a nation like ours that celebrates diversity, cannot do without protests. A worker of a prominent political party once told me why political leaders host agitations every now and then even for insignificant causes. “Protest rallies are the only way to keep the party workers busy. People are too busy and engrossed in their daily lives. By protesting on the streets, people are happy that someone or something is being done for them this way,” says the 50-year-old who confesses that he first protested for demanding water supply to his area in suburban Mumbai in the early eighties. Now hundreds of protest rallies later, he finds comfort in ideating kinds of protests for his party, whenever the opposition slips up on certain issues. “Protests these days are more to be in the limelight. To let people know that we are around and that we celebrate democracy and are not afraid to show it,” he sums up with a smile.