Sunday, Apr 06, 2003
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FROM SAN Francisco to Seoul, from Lahore to London, people have taken to the streets in thousands to protest the U.S.-led war against Iraq. Enormous, creative protests, heaping scorn on reckless leaders, screaming anger at an injustice, holding placards aloft to say we oppose.
And, in India where a majority should be opposing this war, public protests have been tiny, scattered, unable to fill the camera frames. It seems that even in our powers of democratic dissent we are way behind the global mainstream. Many ask why.
After all, this is a nation that was built on mass protest, the willingness of individuals to stand up and be counted.
Social and political activists resent this question. They say that everyday somewhere in India people are taking to the streets in protest, raising their collective voice against corruption in Government, injustices of society, for a more even chance in life, for a fairer deal from the state.
Localised protests, several of them led by political parties and some by NGOs, keep taking place all over the country. Uttar Pradesh alone, they say, is a cauldron of protests.
Farmers' lobbies blocked a national highway for a week earlier this year demanding that mills purchase sugarcane at reasonable rates while Dalits held a mock hearing, seeking justice denied them by conventional institutions.
But no one really notices them, especially not the mass media, unless violence breaks out. Television and newspapers receive reports about public protest, but do not believe that their audiences or readers would be interested. After accounting for the bust-ups of the Salman Khans and the broken limbs of the Aishwairya Rais, there is no space left for the marginal, the dispossessed or the anguished.
So, apart from the police who see them as an annoyance, they are ignored. Or worse, reported as `traffic' problems. For instance, the largest trade union rally in the capital in a decade, with an estimated two lakh people, representing dozens of party and non-party organisations, was reported by the capital's media from the city's car owners' perspective.
Not surprisingly, from television and newspapers, it is hard to tell that people are coming out in small towns and State capitals across the country to express their opposition to the aggression against Iraq. Almost every district town in Uttar Pradesh has seen a series of protest marches. One day by a women's organisation, on another by a conglomerate of lightweight political parties and on the third by a Muslim organisation.
In Chennai, women's organisations, lawyers, students, journalists, scientists, traders and trade unions have taken to the streets on separate days.
But, mass demonstrations of the proportions taking place in other countries with increasing frequency seem to have taken a permanent leave of absence from India. Only political parties such as the Congress and the BJP, with their rent-a-protester rallies to make political points, have from time to time gathered more than a few hundred together.
The massive public protests of old were the result of mobilisation by the major Left parties and trade unions affiliated to them. They focussed on national concerns such as ESMA (Essential Services Maintenance Act), which curbed legitimate trade union rights, the right to employment and education, and global issues such as nuclear disarmament and `world peace'.
However, the Left's activism in the Cold War years was partisan. The voices of its activists were raised against the injustices and aggression of one power bloc while remaining silent on the other's. In a changed world, the Left in India, defying the forces of change, has found that its ability to mobilise large numbers by and large eroded. Continued adherence to ideological dogmas keeps the Left divided. And in the post-Berlin Wall world, it holds no attraction for young blood nor does it have the power to reach out to new areas.
People's movements and civil society organisations, considered the great new hopes of democratic dissent, are either focussed on single issues the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the National Fishworkers' Federation for instance or have a small reach. Despite the fact that many of these groups are seen at international fora such as the World Social Forum, which are trying to forge global coalitions, within India, they have been unable to join hands meaningfully.
School children at an anti-war protest in New Delhi.
With the hollowing out of the traditional Left, even the minuscule middle class presence in street protests thinned along with its membership of trade unions and professional associations. Some argue that greater middle class prosperity has taken the sting out of its dissatisfaction. Television and the Internet have turned former street fighters into couch protesters.
The slogan-shouters and mobilisers of yesterday are content with signing Internet petitions that spiral across cyberspace or hearing their opinions echoed on television chat shows.
The majority of the middle class, from which the leadership of many of these organisations comes has, however, always been distant from public protest, particularly mass protest. They have viewed these as disruptions to progress, personal and collective, and a breach of law and order. The one exception was the anti-Mandal agitation of 1990 when even senior civil servants and company executives sent their children to the demonstrations in their official cars. Apart from the occasional micro-agitations over power failures in summer or disrupted water supply, that was the first time in the 43 years since Independence that the Indian middle-class believed it had a cause worth taking to the streets for. And never again.
Middle class participation in anti-globalisation protests is almost unimaginable, since by and large theirs is the only group which has, at least for now, benefited from it; it sees globalisation as offering bigger job opportunities even if they are only in call centres better wages, and greater purchasing power.
The state too has contributed towards dissuading protesters. The last decade has seen the state actively curtailing the space for democratic dissent. It has forced would-be protesters to seek police "permission" to exercise their right to public protest by imposing Section 144 (barring assembly of more than five persons) permanently across the sections of towns and cities occupied by offices of state.
The decision to grant permission is discretionary. In many situations, police simply deny permission to unfamiliar groups, favouring established political parties and their affiliates over the smaller civil society groups, NGOs and non-party organisations. Even where permission is given, Section 144 operates.
So any deviation from what the police believe the demonstrators should or should not do carries the threat of the use of force against them.
Certain places that would be the obvious focus of protest such as State Assemblies and Government offices have been cordoned off by razor wire, barriers and are guarded by armed securitymen. In Chennai, anti-war protesters were denied permission to hold a peace rally at the Gandhi statue on the Marina beach. Police said they could protest in a side-lane, and for only half-an-hour.
In the capital, it is no different. Tourists can walk around Parliament, peer through its gates and get photographed in its shadow.
But Indians who collectively want to draw its attention to their concerns are confined, if they are lucky, to 1 km behind armed barricades at the Parliament Street police station, or if they are more than a couple of thousand strong, 3 km on a side street leading nowhere.
The imposing backdrop of Parliament House and the offices of state, where for four decades Indians exercised the right to democratic protest, were first denied to rallyists in 1993 by an insecure Congress Government fearful of a resurgent BJP celebrating the destruction of the Babri Masjid and demanding a Ram temple on its ruins.
Five years later, a non-Congress, non-BJP Government with a communist Home Minister permanently barred the Boat Club green to the people.
Today, the only activity it sees are underemployed long-lunchers from Government offices playing cards or itinerant preachers offering spiritual solace to others while motley groups of protesters in Delhi raise slogans out of sight of those they hope to influence.
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