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A beginner's guide to campaigning for civic change

In an excerpt from his primer about democracy and rights, The Anarchist Cookbook, Aakar Patel explains what it takes to set goals for successful protest

One of the panels in The Anarchist Cookbook by Aakar Patel, illustrated by PenPencilDraw.
One of the panels in The Anarchist Cookbook by Aakar Patel, illustrated by PenPencilDraw. (HarperCollins India)

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This is a cookbook because it gives you the ingredients and the recipe to bake your own campaign for change—a series of options to choose from, depending on the objectives you want achieved. These ingredients are tools used by activists and organizations globally. They are universal and have been proven to be effective for more than a century. They are the essential building blocks of civic change.

Also read: When Kishore Kumar took on the government

They may seem familiar and prosaic at first. But in reality, they are so powerful as to be almost magic. And they have become better with time. Today, you and I have access to enormous reach in terms of communication and connectivity—unlike campaigners in the past—which is capable of producing and influencing change on a global scale. Understanding the core ingredients, when to use them, what to mix them with and how effective they are likely to be is special knowledge, but not esoteric. In fact, all campaigning organizations use these ingredients in different ways and by different names. But they are the same.

Activist organizations respect the processes and tools—‘ingredients’—which they use to try and bring about change. This is important to ensure that the quality and consistency of the recipe is maintained and that it can be prepared over and over again. How can we, as individuals intending to become activists and campaigners, use them? Well, first we need to know and understand what they are. British writer C.S. Lewis opens A Preface to Paradise Lost with an instruction for all of us: ‘The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is—what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used. After that has been discovered, the temperance reformer may decide that the corkscrew was made for a bad purpose, and the communist may think the same about the cathedral. But such questions come later. The first thing is to understand the object before you: as long as you think the corkscrew was meant for opening tins or the cathedral for entertaining tourists, you can say nothing to the purpose about them.’ …

Non-violent direct action

This is the hard end of activism. It requires confrontation with authority. Greenpeace often initiates non-violent direct action; for instance, by stopping a whaling ship from sailing. Gandhi’s march to Dandi and the act of producing his own salt was a non-violent direct action, because it sought to disrupt the salt monopoly. Martin Luther King Jr. and other American activists who resisted segregation (the forcible separation of races on buses and in other public spaces) took non-violent direct action by occupying seats ‘reserved’ for white people.

In India, political parties, farmers’ groups and other large organized forces regularly effect non-violent direct action. The bandhs, hartals, chakka jams and the creation of traffic and rail obstacles are all examples which are common to India. They are not, however, common to individual activists or small groups because there is the threat of getting into trouble with the authority.

The Anarchist Cookbook By Aakar Patel, illustrated by Pen Pencil Draw, published by HarperCollins India, 264 pages, Rs. 399.
The Anarchist Cookbook By Aakar Patel, illustrated by Pen Pencil Draw, published by HarperCollins India, 264 pages, Rs. 399.

Some of us are willing to engage in direct action even if it means that there might be a fallout. The great American civil rights activist John Lewis welcomed it as ‘good trouble, necessary trouble’. In his 2017 memoir, Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America, Lewis wrote: ‘Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.’ Such lofty goals are achieved with the same steps and methods as the smaller ones that you and I seek to bring about. …

[Campaign] comes from a French word meaning the open countryside where battles are fought. A campaign seeks to make the most efficient possible use of all the forces available to produce victory. Some issues may need only research and media. Sometimes, research may not be required because the evidence is already at hand and visible to all. For example, climate change. Here, a campaign may be focused less on research and more on advocacy and mobilization.

In 2016, an activist group named Rising Up protested against the extension of Heathrow airport, which would increase pollution. Their intention was to disrupt the airport’s services, draw media attention, increase their membership and activist base by getting publicity, and put forward their side of the argument in the national debate. The action involved fifteen individuals who chained themselves together and occupied the road leading up to the airport terminals. While the disruption was minimal (the State is very organized in ensuring that places such as airports function), the protesters received media coverage and made people aware of their cause. …

In India, disruption is only allowed if the force disrupting is significant and the State is wary of it, such as political parties, which get away with disruption all the time. Individuals and civil society organizations have to be more modest in their approach, more careful and more aware of their own safety before they pick such a tactic.

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