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Opinion | A protest selfie of our nation

  • Countries that have seen protests recently include Iran, Algeria, Lebanon, Spain, Iraq, Hong Kong, Chile, Bolivia and Pakistan
  • If you haven’t been to a protest yet, make 2020 the year you feel passionate enough to step out

Protesting farmers at the Kisan Long March in Mumbai.
Protesting farmers at the Kisan Long March in Mumbai. (Photo: HT)

When Vijoo Krishnan recounts his protest history, you can’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu. “My first protest, at St Joseph’s College of Arts & Science in Bengaluru, was in 1992 against the demolition of the Babri Masjid. There were around 2,000 students," says Krishnan. We are speaking just days after a Supreme Court ruling ensured that the land on which the masjid stood will now be home to a grand temple.

Krishnan is a central committee member of the CPM and joint secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha (Aiks), an organization that—by virtue of its size (15 million members), reach (25 states) and history (founded in 1936)—has been behind many of India’s biggest protests.

From Bengaluru, he moved to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, where he was students’ union president in 1998-99. “There were protests about a fee hike and students’ freedoms then too. I got 16 show-cause notices that year and I didn’t respond to any," says the 45-year-old, comparing his term with the ongoing student protests at the university. “But unlike today, there was always space to negotiate."

I called Krishnan because street protests have taken centre stage across the world. We may not have hosted a psychedelic protest party in the main square yet, but the Kisan Long March in 2018, which Krishan helped organise, came close when it brought two very different Indias together in south Mumbai, our richest Lok Sabha constituency. It made many Indians feel, however briefly, that they were not alone.

“Probably not since the wave of ‘people power’ movements swept Asian and East European countries in the late 1980s and early 1990s has the world experienced such a simultaneous outpouring of popular anger on the streets," says a recent article in The Economist, which then dismisses these protests as “coincidence".

Enough experts disagree. As I write this, protests have broken out in Iran and there are reports of a near complete internet shutdown. It seems quite clear that the world—Algeria, Lebanon, Spain, Iraq, Hong Kong, Chile, Bolivia and Pakistan are the latest additions—has had it with corruption, unemployment, election fraud, climate change, inequalities of income and sedition charges.

DJ Madi Karimeh plays to thousands from a balcony in Tripoli and the protest becomes a party. Protesters sing Baby Shark to a toddler caught in a demonstration in Beirut. An opera singer performs Victor Jara’s protest anthem, The Right To Live In Peace, from her window during a curfew in Santiago. Dramatic portraits emerge of Hong Kong’s masked protesters. Human chains are everywhere, from Hong Kong to Lebanon. Protesters fling toilet paper into the air in Barcelona to cries of “there isn’t enough toilet paper for so much crap!"

In Donald Trump’s America, millions have hit the streets since 2016 to log their disapproval of their government’s policies on a variety of issues, from gun violence (March for Our Lives) to immigration (Families Belong Together). There’s nothing like angry, marching people to keep a government on its toes.

As we cheer the way the citizenry is asserting itself, it’s worth switching to selfie mode. Protest remains a national activity in the country that pioneered satyagraha.

Nobody better illustrates this than the Narmada Bachao Andolan, a group that has protested single-mindedly for the last 34 years (or the approximate time it takes three generations to live through something) against the Sardar Sarovar Dam project. Residents from 178 villages submerged by the river began another indefinite protest in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, on 16 November.

Kashmiris have already commenced their masterclass in the art of protesting after the government in August effectively revoked Article 370 of the Constitution, which gave the erstwhile state its special status—and this time they have the world’s attention.

Protests by farmers, students, women and Dalits and civil society speaking up against lynchings have taken centre stage in recent years but, at any given point, many groups raise their voices across the country. If you haven’t been to a protest yet, make 2020 the year you feel passionate enough to step out of your gated community and hit the streets. Protests are the easiest way for privileged Indians to show we care about something other than our child’s genius or the length of our daily commute. And if you have been to a poorly attended protest and you are convinced that Indians don’t care enough to speak their minds, look again.

Just in the first half of November, protesting groups have included Honda’s workers at the company’s Manesar plant; midday meal workers in Assam; residents of some Bengaluru neighbourhoods (against bad roads); JNU students in Delhi; street vendors in Delhi; primary schoolteachers in Kolkata; villagers in Odisha (against a steel plant); DMK workers in Chennai (against the suicide of student Fathima Latheef); coal workers in Chhattisgarh; anti-liquor groups in Odisha; and Dalit organizations in Thiruvallur—and this is not an exhaustive list.

In recent weeks, Krishnan says, the AIKS has held wide protests against the proposed changes in the Indian Forest Act, 1927 and against multilateral trade agreement RCEP, or the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Dairy farmers brought their cattle along to the latter protests, Krishnan adds.

It’s not the first time farmers have carried props to make their point. In Aurangabad in May, thousands carried empty pots on their heads, demanding water. They threatened to commit jal samadhi (drown) at a dam if water was not released. In Rajasthan’s Sikar in February, they demonstrated outside the collectorate with bags of onions. Tamil Nadu’s farmers created a furore when they marched in Delhi in 2018 carrying skulls which they said were the remains of farmers who had committed suicide.

Krishnan says that after the Kisan Long March and the Dilli Chalo March, both in 2018, farmer protests have seen wider support from all kinds of groups. “The anger post notebandi and GST, when every section of people was affected, has led to greater solidarity with peasants."

The economy was badly hit by the government’s move to demonetize currency notes in 2016 and the shoddy implementation of a nationwide goods and services tax in 2017, data have shown.

Protesters are also coalescing because the government is mostly unresponsive to smaller efforts, says Krishnan. So the JNU students’ union has announced a “massive public march" to “save public education" this weekend. Students from all over the country and anyone else who feels strongly about this issue are invited. As Krishnan says, “More and more people understand the importance of solidarity."

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