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Anatomy of Protests Today: The People Propose, the People Dispose

Wednesday, April 20,2016

NEW DELHI: There is something strange, perhaps even dramatic and certainly very exciting happening in India. Unfortunately this is completely passing by a media consumed with celebrities and government inspired issues, as well as of course the ruling dispensation that it still under the illusion that it can divide the country on the basis of non-issues.

It is happening despite the efforts to polarise India on the basis of stereotypes, false debates, red herrings, hate speech. It is happening despite the corporate media and its relentless effort to plug the government line as was evident, say, during prime time on April 19 when one channel spent an hour interviewing a glamour doll, and another screamed its way through an ‘Ishrat Jehan is a terrorist’ campaign even as most of Indian farmers were reeling under drought, and Bengaluru was facing a violent EPF protest.

Over the past year, India has become home to a spate of almost continuous protests. This has accelerated over the past six months, with the Sangh parivar’s efforts to divide the people on religious and caste lines being subsumed by almost leaderless protests for economic justice and rights. So while the ‘nationalist’ channels bombard the drawing rooms with screaming debates on Ishrat Jehan as if the couple of recent revelations take away from the ‘fake encounter’, workers poured out on the streets of Bengaluru in protest against the central government’s changes to the Employees Provident Fund withdrawal rules announced in the 2015 budget.

Garment workers, in what seemed to be a leaderless and spontaneous protest, brought the capital of Karnataka to a standstill for two days and the government to its knees with Union Labor Minister Bandaru Dattatreya declaring, “We have decided to cancel the February notification (tightening PF withdrawal norms)…the old system will continue.” In that the rollback will now ensure that Provident Fund subscribers can withdraw their entire retirement fund if they are unemployed for two months or more.

The protesters made their point and left, only to return the next day, in larger numbers, more united and also more violent. Various trade unions and political parties tried to step in to organise, and take credit, for the agitation but it was apparent that initially no one person or group was in the lead. And the workers had gathered of their own volition, in response to a grapevine that uses the social media, the mobile phone, the ‘drum beat’ word of mouth system to its advantage.

This has been the anatomy of recent protests across India. Rights and justice hinged on economic aspirations has become the new driving force, with the farmers in particular, coming out of their homes voluntarily to lay siege to the bigger towns for relief from loans, debts, crop failure, drought, water. In Nasik recently over a lakh of farmers left their fields in response to one call by a Left Kisan Union to camp for days on the roads, until their demand for drought relief was heard and acted on. The organisers themselves are often surprised at the response. Farmers have come in the thousands to Delhi, marched to Ahmedabad, sat on the roads in Haryana, in Punjab, in Andhra Pradesh, in Maharashtra to raise their voice for their rights. Kisan leader Hannan Mollah told The Citizen that the farmers who were amongst the most reluctant to leave their fields for the cities to protest on any issue are now virtually taking the lead to bring their problems to the ears of the political powers, no matter what it takes.

The kisan unions are basically providing the logistics, to enable the protest, but the farmers are themselves in the lead. They are vocal, they speak out in the rallies, and they are clear that they cannot tolerate this apathy and neglect for too long. It is a powerful vote bank, more so as the farming community cuts across the communal divide with the governments feeling the heat and the pressure, at the centre and in the respective states. Again while the demands are similar in Karnataka, and in Uttar Pradesh, the leadership is disparate to say the least, with a small Union now finding itself with the capacity of mobilising hundreds of kisans, so long as it is able to provide the logistics for the protest.

In other words, as the kisan leaders said, the farmers are now coming out of their homes and are prepared to go with any group that they feel can facilitate the protest. The kisans do not necessarily owe allegiance to the organisation that has brought them to Delhi for instance, with several farmers making it clear to the Citizen at an earlier protest, that they were not concerned about the ‘manch’ where the local leaders were sitting, but about their demands being met. As a Jat farmer from Meerut said, “we are all being crippled, we have a bleak future staring at us, and we need an assurance from the government that it will deal with our issues immediately.”

This assurance of course, has not been forthcoming as the farmers in drought affected Maharashtra have learnt. The water train to Latur is basically a symptom of the terrible crisis the entire belt is facing, and certainly not a solution for the farmers who have no water now to drink, let alone irrigate their parched fields. Their only source of income is over, the wells have dried, and the loans are rising steadily.

Interestingly, these protests over the year have an interesting anatomy if dissected carefully. This includes the ex-servicemen protests for One Rank One Pension; it includes the students stir for the right to dissent, against repression and intimidation; it includes the farmers and the garment workers; and the several protest demonstrations held in Delhi and other major cities for communal harmony, democratic rights, and freedoms. It also includes the protest held by journalists after some of them were beaten by lawyers at the Patiala courts.

For one, the protests as pointed out earlier are largely spontaneous. There is no one leader. The leaders follow the protest as it were. It was a little more organised insofar as the ex-servicemen were concerned but even here just a few retired officers emerged took the lead after the protest had begun. The students of Jawaharlal Nehru University and Hyderabad Central University came out in protest in large numbers, again without any one leader to begin with. It was a spontaneous outburst, as the students came out in big protest in Hyderabad, in Delhi and other university campuses. It was only later than committee were formed, but these were largely citizen driven.

Two, the political parties are finding it difficult to take over these movements that remain targeted against the government, at the centre mostly, but are reluctant to cloud the demands in a political envelope. The farmers thus, are protesting under many banners; the ex-servicemen remain more or less led by their own officers; the students are taking up and adding causes without parroting the agenda of any one political party, in fact JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar went out of his way to say that he was not going to campaign for political parties including the Left; the garment workers have attacked the government but not embraced any political party as yet; the Jats in Haryana, the Patels in Gujarat have held huge rallies but again have maintained a distance from the opposition parties.

For instance no one was very clear who was “behind” Hardik Patel, the young man in his 20’s who led this huge stir before being arrested on sedition charges and locked in jail by the government. Some said he had been supported by the Congress, others saw it as a BJP president Amit Shah led conspiracy to undermine the authority of the Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel, but till date there is not a single person who can say or write that the Patels owe allegiance to any one political force insofar as the current agitation is concerned.

The same is true for the Jats in Haryana who took the state by storm, with violence and rape becoming part of the agitation that was quelled only after the government brought in the Army. Again who was the one political party or one individual behind this stir? No answers as there is no clear cut leadership, just a motley that has tried to fish in the troubled waters but without much success.

All the protests are against the policies of the Modi government. But who are they for, or with? This question draws a blank.

Three, economic considerations are overriding with the communal divisive agenda being subsumed by issues of livelihood. The stereotype of the ‘other’ is overtaken when it comes to livelihood issues with farmers, workers, students uniting for their rights against the government and not the ‘other’. Gujarat has moved dramatically out of the Hindu-Muslim equation into which it had been sunk pre- and post-2002 with the dominant community of Patels now coming together, not against the Muslim, but against the government for justice. Unemployment here is the driving force, with the Patidars demanding the realisation of the promises made to them.

Four, the protests do not die down with band aid measures and/or rhetoric. The protestors come back over and over again if required, to press for their demands. The Patidar stir did not die down with the arrest of Hardik Patel. Lalji Patel, his mentor in one sense, felt the pressure and had to come out on to the streets to raise the same demand for reservations. The Jats were more successful in getting the government to accept their demands, but they have warned that if this is not implemented soon, they will move their agitation to Delhi. The farmers, the most marginalised of all, have been agitating repeatedly, almost every day and every week for over a year now. In Kashmir the protests are spontaneous since 2010 now, with students and the youth collecting within minutes to protest on issues that continue to afflict the border state. The separatists are not the leaders, they follow the protests, the youth are in charge. Just as they are now taking the lead in the campuses in other states of India, be it FTII earlier, IIT-M, and now more recently HCU and JNU.

Five, democratic forces have also emerged to speak out for rights, justice, dissent, debate, rationality. Huge demonstrations have been seen in Delhi, again without any one political party or individual in the lead. These rallies and sit-ins have been spontaneous, to mark the citizens protest on what the banners spoke of as an assault on democracy. Political parties were again not in the lead, they followed the lead either by staying away or attending as invitees, not as the organisers.

Despite this the government is feeling the heat of raw peoples power moving back on decisions taken. It brought down Army bunkers in violence hit Handwara to assuage peoples sentiments; it rolled back the controversial EPF provisions after the workers paralysed Bengaluru; it rushed to meet the demand for reservations in Haryana when the Jats took over the state, fighting pitched battles with even the Army; it backed off on the students releasing all arrested under sedition charges in JNU; and after the Nasik siege in Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis immediately called the Kisan leaders for talks although of course, not much has been done—except knee jerk responses like the watertrain to Latur— still to alleviate their misery on the ground.

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