Protest demonstrations (at least in northern India) tend to have something of the monotonous in them, the same cadence, the same rhythm and the same wailing, complaining tone. They tend to have an air of events staged by the defeated, for the defeated. But if we take the last three big protests in the city, and the many gatherings in JNU in the last two weeks or so, as any indicator of what the pulse of our time is, we will have to agree that there has been a qualitative transformation in the language, vocabulary and affect of protests. This afternoon, like the afternoon of the 18th (the first big JNU solidarity march), and of the 23rd of February (the Justice for Rohith Vemula March), was as much about the joy of togetherness and friendship as it was about rage and anger.
Things took some time to start, because the Delhi police, had ‘escorted’ the buses full of students from the JNU campus through what must have been a ‘tourist’ itinerary all over Delhi. By the time the JNU buses arrived, a sizable crowd had already gathered – students from all the other universities in Delhi, some students from distant parts – (a small but vocal contingent from Manipur, protesting against the military occupation of their universities), as well as teachers, people from different walks of life, the very young and the very old, many with colorful and inventive hand made signs. I kept spying a young man who never let his arms drop. They held a bright pink square of paper that declared, ‘Feeing Seditious’. It made sedition feel like what it should always feel like – seduction.
The JNU students, when they arrived, brought their characteristic black and white photocopied signs with them. This time, some signs referred to signs themselves, protesting against the fact that an ‘informal’ gag order, co-operatively enforced by the Delhi Police and the JNU administration had meant that the photocopy shops that the students patronize were scared off their business. An announcement of solidarity with the photocopy shop owners and workers kick started the march – apparently some people from a popular photocopying shop near JNU had been picked up by the police, kept in a lock up through the night and beaten badly. It felt good to be in a march that was as concerned with the fate of radical student activists turned political prisoners as it was with machine operators in a small photocopy shop.
Other signs spoke of love for Kanhaiya and for Umar, attacked the AFSPA, said that Smriti Irani’s stepping down would be a giant leap for Education, Railed against the media houses that had passed doctored tapes as evidence, spoke of freedom for Kanhaiya, Umar, Anirban and for the detained Delhi University professor, S.A. R. Geelani. I even saw a sign demanding the demilitarization of Siachen expressing solidarity with soldiers who are made to go to die in high altitude glaciers for no good reason.
The march, with all its signs, with its medley of positions, its fearless lack of the complaint and petition mode of politics, made its way from Mandi House Circle to Parliament Street, greeting passersby with much enthusiastic sloganeering. The by now familiar and comforting chants of ‘Hum Kya Chahtey – Azadi’ (‘What do We Want – Freedom’) which had caught this generation’s imagination (in Delhi) during the anti-rape protests of 2012 and which seem to have become the sonic magnet of young peoples’ desires everywhere – talked of freedom from Capitalism, Patriarchy, Casteism – talked of freedom in the night and in the day, in Manipur and in Kashmir, for workers and for peasants and even for soldiers.The eagerness with which this seven syllable strophe (and its responses) are voiced seem to be generating a serious headache for the current regime. Freedom is the last thing it would want the young to yearn for.
When the march reached its destination by the barricades of Parliament Street, between banks and a police station, (between capital and the punitive power of the state – from which the students repeatedly asked for Azadi, liberation) most of the assembled young people sat down, and listened, with exemplary patience to statement after statement – from different people, teachers, a very wide and diverse spectrum of political activists, journalists and others – the sequence of who spoke after whom was deftly handled by Shehla Rashid, the vice president of JNUSU, who also lead the students in repeated rounds of sloganeering. The loudest applause was for Vishwadgeep, a journalist who had left Zee TV out of disgust for its biased and manipulative reports of the student protests, and for Pradeep a student activist who had resigned from the fascist ABVP. Both of them spoke about how they had found themselves transformed by the protests that they had witnessed. Pradeep’s testimony of his rejection of the politics of those in power was one of the most moving statements I have heard in a long time. He was clearly a nationalist, and there was much in what he said that I would still disagree with, but his admission of not being able to bear the poison in the ABVP’s politics (agar karodon musalmanon ko dhamkana rashtravad hai to main aisi rashtravad ko nahin manta).
After many speeches, just as it was turning dark, word came that the Delhi High Court had granted Kanhaiya Kumar interim bail for six months. The gathering erupted into a spontaneous wave of celebration. There was a lot of Jai Bhim, a lot of Laal, laal, laal salaam, and every inquilab became zindabad.
When I got home and realized that the bail order was as much a relief as it was a gag order, speaking of the need to amputate a gangrenous limb, infected by subversion, I realized that there would still need to be many gatherings, many assemblies that could act as the vectors of the contagion that makes even bail orders turn pale with fear into prison sentences.