Protest in 2020 has acquired a completely new meaning. Even amid the threat of a life-taking pandemic in place, hundreds of thousands of Americans of all races emerged out in the streets last week to protest the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd, systemic racism, and police brutality in the USA. India has recently been emerging in protest too and as we move towards an India where protestors are being subjected to witch-hunt and every effort is being made to crush dissent, it has become more important than ever to rewind and study protests in India.
N.B.: Last year, in the light of the anti-CAA protests, we revised our initial list of contributors and included the testimonies of two more citizens who were a part of the anti-CAA protests this year in Mumbai at August Kranti Maidan.
Senior Journalist Gauri Lankesh was shot dead in September 2017. Hers was not just a single unfortunate, inhumane event but one in a series of incidents where great thinkers and voices of reason and rationale have been forever silenced in a similar manner. Silenced, with no impending justice to be met.
This incident became a trigger for journalists around the country to raise their voice and question their own safety. They protested and as a cub reporter in the industry, I too joined in to find answers to the questions that I was enraged with. Is calling out an ideology something ‘one must do at their own risk’? Is this just another professional hazard? Is there no room for discourse?
The protest did not help me find answers. It did, however, help me find my own voice and assert my own beliefs amongst hundreds of journalists from various levels and publications who had gathered there in solidarity to make it clear that they shall not be silenced.
This protest was important for me, not just as an aspiring journalist, but also as a citizen of the country with the right to freedom of speech and expression. It is here that I found resonance and even assurance that I must continue reporting the truth as a journalist, a profession that is integral to my own identity.
Though this was a protest for a cause that hit closest to home, it wasn’t my first. I had attended Anna Hazare’s Anti-corruption movement as a 16-year-old when I was just becoming aware of the realities of life. Though the protest and the passing of the Jan Lokpal Bill hardly made India corruption free, it was the first time I witnessed the power of solidarity. I realized what a huge difference the mindful exercising of our rights can bring about.
The right to protest is a powerful thing. It may not always bring forth results but is truly required in a democracy where majoritarian views are almost always upheld. We are one of the very few countries in the world to have the right to fight against the system, to question its ways and we have been doing that since time immemorial.
Our own struggle for freedom started with a series of protests and as we celebrate 71 years of Independence today we question what it has meant and what it means to freely question and pressurize the government and power figures into doing the right thing.
In this spirit, we spoke to 9 Indians across generations about the first protest they attended and their responses couldn’t have been more varied. From being lathi-charged in the 60s to sneaking food into hunger strikes in the 90’s to being part of a rap campaign against a corporate just 3 years ago, read these stories of passion, rebellion, courage, enlightenment and solidarity that truly capture the essence of India.
*The views in the article are entirely those expressed by the contributors.
I. Geetanjali Jha Chakraborty, 46
Social Worker, Mumbai
Rebel for a well-researched cause
“My first ever protest was back in 1989, when I was pursuing Psychology Honours from Delhi University. It was a protest against Mandal Commission (1990) which made provisions for reservations in government jobs to other backward classes. It was a fight for the recognition of merit and doing away with continued reservations based on caste. A lot of students had self-immolated themselves and protests were happening across the country. Classes were being boycotted, dharnas were being held and I too joined in the student protest in the spirit, without knowing or understanding too much about the situation at hand – a decision I regret as I feel differently now.
At the time I was not aware of the realities of the country, and this was a cause I did not fully comprehend. I was protesting just for the sake of it, because everyone around me was doing it. I felt later that it was an unorganised movement, and one of sentiments I did not agree with. The right way would have been to debate and silently protests against it, but it soon spiralled out of control and students were immolating themselves and burning buses.
It is a great thing to be able to protest for something you feel is wrong and I feel lucky that our constitution provides us with this privilege. However, my biggest learning and advice would be to research well before joining any protest - you should not find yourself protesting for an issue you disagree with merely because your friends or classmates are doing it.”
II. Srishti Chakraborty, 19
No equality without intersectionality
“My first (and only) protest was this year. I attended the Woman’s March in London in January. It was the second woman’s march to be held in London. I felt really empowered to be surrounded by so many women and know that we were all here to fight for feminism.
However, at the same time, nearly all the people at the march were white women, and it was kind of alienating to look around and only see white people. I was very well aware of the way in which my feminism differed from theirs - being a woman of colour, I have to contend with a different experience of feminism that can often be overlooked or trivialised amongst the community of white feminists.
The roots of the issues feminists in India and in the UK are worried about are the same - misogyny, the mistreatment of women, the inequality women face, and so on. But the ways in which these issues play out are vastly different in both countries. For example, in the UK women might be protesting against lower pay, while in India, many women do not even get the opportunity to work at all. Though I didn’t see any evidence of the women around me being the kind of “white feminists” I was afraid of, I couldn’t help but wonder if that was the case.
I have never actually been to a protest in India, for an Indian issue. Up until this point, I was always somewhat intimated by the idea of protesting, particularly in India where you often hear about people being beaten up at ‘peaceful’ protests. This is not to say that I wouldn’t go to a protest in India in the future - I just haven’t done it so far.”
III. Arun Krishnamurthy*, 35
Marketing Professional, Coimbatore
Let all sides be heard
“Jallikattu has been a tradition of Tamil Nadu for a long time. For a few years, PETA had been fighting to ban it and had succeeded in doing so.
My first protest was about this cause. I am quite aware of the hate I shall receive for it, but I am pro-Jallikattu. My understanding of the whole movement is quite different.
The pro-Jallikattu protest had one aim, to revoke the ban and ban PETA from India. PETA claimed animal cruelty and I would not agree with it completely. Yes, there have been such cases but most of them have been dealt with. Jallikattu was not just a bull sport but also a method of rearing the specific breed of Kangayam cattle. Fact is the population of the breed went from over a million in 1990’s to just around 15,000 today. The protest was much to do with the fact that a native breed was going towards extinction. I supported the movement because a culture was being taken away and a species was going toward its extinction.
All perspectives should be heard and a protest gives us the platform to do that. The final verdict should be of the lawmakers but our democracy gives us the right to voice our opinions and we should exercise this right – in a peaceful manner.”
IV. Anil Shukla, 47
Hunger Games at Kanpur
“I was a 20-year-old Engineering student, studying in Kanpur’s HBTI College when I participated in a protest for the first time. Jaundice was rampantly spreading and a lot of people were falling sick, so we requested our dean to postpone the exams but he paid absolutely no heed to it.
We were young, passionate, enraged souls and we wanted to do something about the situation at hand. The student leaders called a meeting in the middle of the night and influenced us to join the protests and hold an ‘Anshan’ (hunger strike) until our demands were met.
The very next day at 5 am, we found ourselves sitting on the University gate in protest. It was a hot day in April 1991. I wasn’t quite aware of what ‘Anshan’ meant but when I found out that I wasn’t even allowed to drink water, I sort of started regretting my decision. But everyone had their own ways and means of surviving the strike. There was food being passed around discreetly and I also broke upon and enjoyed a piece of Samosa. Little did I know that if one was caught eating during a hunger strike, they could be very well be put behind the bars – because a protest essentially means that one is putting pressure on the government and one cannot cheat it.
Though luckily, I was not caught eating, a lot of people left the strike in the middle. By night time, only 20 of us remained until the dean called the police who threatened us with lathi charge I remember we ran barefoot for almost 3 km until we reached Rawatpur station where we spent the night.
Although the hunger strike was called off, the exams were postponed and we got local media coverage as well, this experience taught me an important lesson – the best experiences in life are results of impulsive, passionate decisions taken from the heart and it is only then that we can achieve our truest potential. Now that I look back upon it, I find the entire episode very funny, but I don’t regret it a bit. I did what I had to and I continue living in that spirit.”
V. Hansika Baskar, 22
Advertising Professional, Bangalore
“The first protest that I was part of wasn’t a conventional one. Being a Media Studies student I was interning as an Assitant Producer for Sofia Ashraf’s latest campaign, a protest in the form of a rap song titled ‘Kodaikanal Won’t’. Set to Nicki Minaj’s ‘Anaconda,’ the video was released in 2015.
The song narrates the story of the Unilever thermometer factory in Kodaikanal, and the alleged mercury pollution, which has devastated the region and the lives of the factory’s former workers. The song skilfully intended to raise awareness for the hundreds of workers and residents of the region and evoke an emphatic response from the company’s Indian parent.
When I joined the team in the production of this song, I did not know much about its cause. But as we started shooting and as I learnt more about what HUL had done, I felt enraged. But I was also glad that I was going to be part of a passion-driven project that could help change HUL’s ways. The entire team put their heart and souls into the campaign, absolutely free of cost and we were extremely happy that the campaign did not just go viral, but many influential people joined in and HUL finally took a step ahead in changing its ways.
Personally, being a small part of something big that impacted lives in good ways was extremely overwhelming. This protest made me aware of consumerism, of the production process of FMCGs, concepts about fair trade, labour rights and most importantly about solidarity – coming together to make this a world a better place.”
VI. Upendranath Dutt, 77
Retired Electrical Engineer, Gurgaon
A Battle For Hindi
“It was just before the Chinese Oppression, in the early 60s that I participated in a protest for the first time. I must be aged around 19 or 20 back then. It had been almost 15 years that country had achieved Independence but a lot of things were still not in place.
One of the issues was of language. I believed a majority of the countrymen were from the Hindi speaking belt and we wanted the government to give due recognition to Hindi and put it into official use, perhaps even make it the country’s national language. We wrote multiple letters to the Central Governments but no one paid any heed to it.
Thus, we planned a peaceful protest in Delhi, but a few unwanted trouble-makers also joined in causing havoc and indulging in violence. Things escalated when the police were called and there was a lathi charge. Many protestors were injured. But I remained safe as I went and hid behind the stage.
However, this did not deter our spirits. We continued with peaceful marches and silent protests for a long time until eventually the government paid attention to our needs and acted upon it.
As a youngster, I felt great to have been part of a movement that initiated change in the country and to this date, I do not regret my decision. In fact, I feel that it is the responsibility of the youth of this country to peacefully uphold the nationalistic cause.”
VII. Ernest Flanagan, 61
Songs of Rebellion
“ Happiness is what we bring
All we do is play and Sing
You take the work we need
Our children’s mouth to feed
Let the music play
This new tax has made us bleed
Taking the air that we breathe”
“I am a professional musician living in Mumbai. Five years ago, the entertainment tax was introduced by the Revenue Minister. Big Hotels were asked to pay around INR 20,000 for live music shows and smaller hotels were asked for a sum of INR 50,000. For this reason, the hotels stopped hiring musicians and so many of us went out of business overnight. There was absolutely no source of income. Musicians started selling their instruments. Some left music altogether. The only source of income was through tuition classes. Enraged by this, a few of us collected at Carter Road one evening. I had penned down a few protest songs that we performed over there. This was my first ever form of protest.
Though the situation is better now and musicians are slowly getting back to business, this incident made me realize the power of music as a means to protest. Shouting and yelling is unpleasant, but a song has a meaning. It has more reach and more people would want to hear it. Iconic Musicians like Bob Marley, Bob Dylan etc. have been protest singers. Most people would want to hear the recording of a protest song. It has the potential to go viral online, so more people can know and support the cause.”
VIII. Swati Nair
At the anti-CAA Mumbai protests in the August Kranti Maidan, I was pleasantly surprised to see an influx of people from across all age groups and walks of life come together peacefully to exercise their rights. Post rally, many of us organically started cleaning up the streets together, simply because we wanted to. It was beautiful.
IX. Rohan Alex, 21
In such a politically volatile climate, witnessing people gather in large numbers to support a democratic cause was nothing short of a spectacle. People from all walks of life vying against the unconstitutional CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) and championing the idea of a secular India, was something I had never seen before. I felt a strong sense of purpose and responsibility in standing with my city to protest against such discrimination. The Mumbai Police was very much in sync with the pulse of the protest, and thereby managed the rally really well.
*Some names have been changed to protect identity.
Feature Image Courtesy: yahoo.com
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