Introspection on Urban Activism

New Delhi : A participant shows a placard during a silent protest "Not in My Name" against the targeted lynching, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on Wednesday. PTI Photo by Shahbaz Khan(PTI6_28_2017_000215B)

I grew up in one of the big cities of India and recall celebrating every festival with family and friends. To be honest my young eyes never really differentiated between Holi, Eid, Easter, Ramadan or Christmas. I should be grateful to the wonderful upbringing by my parents who probably believed that India is defined by so many religions, cultures and practices.  While I eagerly waited for the Christmas shopping and a gift that I expected Santa to leave in the sock I hung out the night before. I was equally excited by the biryani that my father’s friend would come home and give us during Eid.Growing up in such an environment that I consider a privilege, gives a sense of liberation and freedom. Sadlythe values that I hold dear to being a responsible citizen, I see disappear andconsole myself that it is only temporary. The hate speeches, the mob lynching, the accusations of being anti-national, the gradual slaying of expression of speech, I continued to assume is temporary.

But on the 22nd of June when the horrific news of the murder of Junaid Khan surfaced, stabbed to death because of his identity, like many Indians there was a sense that this trend is here to stay. It stirred an emotion of anger, helplessness across the nation. So, when there was a call to stand up against this pattern of intolerance, in the form of, “Not In My Name” protests, I felt slightly hopeful and decided to be part of this call by attending the gathering at Jantar Mantar in Delhi. I stood in the sea of crowds at the protest, united with strangers around me that this intolerance of different religions and cultures has to stop.

But that evening I left the crowds with a cloud of sadness around me. I had this constant questions nagging at me. Why does it take several disasters before we urban folk raise our voice in unity?  How come we are not able to keep the momentum when we are unhappy with issues affecting our society?  I would like to make a disclaimer here that this is my personal experience and while I don’t think the urban-rural differentiation is a good idea, but the difference becomes prominent when we hit the streets to protest. A look at protests globally that have been driven by people living in urban areas is very telling.

Millions hit the streets in Brasil in 2014, when the Government decided to hike the bus fares. Citizens were frustrated as their Government did not care about their well-being and access to basic services like health and education. These protests gained momentum towards the FIFA World Cup which was hosted by Brasil that year. A feeling prevailed amongst the people, that the Government had the resources for over- priced stadiums but not for them. But the movement unfortunately died and met its fate, as the nation was torn between its loves for football versus a better life for its citizens.  The Occupy Wall Street Movement in 2011 originated in Zuccotti Park, New York, was a leaderless movement with no demands and no outcomes. It received much criticism for its lack of depth and vision. None of this is a case for these movements to have not happened at all but an introspection.

My own theory about these urban grown dissent movements, which are much needed as cities are not only a space of economic activity but also space for activism, is that we city folk are as complex as the cities we live in.  The ability to stay on “an issue of importance” that affects us all, in direct and indirect ways is close to impossible, and there could be several reasons but I am going to state only two of them. First, we are always in a reaction mode and we feel that this is the best mode to stay on with the speed at which the many issues come at us. In this age of digital activism, it seems a “like or share” is enough to make time for change alongside our busy lifestyles. Second, there is a perception that none of these problems on their own are good enough to affect our life, to an extent where we have to move outside our comfort zones.

So, when I left Jantar Mantar that day, my disappointment was triggered by the fact that no one spoke about what next or how are we going to ensure an end to this at the level of decision makers, which I would like to add is not the responsibility of a group of people or the people organizing the event alone, it is the responsibility of the collective. Post, the protests when the Prime Minister tweeted his response that violence in the name of gau raksha will not be tolerated, we congratulated him as a nation. But shouldn’t we have asked for some action considering we had created a platform? Or does a tweet satisfy a nation that hit the streets in anger and frustration over the lives lost.

I believe that citizens living in urban spaces, need to relook at their forms of protest and develop a pathway that leads to meaningful change. The number of issues, political and social, coming at us are only going to increase over the next few years, with more and more people migrating to cities, if we are not persistent and thoughtful, we may end up with a  massive missed opportunity.

Neha Saigal, Development Consultant and Activist


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