Protests, protest everywhere, but not (a major) one in India?


The world seems roiled by a “million mutinies now,” to use a term used by VS Naipaul to describe a situation in India in the 1980s. Yet, while India still might be witnessing a million small mutinies…there is hardly any countrywide or even more localized mass movement which encompasses, expresses and embraces the protests of all the disadvantaged classes in India.

Except for a recent protest by followers and supporters of the Ravidas faith – more of that below – mass protests have been few and far between in India.

But the world has been witnessing in the recent past, organizing and signs of resistance in various parts, some of which have been under authoritarian rule, over a variety of issues. What, however, seems to be common to most of these protests is that they are composed of – and even led by – mostly the common people [1]. In other words, they are not being spearheaded by political formations. There have been protests in Hong Kong, Lebanon, Catalonia, Chile, Iraq, and in Ecuador. Our neighboring Bangladesh has witnessed strong protests off and on – including one for road safety in 2018 – since the mass protests called the “Shahbagh movement” in 2013.

India has seen its share of human rights abuses and severe economic distress in recent years. Especially, since the right-wing BJP took power in 2014, an environment of hostility, co-option and impunity towards the disenfranchised, the socially marginalized castes and religious minorities, and even several civil liberties defenders, has gained momentum. What the country has witnessed is a tightening grip of hardening nationalism and majoritarianism. However, alongside the growth of such strident nationalism, there has been dismay in the economic sector. A recent report highlighted that fact that even youngsters are seeking recourse in government schemes which guarantee an income for a fixed number of days (NREGA) [2]. There have been other indicators that the economy is seeing some sort of a slowdown and contraction. Recently released reports on nutritional intake, especially among children, have painted an unflattering picture of India.

Yet, there seems to be no mass unrest that is rippling through the length and breadth of India. We seem to take everything in our stride, happier each passing day with armchair finger-swipe whatsapp-activism.

When the current government abrogated Article 370 in Kashmir and imposed a very strict communications lockdown, the nation did not erupt into any sort of mass protest. There were only a few pockets of protests, mostly in urban areas, which saw some outrage and arm-waving, maybe a short march or two.

It was probably too much to expect from the mainland, what with its troubled, tenuous and ill-informed relationship with Kashmir anyway. Also, quite recently, passions were stoked sky-high over the Pulwama incident, in a direction away from any sympathy with Kashmir, and before that, on-campus sloganeering over the hanging of Afzal Guru was made into a national issue relating to sedition and patriotism. At any rate, for very long now, especially since the 1980s at least, Kashmir has been projected has the “hotbed” of terrorism – and public opinion about Kashmir, and Kashmiris, turned even more unfavorable after the exodus of Kashmiri pandits from the valley.

In the mainland, there are probably no civil society organizations which take up the “Kashmir issue” as their single focus. This has been the domain of a variety of human rights bodies and some highly motivated individuals who have mercifully kept up the fight for Kashmir’s cause over the years (one must also mention previous work by someone like K. Balagopalan in this connection). Such a struggle also has been always against the grain, for Kashmir is an emotional issue always, invariably tied up with history, the nation – and in sharper focus more recently, in religio-nationalist terms. So, it is little wonder that the abrogation of  article 370 was met with muted outrage and sporadic acts of protest.

The abominable Kashmir clampdown was unfortunately not the only incident of exclusion and oppression. A National Register of Citizens (NRC) process in Assam finally struck the names of  hundreds of thousands of people from the state’s list of legal citizens. Though the NRC process had been long in the making, the nationalistic edge that the current goverrnment provided it can hardly be ignored. Issues of immigration, borders, threat to native culture etc are sensitive issues – and many Assamese have made a case for viewing the NRC process in the correct context. However, the process of excluding the people was flawed despite all claims to the contrary – and affected the poorest strata of the society the most. But was this incident in Assam one behind which much of country could have gotten together? Was this a national issue or one in which people in the rest of India perceived it as something that threatened their own status and legitimacy as citizens? Given the partisan way in which the narrative around the Assam NRC was couched especially in its final stretches, it is doubtful it would have touched the heart of soul of a majority of Indians, fed as they have been on a steady diet of “us” and “them,” and the strident campaign against “illegal Bangladeshis” that has been going for a while now, its tone accentuated by the current dispensation in the center.

What about economic issues and job opportunities? What about the deadly attacks against minorities, especially Muslims, which have resulted in lynchings? What about the steady erosion of the rights of Dalits, the continuing atrocities, the ever-changing mechanisms to disrupt the political formations and electoral preferences among castes? It seems none of them individually, or taken together as an expression of general anger have provoked the country into any act of defiance and protest.

However, there have been some exceptions to this apparent apathy, listlessness and fragmented nature of people’s mobilizations. In 2018, various Dalit groups throughout India called for a Bharat Bandh over the Supreme Court’s order on the SC/ST Atrocities Act. The bandh was carried out in pretty much a pan-Indian manner, with protests in states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Bihar. The bandh was executed not by any single party or organization leading the call but by numerous local, ground-level SC/ST organizations that took up the task of organizing protests in their areas.

Then, following the demolition of the Ravidas temple in Tughlaqabad in New Delhi in September 2019, thousands of Ravidasis and their supporters from different states in north India converged onto the capital on a call given for a protest march, an occasion which was named Rosh Divas (A day of rage). The Ravidasis organized a march through Delhi ending up at the site of the demolished temple. That protest, and subsequent struggle by various Ravidasi groups have finally resulted in the Supreme Court accepted the Centre’s revised offer of 400 sq mt land in Tughlaqabad forest area for the construction of Guru Ravidas temple [3].

A farmer’s rally in February-March 2018, principally in Maharashtra, also saw large mobilization, and even support from several residents of Mumbai. The Kisan Mukti March in November 2018 saw sizeable mobilization of farmers from across the country in Delhi; standing out among them were the farmers from Tamil Nadu who came with skulls.

Other mobilizations which merit mention are the 2016 trade unions’ protest against economic policies; recent protests as part of the Narmada Bachao Abhiyan (NBA); and the resistance to cutting the Aarey forest.

Yet, apart from the mobilizations by the Dalits, other mobilizations seem to be unable to force any major changes or action to force the acceptance of the demands in various policies, especially policies affecting farmers who still form a large portion of the workforce of the country – and on whom the food security of the nation depends.

The levels of income inequality in India has been quite high for a while now and the Indian farm sector (as well as what is called the rural non-farm sector) has been witnessing a “demand slowdown,” again a while in the making [4]. What is responsible for such inequities in the Indian economic system are structural issues – issues to do with directives of structural adjustment programs, skewed priorities of governments, and also attempts at ignoring diversity and trying to impose a narrow uniformity. There have been attempts, veiled and overt, to subvert freedom of expression, especially of minorities – social and religious. For such a sinister effort on such a grand scale, one wonders how there is no national level outrage which boils over.

For very long now, it would seem, that student organizing in India has been either very ineffective, fragmented and even ideologically scattered. When the youth population of the country is not able to exert its “demographic power,” then one source of the mass action has to be discounted. To be sure, some universities, especially in larger towns and cities like Delhi, Hyderabad, Varanasi, Allahabad and Kolkata have been on the forefront of various kinds of protests, but none of them have recently been at the center of even city-wide mobilizations. Of course, one has to acknowledge the forces of State that have been trying to control and muzzle even what little forms of struggle springs from these few campuses.

Broader alliances, especially of students, labour organizations and civil rights groups (or even of farmers groups) hardly exist in any meaningful ways. In many ways this is also the hubris of the left which would prefer to exist as silos rather than find common ground across different organizations and platforms and work together without seeking to dominate or co-opt. As several examples from Latin America show, it is important for several progressive configurations – especially labour, the campesinos and the traditional left forces – to come together and establish alternatives to authoritarian regimes. Till we in India can find common cause against the forces of narrow, exclusionary ideology and anti-worker policies, it will be difficult to work up enough resistance to the widespread flouting of rights and liberties. We have to look for examples from all parts of the world where people’s actions and organizing has been able to either reverse policy measures or topple regimes:  the anti-war protests against an Iran invasion in the US [5]; the rallying in Ecuador by indigenous groups; or the protests in Hong Kong where the protestors have carried on their protests almost unabated. Unless we build strength among the masses, political formations will change at the center, but the core exploitative agendas will not.



Ananda Maitreya is a Delhi-based writer and a student of social movements. He has been involved in various struggles of the marginalized people, including Dalit and Adivasi movements and the Palestinian struggle.




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