Farmers and workers in India last month initiated a general strike that saw the participation of over 250 million people. Many have touted this as the biggest organized strike ever witnessed in human history. On 26th November, millions of farmers and workers along with students, social organizations and opposition participated in “Bharat Bandh” against the Narendra Modi’s contentious pro-corporate farm bills. A month later, farmers are still occupying the nation’s capital with the unwavering demand of repealing the farm bills. The ongoing struggle of Indian doctors against the government’s decision of certifying certain ayurvedic surgeons highlights yet another protest being written in the history of India.
In December 2019, India witnessed protest against contentious Citizenship Amendment Act which broke rapidly across different parts of the country. Apart from protests against governments’ decisions, people in India took to streets to demand action against serious lapses in civil order. Indian Doctor’s went on strike in June 2019 demanding the intervention of government in an assault case in West Bengal and providing adequate security to medical professionals. India, a diverse country, has regular protests against various government’s various policies in the past xx years.
What has changed?
But the response to general strikes in the era of PMO Narendra Modi has an oddly repetitive quality to them. Protesting students have been called “tukde tukde gang”, and political adversaries of ruling alliance advocating for liberal freedom have been called “khan market gang”. Left-leaning academicians are being dubbed as “Urban Maoists”, and dissenters against government policies are being dubbed as “Urban Naxals”. Protesting women were dubbed as “Pakistani Agents” during CAB protest.
Ongoing farmer’s protests featured some of these components. Two weeks back, propaganda was doing the rounds on the internet that the Khalistanis or Sikh Separatists were politicizing the farmers protest. Painting peaceful protesting farmers as “Khalistanis” is an all too familiar tactic that has emerged out of government discrediting the protesters repeatedly and painting them as “misguided” and “anti-national”.
Are protests anti-national elements of Society?
Protests don’t weaken any country’s democracy but strengthen it. Those who chose protests as a tool are exercising their freedom to protest and demonstrating that they have faith in institutions of the nation for relief and redressal. What differentiates protests from being an anti-national one is non-violence, as the farmers’ protests currently are. Farmers have left no stone unturned to ensure no harm or inconvenience to the people of NCR and authorities. Non-violence legitimizes protests.
Social movements and their purpose
Social movements enable a needed dialogue between citizens and the state. Purpose of dialogue could be differing. Purpose of some dialogue might warrant immediate attention and redressal. Purpose of another dialogue may ask the government for affirmative actions or retrospective actions. Sometimes purpose may pertain to policies and reforms.
Whether social movements are effective or not is another stream of discussion. But social movements and protests are important for a democracy. Citizens are demanding the removal of corrupt governments, better living standards, more freedom and rights. In 2019 alone, countries like India, Hong Kong, Spain, France, Colombia experienced widespread civil unrest. Some civil unrest forced their leaders out eventually. Bolivian Socialist President Evo Morales accused of rigging the elections was forcedly replaced by Jeanine Anez on 10th November 2019 bowing to the pressure from demonstrators and the military. Sudan ousted President Omar al-Bashir in April 2019 over economic hardships being faced by the Sudanese. Large scale public demonstrations can topple governments and change leadership.
Dr Dharamvir Gandhi, a student activist at the time of emergency now advocating for farm laws repeal and decriminalization of traditional drugs, recalled his struggle during his time at medical college of Amritsar to oppose the draconian state of emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi. He feels that peaceful protest is a right for every citizen and is an important element of democracy.
Even if we believe that voting is the most effective tool to produce change, there is still plenty of proof showing that protests alter voting behaviours and shift the attitudes of fringe voters and even organize disconnected voters. Black Lives Matter helped Biden and Trump mobilize votes and turn states in US General Election of November 2020. An extensive voter survey of 140,000 respondents conducted for the Associated Press by National Opinion Research Centre for the elections, revealed that almost nine out of ten voters considered protests over police violence and three out of four voters remarked apropos of protests while voting. One out of five voters considered protests to be the single most crucial factor while deciding at the ballot box.
In Economics, we define focal points in multiple Nash Equilibriums as the artificial phenomenon that drives behaviour or actions to reach a more optimal Nash Equilibria. The artificial phenomenon is the concept used in game theory which helps us understand why some countries end up at sub-optimal equilibria even though there are more optimal equilibria. The artificial phenomenon is essentially a social phenomenon. Social movements and protests can be considered as focal points. Therefore, the right to peaceful protest becomes necessary wherein the state fails to achieve the most optimal equilibria. Social movements are inextricably linked to policies and reforms. People exercise their right to peaceful protest not only because it is the right thing to do but because it sometimes ends up being the only effective tool at their disposal.
Kashif Khan is a second-year PGP student from IIM Ahmedabad