The politics of protests and its repercussions

Jan SatyagrahaIndia has witnessed in recent years a spate of agitations wherein people in large numbers had banded together as one to voice their political, social and economic grievances. Broadly speaking, agitations can be construed as the collective articulation of disenchantment or dissatisfaction with government authorities, social, political and economic establishments and these agitations could entail an array of issues — from farmers’ issues, education, essential services and transport facilities to wages, Dalit issues and rights of women, etc.

Some experts opine that sustenance and evolution of agitations in India has occurred amid an unequal society, rampant poverty and crime, apathetic state and a slow moving legal system. It is further argued by these experts that in the absence of other avenues, agitations/protests have become a means of grievance redressal, a way of legitimizing the demands, a function of multi-cultural democracy and a form of freedom of speech and expression. Pointing out that such agitations can be construed in terms of the articulation of the collective conscience of the nation, these experts also opine that these agitations are organic and dynamic, changing their forms, scale and sometimes, agendas. Failure of judicial and state processes breeds conflict, often forcing the people to take to the streets to administer some form of vigilante justice and retribution.

Causes of agitations in recent times have ranged from anger on assault of freedom of speech and expression, condemnation of rising incidents of atrocities on Dalits and Muslims, farmers’ woeful plight, deaths and droughts, women safety, to student movements in the wake of state crackdown in educational institutions.

Anatomy of Agitations

Viewed in a broad spectrum, India has had a long tradition of agitations, dating back to independence movements when the consciousness of a nation state started taking root among the people and these ranged from the intense revolution of 1857, to peaceful pan-India Gandhian Satyagraha. The post-independent India has witnessed evolution of novel and powerful methods of agitations that apart from generating attention also hold symbolic value. Agitations of all kinds have come to co-exist in India, ranging from protests for rape victims, agitations for reservations and anti-reservations, screening of film Padmavat, over Pakistani actors in Bollywood to atrocities on Dalits and farmers’ miserable plight.

According to a study based on the data compiled by the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D), between 2009 and 2014, 4,20,000 protests were held across India — an average of 200 protests every day nationwide. While reporting that nearly half of these protests were led by political parties, the study makes it discernible that the sharpest rise in unrest came from student-led agitations (148%) between 2009 and 2014. It can also be discerned from this study that growth in unrest in India during the period under review could be attributed to varied reasons: communal (92%), government employee grievances (71%), political (42%) and labour (38%). Political parties and their affiliates were reportedly behind 32% of the protests recorded in the country and additions of the student bodies and labour unions could lead to the percentage going up to 50%.

Delhi, the country’s capital, has designated demonstration sites, the best-known being Jantar Mantar, Ramlila Maidan and India Gate. It witnessed nearly 23,000 protests in the period 2009 to 2014. The notable agitations and protests held in Delhi range from retired soldiers’ demand for ‘one rank, one pension,’ protests in the wake of the Nirbhaya rape case in December 2012, Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement in 2011 and again in March 2018 for Lokpal Bill and for the farmers’ cause and recent protest by farmers from Tamil Nadu, etc.

August-September, 2016, witnessed Marathas, constituting 33 percent of Maharashtra’s population, coming out on the streets in force, demanding reservation for their community. In past two years (2016-2017), Gujarat has witnessed the Patidar movement demanding reservations for the Patels under the youthful leadership of Hardik Patel. Atrocities on Dalits in Gujarat, especially in the aftermath of the flogging of four Dalits in Una, led to the emergence of Jignesh Mevani as the new face for the Dalits who have rallied behind him. These movements have not been orchestrated or patronized by any political party at the outset but the success of their agitations has spurred all political parties to vie for their favour. Undoubtedly, all these new movements are inherently political; nevertheless, they go far beyond the hands of even key players.

In the wake of emergence of new movements led by young leaders on the Indian political firmament, some political pundits have raised pertinent questions like: Is the rise of these pertinent movements the failure of politics as has been in practice in the past? Have political parties failed to protect the interests of these communities? Has one society begun to consider the other a threat? And is the political status quo changing? These political experts seldom expect immediate answers to these complex questions and are in favour of ‘wait and watch.’

The youth of the day constitutes a major chunk of the total population and a large number of them are gradually getting disenchanted with the old stereotyped and self-centered leadership. Social media has provided the youth with a platform to come together and demand its adequate share in the society. Some experts don’t see the emergence of these movements as a sort of conflict between societies and communities. For them, it is not the story of one community pitted against another, rather it’s still the story of one community asking for its rights.

With regard to farmers’ agitations, many experts opine that these agitations are not mere reflection of farmers’ frustration with the agricultural policies of the government, as it appears prima facie; rather, it is a culmination of increasing disenchantment with the state’s increasing obsession with the urban. It is also argued by these experts that there is a constant concern with the rural in the development discourse in independent India. However, another fact is that the rural has also witnessed increasing sense of marginalisation, negligence and above all a sense of inferiority vis-a-vis a new urban India.

Economic Costs

The state and public have to bear the brunt of these agitations. Agitations do lead to losses — both in terms of human casualties and damage to the economy and businesses. According to media reports about economic impact of agitations in the United States, the New York protests in 2014 cost the city nearly $23 million in police overtime. In the case of Charlotte, N.C., protests inflicted $122,000 worth of property damage to city-owned buildings alone. The Occupy Wall Street movement cost local businesses about half a million dollars in a 2011 survey. Los Angeles lost an estimated $4 billion in taxable sales in the decade following the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. One expert has opined that part of the problem is that it’s more difficult to repair the damage caused by a riot or a protest. In a natural disaster, for example, people tend to be more willing to help rebuild the community; whereas, after protests and riots, however, this is harder to do because the community has been divided.

Way Forward

The recourse to agitational mode resorted to either by the farmers or students or Dalits or other deprived segments of the society occurs only when all other channels of getting their grievances redressed are closed. While asserting that the current agitational mode is a distorted form of resistance against the model of development which is followed by the Indian state, one expert has suggested that it devolves on the political class to understand the grievances of the aggrieved segments of the society and address them more sensibly and sympathetically.

Widening rural-urban gap in contemporary India has led to an identity crisis and these agitations are a manifestation of this crisis situation.

Instead of ‘walk the talk’ on tall promises, Prime Minister Modi said in March this year that hardcore politics of agitation in India was not relevant. He has been supported by RSS chief who recently invoked Babasaheb Ambedkar to advice the Dalits to go to courts of law to redress their grievances. The present dispensation still seems to be in perpetual dream-merchant mode, promising endless undertakings without fulfilling a single one, without realising that its inability to deliver has now begun to catch up for the first time.