New Grammar of Protests

 

 

By Poonam I Kaushish

India has travelled a long way from Tilak’s “Swaraj is my birth right” to “strike is my birth right.” Today, every section of the society plans strikes as a matter of routine.  Be it political protests, labour strikes or chakka jams which bring life to a standstill replete with violence, mayhem et al.

Last week India witnessed a new and old grammar of protests. In the first, eight Opposition MPs ‘dug-in’ overnight at Parliament’s Gandhi’s statue in protest against their suspension over “supposed vandalism” during the Farm Bills debate in the Rajya Sabha.  In the second, 18 Opposition Parties and 31 kisan organizations participated in a Bharat bandh to remonstrate against the Farm Bills passed by Parliament which allows farmers to sell their produce inter-State or intra-State, beyond mandis sans State Governments levying any fee on farmers.

Farmers’ fear they will no longer get paid the Minimum Support Price, commission agents their commission and States tax. The perfect confetti to corner the Modi Sarkar, milk and exploit farmers angst in the hope of garnering attention, scoring brownie points and gaining votes in the forthcoming Bihar & MP elections. Big deal if it ended in national highways being blocked and several trains suspended in the strikers three-day ‘rail roko’ campaign.

A Union Minister nonchalantly dismissed this as a case of sour losers and sticks in the mud who are fast losing their foothold and significance in Modi’s era; are good only at flexing muscles and ratcheting up hostility to rekindle hope that naarebaazi is still relevant. Countered by, “The Government has shown utter disregard for farmers’ voices and is using brute force to suppress dissent.”  Sic.

Questionably, the issue is not whether the farmers’ grievances are justified. Neither is it about exploitation or redress. True, they may have genuine grouses. But this is not the way to go about getting the Government to see reason. But why blame them alone? Our Parties stand equally guilty if not more for using strikes as self-serving and blackmailing tactics to get what they want.

In fact, no day passes without a strike somewhere. Be it a mohalla, district or State, the story is the same. Plainly, India thrives on protests. The cause is immaterial. It is all about registering ones protest, the louder the better and bringing work and life to a standstill. Success is measured by how dislocation and discomfiture is caused to people.

This raises a moot point: What drives Parties and unions to strike? Is their cause valid? Is the State being unjust or unreasonable? Is it to keep its flock together? Is it the ignominy of becoming irrelevant? Or other political considerations? Guided by citizens interest, commitment for a better wages and quality of life? Importantly, is violence trying to hijack democracy by vicious blackmail and mobocracy?

Sure, protest is an exciting word, the sustenance of democracy and a catchphrase for free speech. Certainly, it’s not easy to wish it away, however damaging it may be, as it has become a weapon for the Opposition and unions which resort to it when they feel like venting out frustration, desperation for power, camouflage non-performance or for self-glorification to gain sympathy or wriggle out of working hard. Some old hands at the game confess it’s to flex their muscle, flash their strength, underscoring the old saying “jiski laathi uski bhains”!

Undoubtedly, in a milieu wherein adoption of strong-arm tactics to extract one’s pound of flesh has become our second nature, who should one fault? The polity and the unions are two sides of the same coin. It is only a question of who engineers the strike and for what gain.

Part of the current paradox is explained by the changed notion of hartal aka bandh. The original concept was centered on the logic that the only way for a group of disempowered people to shake the system is to agitate. But slowly perversion set in. A strike could be effective only if stoppage of work could not be overcome easily by the system. Therefore, the strikers use their power base, including violence, to stall anything that spells change from the set routine. Never mind that in the long run it is detrimental for the country and the people.

Indeed, people are fed-up of strikes each time some neta gets a headache or a gripe. According to a recent survey, three out of four people want a legal ban on strikes, 8 out of 10 favour severe punishment or hefty fines for the leaders. Surprisingly, only 15% believe in strikes, 10% in voluntary participation and 60% supported Gandhiji’s form of civil disobedience, peaceful dharnas, rallies and candle lighting in genuine cases of injustice.

Interestingly, protests rose by 55% from 2009 to 2014, an average of 200 protests every day nationwide with literate States leading the charge. In all, there were 4,20,00 protests over these five years. The sharpest rise came from student-led agitations (148%) followed by communal 92%, Government employees grievances 71%, political 42% and labour 38% according to the Bureau of Police Research and Development.

Parties and their affiliates accounted for 32% of protests and the percentage went up to 50% when their student bodies and labour unions were added. Scandalously, the Bharat Bandh to focus attention on labour reforms, cost taxpayers about Rs 18,000 crores, the Jats agitation cost over Rs 34,000 crore, and the Cauvery river row in Karnataka Rs 22,000-25,000 crore according to ASSOCHAM.

As India marches ahead to becoming Atmanirbhar, are protests the right recourse? True, the Constitution guarantees one the right to protest as a fundamental right of speech and assemble but it does not guarantee one the right to infringe upon others rights and cause inconvenience to the general public. Remarked the Supreme Court in a petition challenging the Shaheen Bagh protests February, “protesters cannot block public roads indefinitely. If you want to protest, it has to be in an area identified for protest.”

Clearly, the time has come to take a leaf out of US law, wherein there is no Constitutional right to make a speech on a highway so as to cause a crowd to gather and obstruct the highway. The right to assembly is to be so exercised as not to conflict with other lawful rights, interests and comfort of the individual or the public and public order.

We need to understand that democracy is neither mobocracy nor a license to create bedlam. It is a fine balance between rights and duties, liberties and responsibilities. One’s freedom pre-supposes another’s responsibilities and liberty. Paralysing the State, to get attention and policy reversals only exasperates the public and inconveniences them. Using violent means gets one nowhere as temporary respite is no answer for building a socially cohesive society.

Where does India go from here? How long will our laissez faire attitude persist with each shrugging his shoulders and asserting ‘how does it matter.’ Last week’s bandh has exposed how dangerous this game has become whereby we can no longer simply dismiss indiscipline and violence as a system’s failure.  The right of the citizen is paramount. Time now to call a bandh against hypocritical Parties and cry a halt to political clichés and strikes!  Bandh karo ye natak! —

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