By Arundhati Ghosh and Amandeep Sandhu
People ask: what would you gain from protests? It is a good question. Very few protests achieve their declared aim. As political regimes grow insular, apathetic, we have millions of instances of protests being curbed, derailed, appropriated, betrayed, destroyed from within, even turning violent and losing impact. Another issue is: the articulation in these protests is by few chosen or self-chosen ones - voices that rise through the hierarchy of the organization, party, union, behind the protest. This adds to cynicism towards protests and leaves little space to express citizen’s discontent in a truly non-hierarchal and democratic manner.
Yet, as the nation spirals into violence, the question we ask ourselves is: what do I do? What do we do? The questions plague us when issues of safety and justice come up, especially for those vulnerable amongst us - children, women, minorities – those forever at the receiving end of power structures across caste, religion, gender and sexuality. The recent news from Kathua and Unnao again forced us to ask: what can I do?
Bengaluru wanted to express outrage. The regular venue for protests is Town Hall and Freedom Park. At Town Hall the steps are more than a hundred meters from the busy traffic intersection. Freedom Park is enclosed. At most the passersby can see an odd banner or poster but cannot pay a few seconds attention to a speech. Since protests happen almost every day, people have become immune to them. Then there is the discomfort of travelling long distances in terrible traffic, especially for senior citizens and entire families. Also, this is election time in Karnataka. We learnt getting police permission might be hard. This led to a rethink of the strategy of the protest. We felt it might be a good idea for us the citizens from across Bengaluru to protest at our own neighbourhoods and streets - to design, to launch, to mobilize, to participate, to conduct our own micro-protests. We announced that on the 15th of April, Sunday, coinciding with protests across the country, at 5 pm we would mobilise our friends and neighbours to come out of our homes and stand on our streets. From the protest we would put up a picture on social media with the hashtag #MyStreetMyProtest.
By locating the right to protest in every individual citizen's right to public spaces, we sought that each of us becomes an ambassador of the kind of nation we want to live in and create for our children. The protest space became a laboratory to gain confidence in ourselves. After all, violence, when it happens, targets individuals as well as communities.
However, the question of police permission came up even for this decentralized, localised, federal, mode of protest. We checked with lawyers and got their go ahead. The event notification was shared hundreds of times. Neighbours gathered, locality based groups formed, a few of us put out some suggestions to not disrupt city activity; remain open and courteous to people or police; where there are bigger crowds, meet, but disperse and stand in groups smaller than 3-4 people; and lastly, if confronted by any element trying to disrupt the protest, engage but know when to stop. Be safe, ensure safety of co-protesters, engage if necessary and leave if necessary.
The test was 5 PM, April 15, Sunday. Pictures and reports pouring in on social media showed around 30 + sites all over the city had come alive. Over three thousand people - women, men, and children participated. Many thousands took notice. For us living in Bengaluru for many decades this was unprecedented: small children carrying big banners, women and men gracefully lining along roads, conducting marches, lighting candles, very little sloganeering, no obstruction of city life. A music teacher stood alone at Yeshwantpur in front of her house, two women who stood with each other at Vidyaranapura, and over 400 people gathered at Richards Park – there were strength in numbers but also those who did it solo or in small-groups. The protest showed us that we as citizens, when truly empowered, can manage ourselves very well. The police stayed aware, watchful, but did not interfere with the protest. Through the protest Bengaluru re-claimed the entire urban landscape as a protest space. Protestors in taluks and districts and even Kerala, Chandigarh, Kolkata and Mumbai used the hashtag.
The question remains: what has been the impact?
It would be an overestimation to imagine that a protest by itself is going to change the culture of impunity that has grown deep roots in police, legal and political classes. That was the purpose of the protest but there were more: to send a message to those who play havoc with laws that people are watching, people are resisting; create solidarities among those who feel they are missing a voice in the governance of their lives, their society, and their nation. A protestor, Srobona Das says, ‘My daughter read a poster and exclaimed, ‘Mamma, (name withheld) was 8 years old! I am 8 years old too!’ While she skipped and smiled her way through the protest walk like any other child, I know at some level, she understands. This is why I will not stop expressing my outrage and grief.’
The protest made venues accessible for entire families with senior citizens and children to participate, it made it safer for vulnerable communities to be able to stand for their demands close to the spaces they are familiar with. While for many this protest may have been the first time they took to the streets, for others it was important that the call was theirs, the location was theirs, the responsibility for safety and peaceful protest was theirs and most importantly the agency was theirs. This is how we learn together. This is how we build our own agency and voice.
In a nation where the powers that be want to brush every instance of injustice under the carpet, play on our insecurities to polarize us, these public solidarities are the spaces we need to curate. That is and will remain the point of such protests. As a protestor, Madhu Bhushan at Kamanahalli at Jalvayu Vihar Circle and Richards Park, says, ‘Some little sparks of hope in these disgustingly dark times. (I am) amazed that the protests drew hundreds of ordinary local people who felt moved enough by the violence to come and speak out against the hideous national culture of rape that Kathua and Unnao have come to symbolise. Justice and compassion have to drive out the vile politics of divisive hate and cultural misogyny that is stalking this land.’
Of course there were cries for the death penalty at some places. Among some protestors there was discomfort in seeing large numbers of men in skull caps and women in burqas. There was the usual gap among those who are new to this and those who have always been there. But we will bridge those gaps, we will fight and challenge and pour our hearts out into the demands for justice. We must know as long as those gaps exist we won’t really change anything except from the outside, if at all. It is a question of challenging the political system, majoritarianism, bigotry and the Hindu right, patriarchy, and the decimation of law and order.
By showing us how to reclaim and resurrect our spaces, our streets, our neighbourhoods, the Bengaluru protest stood in direct opposition to the opportunistic party-based politics of this age. It opposed how political parties seek to usurp the political philosophy enshrined in our Constitution: participatory local democracy. This instance of the dispersed collective was an act of reclaiming our right to determine our destinies as citizens. A protestor, Jayashree P Kunju, from Indian Institute of Science, says, ‘IISC gathering represented the whole of India. Perhaps a small pebble thrown here will cause ripples that will add to other ripples caused elsewhere...’ Hopefully, we will not forget the lessons. There will be many long streets we still have to walk. And keep walking. After all, how long did it take for slavery to end; or for women to be treated at equal citizens?
Arundhati Ghosh, Executive Director at India Foundation for Arts and Amandeep Sandhu, a writer live in Bengaluru.