Why it’s time to rethink protests

Aakar Patel

Far from being an annoyance, mass movements are the only legitimate way of engaging the government today

In one of his books V S Naipaul describes a protest in India. He is visiting during a general election and the protestors are in a village in Rajasthan. The population has a civic problem (if memory serves correctly, it is about a lack of water). The people have reached the end of their tether with the state apparatus and congregate to show their displeasure. They raise some slogans. The district magistrate appears and makes soothing noises. The crowd dissi-pates. The problem remains but, Naipaul writes, having put up a show, the crowd does not see it nec-essary to do anything further.

The writer’s point is to show that protest in India was effete and inef-fectual. It is a pro forma protest: Not much is expected from the authority, which has no obligation to heed the citizenry.

One wonders what Naipaul would have made of Indian protestors of the last 13 months. Since December 2019, the most powerful government of India in 40 years has been facing mass uprisings of the sort not seen since (and perhaps even during) the freedom struggle. Mass mobilisation is difficult generally but especially so on the subcontinent and particularly of a sustained sort. Solidarity is not easy to come by, for whatever reason. Protestors tend to usually be reactive, spontaneous, often vio-lent, and, having adequately registered protest, dis perse quickly, as Naipaul observes.

But as is apparent to all, the last year has pro-duced something different. The mass movements have been an irritant to the middle class and their media but we have to come to terms with the fact that they exist and try and engage with them.

The first aspect is to consider whether mass protest is legiti-mate. The answer is that it is. Democracies offer their citizenry three lawful ways in which to engage with the State: Vote, liti-gation and protest. All three are equal and all three equally legiti-mate. Peaceful assembly is a fun-damental right both in the United States and in India, under Article 19. A fundamental right is one that enjoys a high degree of pro-tection from State encroachment. The judiciary and the State in India have made much of peaceful assembly being only in “desig-nated areas” and police permission but that cannot be allowed to supersede a fundamental right.

The second is to consider why people are pro-testing. The answer is that the State apparatus and the democratic system have failed these groups. The judiciary has still not taken up the constitu-tionality of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) or that of the National Register of Citizens (via the National Population Register). Those protesting in Shaheen Bagh and elsewhere felt, reasonably so, that they did not have an option except to take to the streets. If they did not, then events would over-take them. It turned out in the end that mass pro-test was the correct decision to take. The CAA was legislated before the protests started but its rules have still not been notified. One reason is the con-siderable international pressure on India to behave with its minorities. The other is the scale and strength of the protest.

In the case of the farmers on Delhi’s border, they were let down by Parliament. The failure of the sys-tem to ensure a division vote in the Rajya Sabha means that the farm Bills lacked from the start the democratic legitimacy that they should have had. The judiciary could have taken up the constitu-tionality of the laws, given the dodgy manner of their passing but chose not to. Again, protest was the only option.

We should note that a third group of Indians, Kashmiris, would also be on mass protest if they didn’t have the knowledge that they would imme-diately get shot, which they would. India has dif-ferent rules for different people.

It is difficult not to conclude that the farmers’ movement also has been successful. The imple-mentation of the laws, whatever that may mean, has been put on hold. The only reason for this is the protest. The judiciary has not examined the law itself.

The protests are nonetheless still on with the same set of demands — scrap the laws and enforce the minimum support price — and it is not easy to see how the government is going to be able to enforce the laws from here even after the protests end. They are a dead letter, no matter what wisdom the committee appointed to examine them comes up with.

The way in which an all powerful State concedes in our part of the world is through an element of dishonesty. The retreat on the NRC was sounded, after all the bombast on taking care of termites, through the pretence that the law had not been dis-cussed and therefore was not on the table. The farm laws have been deactivated through other means.

Of the three legitimate ways of engaging the State effectively and meaningfully, protest has become the only way in which the State under a powerful ruler can be influenced. It shows the fai-lure of the democratic system in India. The appa-ratus of the State that is meant to check and balance a powerful executive — the Opposition in the legis-lature and the power to review of the judiciary — becomes soft in the presence of a strongman ruler.

It is unlikely that India or Indians have changed all that much since the time that Naipaul visited and recorded his contempt at the feeble manner of our resistance. What has changed is likely the circumstances. Indians are facing momentous change, a shattered economy, an almost absent opposition, a reticent judiciary, and no real means to represent themselves before the power except with their physical selves.


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Jan 23, 2021

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