How many protests convert into positive action? What measures the success of a protest? Or is it just to voice our views? G. Seshasayee looks for answers…

“I reached Rashtrapati Bhavan late in the afternoon, after the lathi charge and water cannons had controlled the crowds in the morning. The last few college students were dispersing, and things were calming down. But in a few minutes, a giant wave of people emerged from the Rashtrapati Bhavan barricade and ran towards the Parliament shouting and screaming. The police beat them up and they retreated. Some people beckoned to the mob and they ran again towards the police, pelting stones, and damaging public property on the way. My friends and I were stranded in the middle of all of the chaos, looking for a friend who had gotten lost in the crowd. We crouched behind TV vans to avoid being trampled by the mob. We found our friend after 20 minutes. The mob continued provoking the police, and in return the police charged towards them. We decided to leave the place.”

Arpita Bose, a student of Law in the University of Delhi, takes one right inot the heart of the recent protests in New Delhi.

Reduced intensity

The TV channels have covered the protests extensively, and the anchor, possessed by unrestrained belligerence, has decried the brutality of police; expert panels have registered their careful disbelief and made their recommendations, and a breakfast-cereal commercial, showing a happy mom-kid-dad belonging to a different world of unbridled peace, is playing. 

The protest itself has now become an incident. However, largely unscathed by protest and political promise, the injustice lives on.  “The question is whether we are protesting for the right thing at all. Are any of our protests aimed at basal change in society?” asks Vishruth Venkat, a student of Biology and Public Policy at UC Berkley, California, U.S. “Do any of our protests have the capacity to evolve into large scale social movements, from being just short term ‘threat’ or ‘emotional blackmail’ negotiations ransoming some small, material measure?”

What results?

Justice Jagadeesan, former Madras High Court Judge, goes a step further in branding protests that do not aim for basal change, as ephemeral demonstrations of helplessness and angst.

He says, “The current system is still far from the day when a civilian protest can actually bring about far-reaching change. Infiltration of political factions into protests for civilian causes makes it almost impossible for civilians to protest for the right thing in the right way. Simply speaking, how many commissions have been formed based on civilian protests? How many have filed their reports and recommendations, how many recommendations have been implemented? How many commissions have actually succeeded in bringing about change in the public eye? Protests live only until the next protest.”

Right to protest

However, aren’t protests all about restoring lost dignity? Is it really illegitimate for a protest to not be directed at basal change? Why can’t a protest be simply based on patriotic spirit and emotional charge? Doesn’t the Fundamental Right to Freedom (which includes speech, expression and assembly) make it your right to vent your disapproval irrespective of whether a critic thinks it would make a difference or not?

“If someone truly believes in the cause and makes the time to join civilian protests, I believe their effectiveness (or the lack of it) is irrelevant,” says Siddharth Subhavenkat, an Assistant Director in Tamil Cinema. “It would be great if people see protests as similar to people standing in a queue to cast their votes. Why do people vote? Isn’t it because they see it as their duty? Going by that, your voice in a protest — like your vote in a plebiscite — may not make a difference, but it certainly counts!”

“While I believe something radical like a protest is always necessary to kick-start a cause, it is important to have consensus on whether that will make a change or not,” says Mallika Chaudhuri, a specialist in International relations and sociological behaviour from the University of Western Ontario, Canada. 

It is essential here to note that protest with a hope for change is not an end in itself. It is merely the first ray of light that extends towards the towering source of injustice. Every protest needs to be armed, with not just sloganeering and media-sensationalism, but also the assiduous dissemination of scientific, social and political awareness — to at least make sense, if not a difference.

Organising a legal protest

G. Nanchil Kumaran, IPS - Retd., Former Commissioner of Police, Chennai, pitches in with experts advice…

Fundamental Right to Freedom is subject to public order. While the citizens have the Freedom of Speech, the Police have a duty to uphold peace and order. Generally Police allow protests subject to certain conditions:

Prior permission must be compulsorily obtained by writing to the Commissioner of Police. 

Purpose, time, expected strength of gathering to be mentioned.

Protest to only be held in the place demarcated by the Police.

It must be an unarmed protest.

Scandalous/vulgar/provocative slogans or posters to be avoided.

Leader of the gathering to provide undertaking that the protest will not affect the peaceful life of other civilians.

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