Indians are shrugging off their apathy and now demanding to be heard by their rulers

It’s close to 20 days after the brutal rape and assault of the physiotherapy student in Delhi, and the public protests continue in the capital and elsewhere. Hundreds of people are still gathered at Jantar Mantar, some bearing placards, some fasting, some holding candlelight vigil. At the Kochi Muziris Biennale, artist P.S. Jalaja has created a painting of a naked newborn girl with a scarred and mutilated body, screaming silently. Citizens in Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkata are still organising marches and sit-ins. The media continues to report the story extensively.

If we had to pick the single most important achievement over the last two weeks, it would have to be the cementing of India’s tentative new discovery of public protest. Over centuries, the average Indian citizen has been famously recognised for his complete apathy, feted as extremely tolerant or slammed as shockingly indifferent. The absence of any real and active involvement of the masses has significantly diluted public discourse over the years, undermining the quality of our much-vaunted democratic institutions.

The evolution

It’s not that we did not know about protest or don’t have a history of it. After all, Gandhiji unleashed his brilliantly conceived concepts of Satyagraha, non-cooperation and civil disobedience right here to great strategic success. Over the years, though, these ideas have been so thoroughly usurped and exploited by political parties that they have ceased to mean anything or move anybody. Protest as a tool — in the shape of dharnas, rail rokos and bandhs — has been completely owned by the politicians. Now, that could finally be changing.

It started roughly five years ago when Jessica Lal’s killer was acquitted by a trial court. Probably for the first time, Indians across the board were mobilised into protest through a massive SMS and e-mail campaign and relentless media focus, which finally led to the conviction of Manu Sharma. The next overwhelming mass protest came when Anna Hazare launched his anti-corruption campaign, which saw unprecedented public support. And now, the country has rallied together again for the rape victim. What sets these protests apart is that none of them was initiated or controlled by political parties. They have been spontaneous combustions into which students, homemakers, office-goers, writers and musicians have jumped in. There were no leaders, except for Anna and that to only in Delhi, no politicians amassing the people, shouting slogans or telling them what to do. In that sense, these episodes have possibly given us the most unfiltered sense of what the ordinary citizen is feeling — the anger, frustration and outrage.

Middle-class participation

The second aspect, widely commented upon during the Anna protests as well, is the participation of the urban middle-class. Reviled for its elitism, its disconnect from the grassroots and its insularity, the middle-class is finally being seen as willing to dirty its hands, to join the fray and face tear-gas, water cannons and lathi charges. The participation in these protests has cut across class barriers, something seldom seen in the country’s public spaces, rigidly as they segregate the economically different.

The Anna protests provoked cynical criticism, and the participation of the middle-class was variously described as self-righteous, muddled or self-serving. In the ongoing rape riots, too, the public has been condemned for its unrealistic demands for vigilante justice. These comments are warranted but criticising the intellectual quality of the protest should not drown out the celebration of its birth. Of course, the people who marched with Anna were as complicit in bribe-giving and petty corruption as anyone else. Of course, the protesters today are making absurd demands to invoke the death penalty or eliminate due process. It would be unrealistic to expect the quality of reasoning or logic to be of a high order when the protests are so broad-based. Rather, the fact that they are must be seen for what it is — a baby step towards a healthier and far more participative democracy than we have had so far. The sophistication in argument will come later, as Indians get more confident in claiming ownership of decision-making.

You could attribute Tahrir Square, social media, or the blanket coverage by TV channels to giving Indians this voice, but that they are now demanding to be heard could possibly mark the biggest challenge to the well-entrenched notions of governance that the ruling class has peddled so far. During the Anna movement, one of the most insidious arguments that made the rounds was how the parliamentary form of government already represented the people well enough and that it was, therefore, somehow illegitimate to take to the streets. We have strong oil, mining, telecom and other pressure groups that influence policy-making extensively. Such pressure groups are recognised as playing a legitimate role in a parliamentary democracy. Now, ordinary citizens have decided to lobby loudly for reforms in areas such as policing or justice that affect them deeply. In short, they are learning to assert themselves and it’s high time they did. This is the role of civil society in a mature democracy — to put pressure on the government for positive action.

vaishna.r@thehindu.co.in