Today, as a nation we enjoy the freedom of expression and the constitutional right to protest. But disruptive politics is counter-productive particularly when we have various democratic forums to protest and seek redress — the Assembly, the judiciary and the free media. The origin of disruptive tactics can, however,be traced to the Freedom Movement. On August 9, 1942 the entire Working Committee of the Indian National Congress was arrested in Bombay, including Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Patel, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and the Frontier Gandhi Badashah Khan. The Colonial Raj had unleashed a war on 30 million unarmed people. But before he could be taken away, Gandhiji gave a messianic call to us: “Do or die. But consider yourself a free nation.” In Winston Churchill's war system, there was nothing to match this political mantra — satyagraha.
The Gandhian satyagraha was a clear rejection of the prevailing politics of power. The 20th century produced two icons, Gandhiji and Mao Tse Tung. Both struggled for equality and social justice and for liberation from political and economic oppression. But the difference between the two was that for Mao “the power grows out of the gun” while for Gandhiji the power rested in truth, love and understanding. For the Mahatma, the struggle for social justice was universal and eternal. Not just against any one race, region, or religion. He led the oppressed “low-caste” Hindus to march into the temples that were the preserve of the “upper castes.”
At that historical juncture, we had no guns, and no nation came to our help. The western powers led by the U.S. were fighting Germany and Japan. The British in India were supplying war material to the West Asian fronts and to the East. It was then that we had adopted the tactics of disrupting the colonial regime. Anything that carried the official seal of the Empire became the hate symbol for the Indian people. As members of the Monkey Brigade (Vaanar sena), it was heroic if we could damage public property — burn a military vehicle or destroy a railway station, thus weakening the British war machine. But today, destroying public property or disrupting commercial activity affects the life of the people and in a chain reaction, obstructs the entire social and public service systems.
Indira Gandhi announced in 1980 the decision to build a nuclear power station at Garhmukteshwar (Narora) on the banks of the Ganga, located close to an earthquake fault. That was the area where her party was pitted against a powerful local opponent in a predominantly Jat constituency in western Uttar Pradesh. My study confirmed that being in the high seismic zone, the Narora site was the most inappropriate for an atomic power station. I organised a signature campaign armed with the scientific findings and took the issue to all party leaders, who, however refused to see the danger.
Scientists agreed that Narora was a wrong decision but refused to sign the petition. At the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, I was told their jobs and research grants were at stake.
I organised a protest march at the site of the Narora Atomic Power Project. A few hundred students from the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Lady Shriram College assembled there. As I was explaining the radiation hazards to the villagers and a few engineers and the officials in front of the high security perimeter, a woman reporter came up to me and said that she had heard an officer prompting local village boys to grab the girls, the “Dilli-walis.”
I regrouped our boys, placing them in a protective formation around the girls and over the mike narrated the incident with a warning to the plainclothes intelligence officers against adopting such disruptive tactics. But a more disappointing experience was yet to come. A former Member of Parliament, dressed in khadi, arrived on the scene. Since the project posed a potential threat to his village community, I asked the ex-MP to mobilise local support. After some time, the political leader came to me:
“Professor saab, if you take me as your leader, your anti-nuclear campaign can really be a great political success.”
“Oh, netaji (leader), you are most welcome. Kindly, lead the campaign,” I was overjoyed to find a local political support.
“O.K.,then.” And the leader whispered to me: “Tell your boys and girls to attack the securitymen. Two-three boys should snatch the gun of one policeman soldier, the girls will gherao (surround) the other personnel and the rest of us will push ourselves inside the gate, shouting, Halla Bol, Zindabad, and ‘nuclear power, down, down.”
“But our campaign is Gandhian. We want no trouble. If we crossed the line forcing our entry, the policemen will hit back. Our students will get hurt. I propose no confrontation.” I ordered my students to show no disrespect towards the security personnel, as they are our friends, and protectors, not our enemy!
The ex-MP walked away in disgust: “If you cannot provoke a firing and take a few casualties, you cannot build a campaign. If one student gets shot – you will be headlined in newspapers. Your campaign will get huge public support. Your peaceful anti-nuclear campaign is dead from the start.”
How right he was! My campaign was dead. My Science Policy Centre at JNU was closed. No political party, no scientist came forward to take up the anti-nuclear campaign in India. You may charge me with failure, or political naivete. But as Lewis Carroll said, the slightest approach to a false pretence was never among my crimes.
(The writer is former Chair: Science Policy Centre, Jawaharlal Nehru University and is the author of India's Nuclear Estate. Email: dhiren.sharma32@ gmail.com)