The purpose of protests

Protests cannot be time bound; they will be indefinite if injustice is indefinite

Published - October 13, 2020 12:15 am IST

NEW DELHI, 17/03/20: Protestors of Shaheen Bagh sanitising their hands, due to the outbreak of Corona virus, during an ongoing protest in New Delhi on March 17, 2020. 
Photo: Bibek Chettri

NEW DELHI, 17/03/20: Protestors of Shaheen Bagh sanitising their hands, due to the outbreak of Corona virus, during an ongoing protest in New Delhi on March 17, 2020. Photo: Bibek Chettri

Shaheen Bagh is not past us. The recent order of the Supreme Court on the protests in Shaheen Bagh in Delhi can help the state or the government further subjugate the people, and that too lawfully. The court made the dangerous observation that “the mode and manner of dissent against colonial rule cannot be equated with dissent in a self-ruled democracy.”

The term “self-ruled” is a trap. Mahatma Gandhi had famously said that “we want English rule without the Englishman”. He was blunt: “I have no desire to exchange ‘king log’ for ‘king stork’.”

The temptation to colonise was not unique to the British. The state in itself is coercive, and people have to be eternally alert so that they are not robbed of their sovereignty. One is also compelled to ask: who is this ‘self’ in ‘self-rule’? Does it encompass all our diverse selves?

The answer again comes from Gandhi. He said: “Real Swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few, but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused. In other words, Swaraj is to be attained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority.”

An attempt to restore equality

Resistance to authority or protest is thus intrinsic to citizenship or peoplehood. Protests cannot be made to order. Protests are speech acts. What to speak and how to say it is something you and I decide. Governments cannot be allowed to dictate to you or me in these matters. This is precisely what the Supreme Court has unfortunately tried to do in its judgment on the propriety of the nature of the Shaheen Bagh protests.

When you speak, you expect a willing listener. But protests happen because the conditions for dialogue seem non-existent. Dialogues presuppose equality. People protest because they feel that they have been forced into an unequal situation. Protests attempt to gain or restore equality.

It is not the protests which cause a crisis. Protests arise simply because the governments create a crisis — that too by lawful means, through the passage of discriminatory laws. Protests do not disturb the balance in society; they erupt only because a balance has been upset. Is it not true that the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) of 2019 was designed to upset the equilibrium in society? It was the severe feeling of discrimination inherent in the law which brought not just Muslims but many others out on the streets.

Police action

The CAA not only diminishes Muslims; it demeans India by making discrimination and inequality lawful. The protesters were there not only fighting for their rights, but also for a universal principle which does good to all.

When Muslims and believers in the principle of equal citizenship came out to lodge their protest, they were brutalised by the police. Observers have noted the viciousness of police action in Uttar Pradesh, Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University. Police action was carried out not to maintain order, but to teach the protesters a lesson. The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh had said that he would take revenge on those involved in violence, effectively treating protesters as vandals.

When senior lawyers Indira Jaising and Colin Gonsalves approached the Supreme Court requesting it to restrain the police, the court said first the violence on the streets needed to stop. The court effectively negated the right to protest then. It failed the people.

It was this impossible situation which led to the imagination of Shaheen Bagh. It has been rightly observed that the court should have thought about the compulsion of the protesters to choose a site like this, which is not in the centre of the capital.

Many Shaheen Baghs across India are celebrated, but should lead institutions like the Supreme Court to introspect and take a hard look at the Indian reality where Muslim women do not feel safe and comfortable to protest in spaces which are available to other sections of the society? Shaheen Bagh was a choice arising out of a huge trust deficit in society, which has only been aggravated by this majoritarian regime.

Balancing two rights

The court was hearing a petition by a citizen who felt aggrieved by the Shaheen Bagh sit-in as the protest and, as a consequence, the blocked roads had deprived him of his right to mobility. The court equated the two and felt that there had to be a balance between the right to mobility and the right to protest. The court was convinced that the prolonged sit-in caused traffic snarls and violated the right to mobility of the people.

The court did not feel the need to find out if the traffic congestion was entirely due to the protests or whether it was caused by the Delhi Police and the Uttar Pradesh Police which had blocked alternate roads leading to the capital. It did not ask the police why were they causing inconvenience to the commuters by closing certain routes. When asked about the same during the protest, the police said it was “a security measure”. Was this not done to create animosity against the protesters? Should this not have been treated as a clever way of instigating violence against the protesters? Why were they turning one section of society against the other?

The court thought it fit to send interlocutors to the protesters to persuade them to stop the sit-in, but it did not ask the government a simple question: why was it not talking to the protesters? Why were its Ministers spewing venom against them, instigating violence against them?

The court accepts that democracy is not democracy if dissent is disallowed, but it says protests cannot be indefinite and have to be done in designated spaces. Protests are not done for the sake of pleasure. It has to be appreciated that peaceful protesters endure suffering to force the unjust party or the powers that be to speak to them. Protests cannot be time bound. They’ll be indefinite if injustice is indefinite.

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University

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