Off-Centre Society

Songs, slogans, camaraderie and chocolate: a protest at India Gate

Protesters at India Gate on December 20

Protesters at India Gate on December 20   | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

In the past few weeks, state-led violence and the actions of the police have made protests look far more chaotic than they are

Most people have notions about the site of a protest. Protests are about resistance and we rarely associate them with peace. In the past few weeks, state-led violence and the actions of the police have made protests look far more chaotic than they are. While there is an attempt to intimidate people away from protesting, we must see protest as an act, as a space and as theatre.

Let me walk you through one evening of protest at India Gate.

There were police barricades at the entrance and they screened everyone, searched every bag. Ours had a few chocolate bars, a big Thai guava, peanut chikki, Oreo biscuits. The cop could not have been more disinterested. We walked in and there were three or four large groups: one raised the azaadi slogan, another was singing a song and then there were smaller groups and individuals holding placards.

We raised slogans. Then, we heard someone playing a tambourine in another group. Their chants were catchy. So, we walked over and joined in. The crowd, meanwhile, had swelled and fragmented into many smaller groups.

One small group was sitting on the ground with a framed image of the preamble. They were singing Faiz, Iqbal, Pash and Lohia. Most of them had googled the lyrics on their mobile phones. There was a guy with a massive suitcase — he likely had flight to catch — he was a fabulous singer and led the group for a few songs.

There can never be a protest without tea. The first to reach Jantar Mantar, for instance, were the chaiwallas. I wondered if they somehow knew the protest timings. The tea vendors at India Gate had tea bags, no desi masala chai. A vendor told us that people prefer teabags — now I love the younger generation for claiming the streets but is this what they were drinking!

Now that we had met our digital-turned-real comrades, it was time to bond over food. But we realised it is never easy to offer strangers food, whatever be the context. We offered a bar of chocolate to a lead singer. He laughed and took it but said sloganeers must not eat chocolate as it dries the throat. They didn’t want a break; they didn’t want a bite. It was a game of adrenaline.

Chats with chocolate

There was a smaller group with a placard that read ‘Free Akhil Gogoi.’ My wife is from Assam and there was an invitation as good as any. They chatted merrily and accepted the chocolates too. Next was a bouncy group of 20-somethings. Handing out chocolate was getting easier.

By now the smaller groups had merged into a single large one. A boy and a girl came over from the large group to convince this last small group to join in.

They reasoned that protesters should unite. The people in the small group shook their heads and left. All they wanted to do was sing songs.

Song and snacks

Behind India Gate stood bhelpuri, sevpuri and golgappa vendors. A group of young girls who had gathered around broke into ‘Hum Honge Kaamyaab’.

The placards ranged from wickedly funny to poetic. There were couplets from Pash, Faiz, Iqbal and Lohia. A young man stood with a poster that roughly translated to ‘we don’t leave the marrow in a bone, how can we leave India’.

There were people from across age groups at India Gate that evening. They were neither all students nor activists nor Page 3s nor Khan Market-types. If one thing stood out, it was the predominance of women: despite the recent atrocities by police, despite all the ideas about crowds, despite all the ideas about protests.

We sang songs, we screamed slogans, we read out the preamble together as if it were an oath, we sat down with strangers, we smiled and laughed with them. We felt safe and protected. I am sure, despite the uncertainties, they did too.

During dinner, several hours later, I happened to glance at my phone and learnt that only a few kilometres away, the police were brutally assaulting a peaceful protest march in Daryaganj. We looked at the bloody images and read news about children being assaulted and detained. It was going to be a long night.

The writer farms in the balcony, complains vocally about issues that bother him and eats his way across the world.

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Printable version | Apr 11, 2020 1:15:46 AM |

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