A brief history of angry streets
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
WHENEVER SOMEONE mentions Emergency, a childhood memory flashes by—faint yet etched: Grandfather sitting in the garden and loudly abusing then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi; Grandmother standing at the door with a cup of coffee, pleading to him in whispers to get indoors. A man living in the house across the road had been picked up by the police. That did not deter Grandfather. It almost looked like he too wanted to get arrested. It was around this time that Doordarshan, the only source of television entertainment then, decided to show the Bollywood blockbuster Bobby one evening, at the same time when Opposition leaders, including the captivating orator Atal Bihari Vajpayee, were holding a rally in the capital. I remember several people missing the film to attend the rally. That was their protest, defying the Government, or rather its attempt to suppress dissent. Everyone who believed in freedom wanted, in some way, to be part of the uprising against Emergency.
It denounced villains and discovered heroes; it brought down popular leaders and threw up new ones; it raised questions about Indian democracy and provided answers to it. After Independence, it was the first milestone that changed the course of Indian politics. Leaders who participated in the movement say its success lay largely in the Gandhian principle of non-violent protest. But George Fernandes, the fiery symbol of resistance to Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi on June 25th, 1975, believed that it will not end through non-violent protests alone, says Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament (MP) KC Tyagi. “I also was given a dynamite, but most of us preferred the Gandhian way.” The socialists were bound by the slogan of the JP movement of 1974 in Bihar: ‘Hamala chaahe jaisa hoga, haath hamara nahi uthega’ (No matter how we are attacked, we will not raise our hands). Fellow socialist politicians recall how Fernandes, who at 18 left a seminary where he was being trained to be a Catholic priest to join trade union movements, at times wore white and moved around the country in the disguise of a priest.
Socialists were instructed that if he was arrested, they should immediately call BBC or the German embassy. He had several friends among socialist leaders abroad, including former German Chancellor Willy Brandt. “Around six governments told Indira Gandhi that he should not be subjected to any physical harm,” says Tyagi. Fernandes, arrested from his hideout in a church in Kolkata in 1976 for allegedly attempting to blow up railway bridges, which came to be known as the Baroda Dynamite Case, won in the 1977 Lok Sabha elections by over 300,000 votes from Muzaffarpur, Bihar, while he was still in jail. His friend, Brandt, born Herbert Ernst Karl Frahm, had himself rebelled against the Nazi regime in the 1930s, fled from Germany, worked as a left-wing journalist under the pseudonym Willy Brandt and coordinated resistance actions among socialist groups, particularly in Europe.
The Congress was defeated in 1977 at the hands of the Janata Party, a coalition of parties including socialists, the Jana Sangh and the CPM (the CPI was an ally of the Congress), who had come together despite their unease with each other. Social theorist and political psychologist Ashis Nandy recalls how anthropologist BK Roy Burman had predicted the fall of the Indira Gandhi regime. “He told me he has been watching that JP’s style was to not lead the movement. It will be like 1942 [when Mahatma Gandhi launched the Quit India movement demanding an end to British rule]. You send police to suppress an uprising in one place. Police manages to crush it. But then, it erupts spontaneously in another place 500 miles away.” According to Nandy, this decentralised form of protest was a natural strength of Indian politics.
The precursors to the anti-Emergency movement—its hero Jai Prakash Narayan’s Sampoorna Kranti (Total Revolution) in Bihar, an agitation initiated by students, and Nav Nirman movement in Gujarat leading to resignation of the state’s Chimanbhai Patel government—had their genesis in the angst over economic issues like price rise and corruption. It had started with Gujarat students striking against a fee hike in 1973. These agitations produced several leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad, who were members of student unions. JP led a silent procession in Patna on April 8th, 1974, in which participants locked their hands behind their backs and covered their mouths with a saffron cloth, having pledged non-violence. It reminded of Mahatma Gandhi’s unique non-violent protests during the struggle for freedom from the British—non-cooperation, the salt satyagraha and the Quit India movement. It had started sinking in that protest—silent or loud, unusual or familiar—had the power to take on those in power, however invincible they may seem.
A fortnight before Emergency was imposed citing threats to ‘national security’, Allahabad High Court set aside Gandhi’s election as an MP citing election malpractices. This gave JP’s movement added ammunition. In the midst of Emergency in 1976, J Anthony Lukas, travelling through India, wrote in the New York Times: ‘One still secret government document—slipped into my hands by a dissenter—calls for a full blown presidential system which would guarantee ‘the unobstructed working of the executive.’ The legislature, ‘unlike in the USA,’ will not be too independent of the executive. The Supreme Court would be abolished along with the whole concept of independent judicial review. The reform would assure that the powers of the executive are not ‘frittered away in fruitless debate and discussion.’
Indira Gandhi had clearly underestimated the sway of the movement against Emergency. Crackdown after crackdown, including of the 1974 railway strike led by Fernandes, only added fuel to the fire. Despite winning the Bangladesh war, exploding a nuclear device and eliminating the Congress’ front rank leadership, the regime collapsed. She tried to suppress it but it continued to simmer, says Nandy. “Open dissent is a source of strength but the more you reduce democracy to a controlled one, the more insecure the regime feels. Even a wisp of protest is a source of deep anxiety and fear. Their reactions to protests reveal their feet of clay.” Nandy is of the view that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government, currently facing countrywide protests against the Citizen (Amendment) Act (CAA), has learnt nothing from Emergency.
“China has shown much more restraint in Hong Kong than it did in Tiananmen Square. It learnt something,” says Nandy. In 1989, when around a million people, mostly students, protested peacefully at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, seeking democratic reforms like freedom of speech and the press, the State Council declared martial law and mobilised nearly 300,000 troops, which ended up killing hundreds of protestors. Three decades later, having suppressed revolts in the mainland, Beijing pushed an extradition Bill that would permit China to extradite alleged criminals in Hong Kong. The move, seen as another repressive measure linking Hong Kong’s judicial system with China’s, faced stiff resistance, with the movement that began in June 2019 still continuing. The Tiananmen Square-tainted Beijing is probably wary of the repercussions of another bloodbath.
“The future of protests is relatively secure because most fully democratic countries have understood that more open the protests and the less hidden, the more powerful the country and its security,” says Ashis Nandy, social theorist
ALEXANDER GÖRLACH, A senior research associate at the Institute on Religion and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, wrote on the German news portal DW.com it was clear that where there is a choice between democracy or communist dictatorship in China—in Taiwan and Hong Kong—people choose democracy. “This should serve as motivation across the free world to keep strengthening democracy.” He also says that for the time being it cannot be ruled out that Beijing will choose to invade Hong Kong and extinguish the special rights meant to be granted until 2047, despite the economic damage China would suffer as a result.
While Indian communists have been at the forefront of pro-democracy protests in India, with CPM also participating in the anti-Emergency movement, when it came to the Tiananmen Square massacre, they silently stood by their Chinese counterparts. The then Rajiv Gandhi Government had itself taken a cautious stand, avoiding criticism of Beijing, citing India’s policy of non-interference in internal affairs of other countries.
Communists, under the leadership of Marxist P Sundarayya, had led the post-Second World War upheaval of Telangana peasants against feudal lords and later Nizam of Hyderabad, which had laid the groundwork for land reforms. “This was the biggest armed struggle. It was part of the post-War upsurge. First the Nizam’s forces tried to suppress and after Independence, it was put down by the Indian army. But the back of old landlordism was broken by the struggle,” says CPM leader Prakash Karat. Nearly 5,000 villages were liberated from the Nizam and the Razakars, the Nizam’s private militia which resisted integration of Hyderabad state into India, were driven out. The revolt ensured the victory of the Communist Party in Andhra Pradesh in the 1952 elections.
The Punnapra-Vayalar uprising of coir workers in the princely state of Travancore in 1946 was also led by the Communists, in protest against making Travancore an independent country. “Around a thousand got killed. It got suppressed but the Diwan’s plan didn’t succeed,” says Karat. Post-Independence, mass movements targeted new laws and policies affecting people. There were the less-remembered stirs like the 1950s movement for linguistic states, the biggest being for Andhra Pradesh. Sundarayya’s pamphlet Visalandhra lo Praja Rajyam (People’s Rule in a Unified Andhra), calling for bringing together Telugu-speaking areas of the Madras province, Hyderabad and the Bombay province, became a bible for
Meanwhile, another Marxist leader EMS Namboodiripad spearheaded Aikyakerala to bring together all Malayali-speaking people into a single state. “The movements came up because after Independence, Congress went back on its promises of linguistic states. These were protests that reorganised the internal map of India,” says Karat. But it came at the cost of several lives. In Bombay in 1955, nearly 100 demonstrators were killed in police firing, ordered when Morarji Desai, who two decades later participated in the anti-Emergency movement and went on to become Prime Minister, was Chief Minister of Bombay. Earlier, Telugu revolutionary Potti Sreeramulu, who had participated in the salt satyagraha, fasted unto death demanding an Andhra state. The state was formed, followed by Maharashtra and others. Years later, another movement demanding bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh again split Telugu-speaking people.
The 1960s saw protests on bread-and-butter issues. It triggered the first major electoral loss for Congress, which was defeated in nine states in 1967 though it won the Lok Sabha elections. In recent times, the Anna Hazare movement against corruption, which was aimed at the political class, rocked Congress governments in Delhi and the Centre. Hazare went on a hunger strike demanding a Lok Pal Bill and refused to allow any politician to join his protest. Brimming with idealism, the civil society movement in 2011 did finally turn against the ruling Manmohan Singh Government, as scams tumbled out of its cupboards, and Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) came into existence from the struggle.
Anand Kumar, who was a professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, and former member of AAP, avers that people hit the streets when channels to express their views in a democratic setup are closed. “This is not a very healthy sign for the ruling party or the opposition. To deal with people in the streets is more difficult than dealing with the opposition in Parliament. The protesters have no set pattern and the agitation can take any turn, opening a Pandora’s box,” he says. The Mandal agitation for reservations in government jobs and education for Other Backward Classes and the movement for the construction of a Ram temple where the Babri Masjid once stood were outcomes of deep-seated resentment among certain sections. Both ended up in the judiciary.
Protests explain the social history of an issue and their strength and impact depend on how deeply they are rooted in history, says sociologist Gaurav J Pathania, adjunct professor at the Department of Sociology, Georgetown University, Washington DC. “Most current political protests are identity-centred protests—either seeking identity recognition; or using identity to achieve their goal. Identity movements based on caste, gender, students, peasant, regional or religious [identities] cannot be understood without the individuals’ political agency. The stronger the political agency, the higher the scale and deeper the impact of their protests. Two examples of this are the protests for Jat and Maratha reservations. In present times, we have a stronger expression of our identities; but we are losing a sense of community and are failing to create a movement society.”
The recent protests against CAA have triggered a renewed debate in the country. While one view dismisses movements today as lacking the intensity to sustain, another exudes confidence that taking to the streets, with all its romanticism and fire, will simmer as an expression of dissent. “The future of protests is relatively secure because most fully democratic countries have understood that more open the protests and the less hidden, the more powerful the country and its security. The problem with authoritarian regimes is there is nobody to tell you that you are imperfect. Every human being is,” says Nandy. Citing the protests at Hyde Park, London, he says some countries have learnt how to handle political protests by just allowing them to happen.
Pathania says the genesis of today’s protests is in the digital space: mobilisation occurs digitally and as a result, it merely appears as a rally and then soon fizzles out. “In the era of ‘clicktivism’ and ‘slactivism’, protests are more reactionary and do not experience the processes of ideological churning. That’s why we are losing a sense of civil society as well as a protest culture that movements generate if sustained for a longer period. Therefore, the future of protests depends on their mobilisation strategies.” He observes that student movements show stronger commitments.
Surajit Mazumdar, professor at Centre for Economic Studies and Planning of School of Social Sciences, JNU, says “some protests are reflections of aspirations for egalitarianism and questioning of the status-quo. On the other hand are movements that are assertions of the status-quo. Political movements have a heterogeneity and each may categorise its opposition as anti-national.“
While protests rage across India over CAA, which grants citizenship to refugees from six faiths, excepting Islam, who have entered India illegally from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh by December 31st, 2014, the Government’s argument has been that these faiths have faced persecution in these Muslim-dominated countries, not Muslims.
Opponents of the Act say the law discriminates on religious lines, violating the right to equality enshrined in the Constitution, and combined with the National Register of Citizens (NRC) will become a tool to exclude Muslims. In the northeastern states of Assam and Tripura, the protests stem from fears that CAA will benefit illegal Bengali Hindu migrants from Bangladesh, who have settled there.
According to Karat, when politics is connected with ethnic or communal politics, a protest on the side of those marginalised can lead to polarisation. “The protest may be democratic but it can be used for a divisive purpose. It’s a feature of majoritarian politics to turn anything to your advantage.”
Asked if anti-Government protests over CAA could help BJP politically, Nandy says there may be temporary gains, but it will be unsustainable in the long run. On the future of political protests, he says, “it will keep simmering. You can try to kill them, but they will remain a latent potentiality within the polity.”
Whether a protest is justified or not will depend on which side of the political aisle one is looking from. One thing is clear. Silence is not always golden.