From time immemorial protests have been a very significant way to argue for one’s rights. In British India, Mahatma Gandhi introduced the non-violent way of protesting publicly which is bhuk hartal or public gathering where people quietly protest by fasting and not drinking water. Shouting slogans is another way to show resistance and disagreement. The candlelight vigil is also taken out as a means of peaceful protest to show solidarity. Peaceful march and procession with placards is another form of protest.
At the end of 2020, we saw a massive uprising of the farmers who peacefully blocked the highways and borders of Delhi to protest against the three farm laws which are averse to farmer’s well-being and livelihood and in a matter of days, farmers from Punjab and Haryana had tried to make a move to Delhi or the Centre. In the cold nights, they spend their days as a mark of protest in makeshift camps and through demonstrations and road blockage showed their dissent. The young and the old, men and women and even children, all participated in these series of protests which started in late November 2020 and is still ongoing.
The year 2019 had seen student protests at Jamia Millia Islamia and other universities across India against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens that does not include people residing in India for a long time especially the Muslims.
Assam saw quite a bit of resistance as it feared that granting of citizenship to refugees and immigrants would lead to an imbalance in its demography. Shaheen Bagh saw a peaceful protest by pre-dominantly Muslim women against the CAA excesses at Jamia Millia Islamia where police entered the library and beat up innocent students silently pouring over their books.
The CAA protests spilt over 2020 when the entire world was struck by a virulent strain of virus called the COVID-19 that brought the world to a standstill with nationwide lockdowns and barring of essential services.
It is as if the environment was protesting the materialist and self -seeking surge of humankind. Our nurses, doctors and health workers made efforts in these difficult times to save lives. Our essential workers drove their vehicles round the clock to home deliver medicines and essential goods. The world did not protest but quietly trudged on. But we will all agree that these lockdowns and face masks have definitely brought a whole lot of change in our lifestyles and livelihood. The migrant labourers in India bore the brunt of this lockdown as they who put up in rented houses, were suddenly asked to leave for their villages, they made the long journey back home on foot. Again they, the marginalized, did not protest. Women workers were hugely affected as they lost their livelihoods and many had to leave work to stay back home.
In America and the whole of Europe people, irrespective of race and religion were seething over the killing of Black American George Floyd by the US police which leads to peaceful protests everywhere.
Again in 2021, we saw that protests were making inroads in America where a mob supporting Trump breached the Capitol building. This was a violent form of protest where the mob pressed through police barricades and broke windows and violently made their way through to show their disagreement with Trump’s impeachment. This violent form of protest was not acceptable either to the rest of America or the world as a whole.
The context of social protest over time and history change but the content of not accepting the curbing of freedoms whether it is the political freedom to rule one’s nation or the freedom to chose one’s partner as in the case of love-jihad, remains the same. Protest can be of various types but they all happen as a result of the political expression of the society that seeks to bring social or political change. It happened whether in the case of farmer’s protests to affect policies of the government or in case of CAA to influence the knowledge and attitude of the public towards citizenship rights of the Muslims or a moment of confusion as parties changed hands due to democratic elections as in the case of America’s mob breach of the capitol where several were arrested. Protests are a collective social action as we can see in the case of massive farmer’s protests where they are constantly resisting against the government to protect their rights – it is a call for social change.
In history, the Reverend Martin Luther King initiated a protest movement in the church which gave rise to the term ‘Protestantism’ as a counter denomination in the church as opposed to the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church headed by the Pope.
In the 1960s, the modern Martin Luther King, Junior who lead the movement of the Black African Americans in the United States for civil rights and equal citizenship rights followed in the footsteps nearer home to the non-violent movement or Satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi. In India, much earlier, the protest movement for the simple civil rights of the downtrodden castes or the Dalits for the right of temple entry or the right to share the water of village well which was denied to them by the upper castes was lead by Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar. The Chipko Andolan against environmental degradation where the forest tribals hugged the trees to save them from destruction and the Narmada Bachao Andolan against the ill effects of big dams are recent examples of different sections of civil society protesting against environmental damage.
Student protests remain a significant form of protest. For instance, students protesting against arbitrary fee hikes in hostels in the universities as recently in Jawaharlal Nehru University or against the change of syllabi and system of credits at Delhi University. The protest of students and teachers and old residents to protect the dignity of an educational system developed by poet Rabindranath Tagore at Visva- Bharati against the banning of social traditions like the ‘Poush Mela’ and ‘Basant Utsab’ is a very recent example.
These protest movements are in their own waymarkers of social change as much as these were aimed, and if successful resulted in changes in the power structure of society, whether social, economic or political structure. For example, Gandhi’s Satyagraha was aimed at bringing freedom to the Indian people from British rule. It brought about a change from colonial order to the sovereign democratic republic of India. Dr Ambedkar’s temple entry movement and equal sharing of the water of village wells by the discriminated castes or Dalits was aimed at curbing the hegemony of the Brahmanical order overtime. After Independence, it resulted in constitutional provisions of the abolition of “untouchability” and reservation for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes in governmental, educational and employment opportunities. The peaceful protest on environmental damage resulted in bringing about an environmental balance which saved our forests, flora and fauna and resulted in controlling floods and deforestation. Among the recent protests the anti-CAA movement, though abruptly halted by the onset of COVID-19, was a marker of social change in so far it would have resulted in the maintenance of secularism and equal citizenship rights irrespective of region or religion one belonged to. Student protests were aimed to change the recent downturn in the allocation of funds for higher education.
Finally, the present protest by farmers, mainly from Punjab and Haryana, but supported by farmers and other groups from across the country, is a harbinger of fundamental economic, social and political changes. The three new farm laws are aimed to benefit the top industrial class and deprive the farmers of their land and produce and reduce them to a servile status vis-a-vis the government and the elite industrial class. If the justified movement of the farmers is successful then the social order will favour the agriculturalist class, farm labourers and the consuming middle class. Thereby the power structure of the society would change significantly and may lead to further movements for a significant social, economic and political revolution.
By Shashwati Ghose
The writer is a Research Scholar at Jamia Millia Islamia University and is based in Delhi.