Take back the night - the anatomy of a protest

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Take back the night - the anatomy of a protest
New Delhi:  Amrita Bhinder's lathi-inflicted bruises might have begun to fade but barricades along Raj Path, normal at this time of year in preparation for Republic Day, are up. As the dust settles along the most powerful boulevard in the country, the steel becomes a metaphor for the might of the state and its own fortification against an angry public that recently filled this exact space making an ostensibly simple demand.

Freedom, enshrined in the constitution of India and safety for India's women from sexual assault at home or outside. The brutal gang-rape and eventual death of a 23-year-old girl on her way from a movie in the evening on Sunday evening in December triggered an awakening that took many by surprise. Perhaps the simplest explanation for it is the sense of identification with the victim - the ordinariness of the evening, the girl, the movie she watched and the aspirations she had for herself, and represented for so many like her, was all it took to say enough is enough. The anger building up over years to boiling point - as crime after crime against women make the headlines - whether it's the killings of Jessica Lal, Soumya Vishwanathan or Pallavi Purkayashta, or the rapes of women and children across the country.

Amrita, a corporate lawyer herself, says her faith in the law would normally make her the last person to take to the streets in protest, but says "Somewhere there is a comfort zone that you slip into, somewhere you believed that other person will do it for you... you need to be there, and you need because it's all over Twitter, on Facebook, you seeing on your TV and you are in Delhi, so you want to be a part of ,what's happening around you, because you are very keenly anyways attuned to the cause. So for the first time, you felt that there is some issue, which not only you felt but everybody around you is feeling. And the kind of people, who were there exactly like us - the kind who would normally find it difficult to get up on a Sunday morning to make an agenda of the day. Who would normally stay home."

As one tries to understand what triggered the widespread, nationwide protests calling for justice for this particular victim, this time, leading feminist Urvashi Butalia says it is wrong to assume people have not come out to protest in the past, on similar issues. In fact in several cases, it's the raising of public voices that has effected changes in rape laws in the country, even if they are still stacked up against women. But what sets these protests apart from others in the past, according to her, is that fact that the people coming out cut across age, gender and class divides. She says it's the first time she's seen the general public come out to protest on seemingly women's issues, hitherto considered the domain of women's groups alone. "There's also the fact that you know that next generation of woman may down say from my generation to next generation after that, they have grown up taking many things for granted that we fought for. So to them those things aren't issues. But when things touch their own lives, because of course victimisation operation doesn't go away. In that sense I think it is very significant and also it is significant in this to take stand by urban people in governance because it means that you feel that you can actually be at the edge of the change," she says.

Powered by the engine of social media, the peaceful protests took on a life of their own. The lack of any one single leader was hardly an impediment. In fact, spontaneity was their USP.

Writer and Blogger Nilanjana Roy spent hours at India Gate and Jantar Mantar as a protester and observer to the change staring her in the face. She says she's stunned at the impact social media had in how it helped organize such widespread protests so quickly.

"I don't think the people realize the measure of the anger that people are talking about" , she says, suggesting that for a certain kind of young woman the "city" is a place you come to from small towns to build a life away from family, a place that offers independence. But now, Nilanjana says "this apparently simple issue what can you wear or where you can go has multiple ramifications. Is it the revolution in this point ...No , I don't think you can say that, but this might be first time at least in urban India that you have broken this specific side. I have not seen such kind of spontaneity in the past, but it has to remain in the longer run."

Women's groups, some associated with political parties too, feel this will be an organic transition. AIDWA'S Sudha Sunderaman feels more involvement will be a default result of the "questioning of structures of power and discrimination. For example, if you take up a rape of a Dalit girl or you take up a case of an adivasi or a minority or child, you then realize that discrimination is also linked to other structures of power."

While the last few years have seen a larger involvement of the great Indian middle class, she feels the demographic is still caught in the "notion of what is expected. Coming on to the streets and carrying placards and giving slogans is not considered in the list of respectable things to do for the middle class", she says. But even she concedes this particular incident has stoked a dormant anger across India's citizens.

Early signs of the arrival of the urban Indian onto a protester's stage were visible way back in 2006 when enraged over the acquittal of Delhi socialite Jessica Lal's murderer, they organised silent protests and candle light vigils. She was one of them - urban, working, English speaking. Backed by an active media, the protests forced the courts to rethink judgments and send her killer to jail for life.

In the five years between the calls for justice for Jessica and Anna Hazare's Lokpal agitation, young, educated, urban India has become increasingly aware and involved in efforts to change the rot that runs so deep in the state and society. The Lokpal agitation saw many of the same people back holding placards, taking on the establishment - this time for complex legislation, for a simple demand to fight corruption at every level, every day.

Once again, the call resonated across age, gender and class divides. While the two issues are as far removed from each other as possible, the intensity and strength of the anger was equal, if not stronger.

Delhi's former top cop and now activist, Kiran Bedi says the message from the government to the public is that it "only works under the pressure of numbers, the more they persevere, the more likely a government response." She says Anna Hazare's agitation taught people how to question authority. "It gave them a voice and opportunity to speak out," she says. And she says the biggest strength of this movement was that it was not led by individuals, but that everyone there was a leader and a follower at the same time. According to Ms Bedi "had it turned political, there would have been some political faces which could have been attacked."

In the sea of young men and women at India Gate this past December, was Nishtha Gautam, an English lecturer at a prominent girl's college. She was one of the few who went to meet the home minister during the protests. Born and raised in a feudal family in Etah in Uttar Pradesh, with high female foeticide, and poor development indicators - a place she calls one of the most backward in her state - her story in many ways is similar to that of the girl who died.

She taught her students how an issue seemingly non-political could create a political storm when on a Saturday morning in December she brought them to India Gate because in her own words she has "zero tolerance for any gender based violence whether it is verbal, psychological or physical." She's very clear about instilling those values and confidence in her students. In spite of her background, Nishtha says she has her family's total support. Her husband took her to the "Slut Walk" protests last year and her parents are happy because her commitment "has given confidence to many other women" where she comes from. "Women may not have got the education or opportunity that I have received. But if tomorrow I see at least one girl asserting her right whatever way she can, I will be happy that I have achieved something through this," she says.

India's freedom movement was decades ago, but the ideas of satyagraha, dharna and civil disobedience against established and entrenched political classes are somewhere deeply ingrained in the psyche of a nation whose youth are just beginning to understand the power their voices carry. Amrita's husband and freelance documentary film maker, Gautam Chintamani is confident more people will begin to come out on issues that matter. That people will be "a little more socially conscious if not politically aware of course it has and when you see that your voice can be heard it does inspire people." He uses the example of an online campaign that forced a Gurgaon hotel to cancel a New Year's Eve concert by rapper Honey Singh. Amrita adds that "Personal safety for women is a big factor. If we don't speak up now we don't have future to hold on to."

Amrita is a corporate lawyer, her husband Gautam a film maker and one of hundreds of men who came out for what's always been considered a "women's" issue. Like Nishtha, the college professor married to an Army officer, they are young and upwardly mobile, representing the vast middle class demographic hitherto considered apathetic and insular, but now finding their voice and stake in politics and governance.

For those who've devoted an entire life to raising voices against injustice especially when it affects livelihood and safety, the emergence of the middle class in political protests provides just the boost their activism has cried out for. Medha Patkar, who's led the Narmada Bachao Andolan and is a veteran of public protest against the state, says the arrival of the middle class in any movement makes a difference. "Politics for us is changing relationships among various sections of populations, between the state and its people. We are raising the issues of inequity, injustice issues of ecological sustainability and those are the issues which are dependent on. People's politics always questions the power holders, the state."

But political parties are unsure of whether to co-opt or criticise an angry public and often find themselves caught on the wrong foot. The protesters on the streets of Delhi, bracing water cannons in the biting cold, rejected them, irrespective of the party. While academics and journalists study or try to bracket this new protester, perhaps the only thing that's clear is that when it comes to issues that hit home directly - health, safety, livelihood - whether its protests against nuclear plants and hazardous waste in Tamil Nadu or Maharashtra, whether against political and bureaucratic corruption or for justice and safety - the urban Indian is fast realising that politics is about much more than casting a vote and is slowly but surely making crucial linkages it needs to between what affects an individual and what affects a nation.

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