Saturday, 20 April 2013

The politics of protest

When I read about the ghastly rape of a 5-year-old last night, I will confess, my first reaction was of exhaustion. So it wasn’t an iron rod in a 23-year-old but a bottle of hair oil and some candles that were found shoved inside the baby. Does that make it more or less horrifying? Should that even be a question? Didn’t this just happen a few months ago? Didn’t we go out and protest, didn’t we pour our anguish out in blog posts and op-eds, didn’t we sign every single petition we could find on, didn’t we send recommendations to the Justice Verma Committee? Why should we have to do this every single time? What is the point of sweating it out in Delhi’s searing 40-degree heat for change that never happens?

But as I read more, as I watched the video of a woman being slapped by a cop at the hospital where she was protesting against the negligence and subsequent corruption of the cops involved, my reactions changed. I wept so violently that I almost threw up, and I knew that despite myself, I was not jaded. Not yet. No, I do not think that protesting outside the hospital was in any way a good or ethical idea. Doctors need a calm and peaceful environment to work in and nothing will be achieved by anyone, civilian demonstrators or Aam Aadmi Party workers, invading that space and demanding resignations of police topdogs, or to see the victim, or whatever the hell they were demanding. A hospital is not the place for this kind of protest. But that still doesn’t justify the complete brutality of the police that we all saw yesterday. Yes, inquiries have been ordered to examine allegations of both bribery and brutality, and the slap-happy cop has been suspended for now, but we know that this is not enough. We cannot expect mindsets to change and patriarchy to be rooted out if those in positions of authority are allowed to behave like this and get away with only minor punishment.

With this in mind, I attended this morning’s rally outside the police headquarters at ITO. My friend had very generously offered me a ride along with a colleague of hers, and when we got there at 10:45 in the morning, we were the only women there. The entire protest had been taken over by the Aam Aadmi Party, and because they were the single largest political presence there, the media thoughtlessly began calling it the AAP protest, completely ignoring the fact that there were other people there who did not want to be aligned with the party, who were there as individuals who felt strongly about what had happened. Who did not agree with the mindless AAP chant “Choodi pehen ke dance karo, dance karo”, which was meant to highlight the weakness of the police force but ironically ended up being as misogynistic as the crime that was being protested against.

There were many such chants that I disagreed with – the murdabad one being the most popular. It started off against Police Commissioner Neeraj Kumar and Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, but soon turned into a slogan against the entire government and police force. Neither helpful nor tasteful, and not something I could bring myself to say. While I have no moral problem with death penalty to rapists, I do not wish death to any of these people, and I do not see the point of demanding it using this platform. Demands for resignations/arrests of certain cops, swifter punishment for rapists, and for Kumar, Shinde, and Sheila Dikshit to speak to the public (by which I mean say something meaningful and concrete, not spout useless clichés) – those I yelled for till I was hoarse. Unfortunately, the murdabad ones are the ones that people seem to like the most.

The advantage of being part of a small group of women was that the news channels actively sought our views, which worked for us because we had genuine and concrete things to say. We also had perfectly pleasant exchanges with a few cops on duty, who offered us water and discussed yesterday’s slapping incident with us quite freely. Within an hour, a few other small political parties had joined the demonstration, so even though there weren’t too many individual protesters, the crowd was sizeable and only growing. So far, so peaceful. But after about two hours of perfectly civilized protesting, we were suddenly, violently pushed and shoved aside by an army of crazed AISA workers who ran up to the police barricades and began to upturn and break them, climbing on top of them and yelling for absolutely nothing. We managed to get out of the crush of people, holding the hands of strangers as we tried to help them escape as well, and eventually, all the women protesters were standing at the back or to one side, continuing their demonstration, while the guys from AISA jumped and yelled like animals up in front.

We continued to protest for a fair while longer, but when we saw a new deployment of cops arriving with lathis and rifles, we knew there was no point staying. The protest had officially been hijacked. The media had got its story and the police and politicians, their excuse to justify brutality and clampdowns and Section 144.

But despite all this heartbreaking, frustrating mindlessness and political hijacking, there were enough people there who really cared about what was going on, whose demands were genuine and whose anguish was heartfelt. And the media, cops, and politicians would do well to remember that those people may leave the protest venue but they are not going anywhere.


  1. "when we saw a new deployment of cops arriving with lathis and rifles, we knew there was no point staying." you should have left when the aisa workers came, not when more cops came by. either that or stay through to the end. the way you put it makes you seem no different than all the other people who don't protest because to them their own personal safety is sacrosanct.

    1. Hi Anon. I don't know who you are, whether you're in Delhi or whether you attended the protests or not, but I find your point unnecessarily judgmental of people who did make an effort to go. We did continue our protests for a good hour or so after the AISA workers came, because we felt that we were still being heard, that what we were saying was still being noticed. But beyond a point, yes, personal safety is sacrosanct to me and why should it not be? Apart from which, there isn't much you can do for anyone if you're injured. So the "stay through to the end" argument is a good idea for a movie but meaningless in real terms, in my opinion.

    2. I don't think that is the case AT ALL here.. the basis of this story is about feeling helpless and exhausted with the filth that our country is experiencing. The systems and processes of governance, policing and even the right education are of no use really, and possibly will not be despite the efforts of our entire nation.

      What does one do in that case?

      As a man I generally stay away from commenting on these issues. Why is that..? It's because i'm tired too, of seeing my country shamed like this and I know that protests and petitions aren't going to make a difference.

      So.. I find it strange that you rake up the issue of 'personal safety at a protest' here.

      Just wanted to say, that I connected with this piece more than I would of the hundreds of other write ups/news/opinions out there, talking about Rape, protests, castration, solutions etc, because somewhere in my mind I've given up.

      Its sad that we're having to retire our minds to hopelessness. The fire shouldn't leave our minds.

      Have nothing else to say I guess.

  2. The next time a heinous crime against a woman/child or anyone for that matter is committed, you will look back at this blog, in the same way you looked back at your December post. Is the problem the fact that we're merely reacting to events, rather than pushing for serious law/implementation? Will we go back to our jobs on Monday? Will we take one casual leave, to extend the protest? It will stop, like it did the last time. Then what? Nice post, though.