Protests are Vital for Democracy; Dissent Cannot Be Criminalized

Protests are Vital for Democracy; Dissent Cannot Be Criminalized

In any protest, both civilians and the government-controlled administrative institutions are equally responsible to maintain peace and calm during the demonstrations.

By Faheem Usmani Qasmi

India has been witnessing a massive movement from the college and university campuses to the buzzing streets for few weeks after the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) was passed by the Parliament in December, 2019. This can be titled the largest movement in the 21st century in India so far. This is unparalleled in Indian history. The Indian people, cutting off their religious and political boundaries and limitations, took to the streets to protest against the CAA which they believe is discriminatory and against the Constitution.

The protest is the only way in a democracy that people can exercise beyond clicking buttons of a machine–Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) once every five-year. It is affirmed by political scientists that protest is vital to a democracy, giving a voice to those with no platform or privilege. It is a way to bring their abiding concerns to the government through peaceful protests and demonstrations, without resorting to vandalism or violence.

The issue of protest arises when serious challenges to the existing social structures, democratic values, and fundamental rights are made by those in power against the members of the weaker groups in society, such as workers, unlettered people and minorities. Such challenges are made for special attention and with a good intention but have dangerous consequences for the society.

When the people of a democracy see their democratic values being trampled and minorities being deprived of their rights, the individuals in a public rally show their personal concern by their presence and their collective concern by their numbers. Those who are involved in the protests or stand against the government policies cannot necessarily be termed as malevolent for the country.

It is the habit of all governments to show that protestors are malcontents and to justify the use of excessive force to put them down. Similarly, the present Indian government tries to show their image as anti-national or unhealthy elements for the country.

One more assumption among observers about the protests is that some people are not participating in the protests; they mistakenly assume that these people are supporters of the government and are siding with it. This false narrative is spread through media outlets to show them as such.

It is quite possible that they are not taking to the streets but still they are against the government policies because very few government employees have the will to take a strong public stand on an issue which might jeopardize their careers.

All simmering discontent for various policies of the government such as demonetization, imposition of GST, abrogation of article 370, and the general insecurity of the Dalits and minorities during the last few years, has crystallized into the present series of protests through the length and breadth of the country.

To add to these problems, the Indian economy is in a steep downward curve, despite attempts by the finance minister and the RBI to bolster the economy.

Traders and small business owners are not happy with the present state of the economy. The economy which was chugging along nicely, till about three or four years ago, has seen a decline. Both imports and exports are declining, jobs are scarce and people are worried about the future.

Common people, worried about the food on their tables are faced by inflation and rising prices of most commodities. Even high value customers are not buying cars during the last two years, although supporters of the government say the sales have picked up now, but these factors show that the economic and social impact of the government's policies have hit all sections of society very hard.

Since an alarming bell was given to the government employees in some states for taking part in activity against the government and its policies, most did not engage in such activities.

People can't be radicalized just for speaking up against the government and their dissent can't be criminalized. Protest either of a political nature or of a common nature can't be greeted with harsh legal penalties and excessive punishments to repress the protests. The protesters can't be titled as jihadists or anti-nationalists.

Indian history shows that the protest always played a vital role in changing the perception of the people whether it is the movement of Anna Hazare in 2011 to alleviate the corruption in the Indian government through introduction of the Jan Lokpal Bill or the Bihar movement initiated by the students of Bihar in 1974 and led by the veteran Gandhian socialist, Jayaprakash Narayan, known as JP movement against misrule and corruption in the government of Bihar.

Post-independent India has witnessed several students' movements that have been etched into the memory of the nation. Following are some remarkable movements and protests that played very crucial roles in Indian politics.

Anti-Hindi movement in Tamil Nadu 1965

The debate over language has been an imperative one even in pre-independence days. There had been constant protests against Hindi in Tamil Nadu for decades, but it became like an explosive volcano when a large number of students across the state launched a stir against the Official Languages Act of 1963, which promulgated Hindi as an official language along with English.

This sparked massive protests and anti-Hindi demonstrations led by E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker (Periyar). He raised the slogan 'Tamil Nadu for Tamilians' and accused Hindi of being a tool of the Aryans for debilitating Dravidian culture.

Although the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) vociferously opposed this act in the Parliament and DMK chief MK Stalin said, “Imposing Hindi on Tamil Nadu would be similar to throwing stones at a beehive”, the law was passed in the Parliament.

In 1963, the central government, headed by Nehru passed the Official Languages Act, which provided for the continuation of English language for official purposes of the Union and for its use in Parliament.

After Nehru's demise in 1964, the Congress government in the state introduced a three-language formula in the state assembly, leading to students taking to the streets. There were self-immolations by students, and about 70 people died in the ensuing violence.

The agitation ended when then PM Lal Bahadur Shastri assured that Nehru's promise would be kept. The Congress was routed in the 1965 elections.

Nav Nirman Andolan (Reconstruction Movement) 1974

Nav Nirman Andolan, was a socio-political movement in 1974 in Gujarat by students and middle-class people against economic crisis and corruption in public life. It is the only successful agitation in the history of post-independent India that resulted in dissolution of an elected government of the state.

The agitation started on December 20, 1973, when the students of an engineering college in Ahmadabad instigated a strike against 20% fee hike in hostel food. A similar strike on January 3, 1974 at Gujarat University saw clashes between the police and students. The protesters demanded the resignation of the then chief minister, Chimanbhai Patel.

A statewide strike was organized on January 25, which ended with another round of clash between the police and protesters. A curfew was imposed in 44 towns and the army was called in to restore peace in Ahmedabad. The Indira Gandhi government at the Centre asked Patel to resign. The agitation led to the dissolution of the state government.

Bihar Student Movement 1974 (Also Called JP Movement)

When the Nav Nirman movement resulted in the forced resignation of the Gujarat government, student protests had already begun in Bihar under the leadership of Jay Prakash Narayan that focused on corruption, nepotism, electoral reforms, subsidized food and education reforms. It was a peaceful protest, which started from Patna University and spread to several other educational institutions across the country.

Nitish Kumar, now the Bihar chief minister; Lalu Prasad, a former Bihar CM, and Mulayam Singh Yadav, a former UP CM, were some of the prominent youth leaders who earned their spurs in the JP movement that promoted the idea of socialism.

The Bihar Movement turned into a Satyagraha and volunteers kept protesting at the Bihar Legislative Assembly, inviting arrest starting on 4th December, 1974. Indira Gandhi did not change the Chief Minister of Bihar, Abdul Ghafoor, because she did not want to give in to protestors' calls for the dissolution of the assembly as she did in Gujarat.

JP kept travelling all across India, strengthening and uniting opposition parties to defeat Congress.

While the JP movement was drawing the attention of the nation very rapidly, the Allahabad High Court declared Indira Gandhi's election to the Lok Sabha in 1971 void on ground of electoral malpractice. This verdict did the same for the movement as fuel does to a vehicle and grew stronger and the demand for the resignation of Indira Gandhi from the prime minister's office developed.

She tried to move to the Supreme Court but JP opposed such a movement in his letters to Indira Gandhi and called for her to resign. As a result she imposed a nationwide 'Emergency' to safeguard her position on the night of 25 June 1975.

Immediately after proclamation of emergency, prominent opposition political leaders such as JP Narayan and others were arrested without any prior notice, so as were dissenting members of her own party.

Student Movement in Emergency 1975

In several universities and academic institutions across India, students and faculty members organized underground protests, using pamphlets and leaflets to protest against the imposition of Emergency. Over 300 student union leaders, including then Delhi University Students Union president, Arun Jaitley (late BJP leader), and Jay Prakash Narayan, who headed the Chatra Sangarsh Samiti, were sent to jail.

Assam Agitation 1979 to 1985

The Assam movement (Assam agitation) was a popular movement against illegal immigrants in Assam. The movement led by All Assam Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP), developed a program of protests and demonstrations to compel the Indian government to indentify and expel illegal (mostly Bangladeshi), immigrants and to protect and provide constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to the indigenous Assamese people.

People from different walks of life joined the students' protests, and it ended in 1985 with the signing of the Assam Accord. Student leader Prafullah Mahanta, who then headed the Asom Parishad, became the chief minister in 1985 at an age of 35.

Anti-Mandal Agitation 1990

On August 1990, students from across India started a protest against the introduction of 27% reservation in government jobs for people from the Other Backward Classes. The government, led by VP Singh, implemented the Mandal Commission recommendations submitted to the government in 1980.

Although the protest began in Delhi University, it spread to several educational institutes across the country, leading to violent protests in many parts of the country. Students in several places boycotted exams. The agitation ended when Singh resigned on November 7, 1990, after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) withdrew support to his Janata Dal government.

Anti-reservation protests 2006

It was a second major protest against the reservation system. In 2006, widespread protests took place in educational institutes to oppose the decision of Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government to implement reservations for OBCs in both central and private higher education institutes. Students and doctors belonging to upper castes called the move discriminatory. There were counter-protests in favor of the decision by OBC student groups.

India Against-Corruption movement 2011

The movement 'India against corruption' commenced in 2011. It was a series of demonstrations and protests across India intended to establish strong legislation and enforcement of laws against the endemic corruption in politics and the bureaucracy.

The movement gained momentum from 5th April 2011, when anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare began a hunger strike at the Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. The chief aim of the movement was to alleviate corruption in the Indian government. Another aim, spearheaded by Baba Ramdev, was the repatriation of black money from Swiss banks and other foreign banks.

It was a nationwide protest that shook the then Congress government and as a result it lost power in 2014.

But after failing to press government to pass the Lokpal Bill, 2011 –a bill was drawn up by some civil society activists in India seeking the appointment of a Jan Lokpal, an independent body to investigate corruption cases. The movement weakened later when the spearheading Anna team split on issue of formation of political party.

Anna Hazare and some others did not want to join politics. Arvind Kejriwal, a very active leader of team Anna, and some others finally formed the new Aam Admi Party (AAP), on 26 November, 2012. A year later, the party made its electoral debut in the 2013 Delhi legislative election held in December 2013.

It emerged as the second-largest party, winning 28 of the 70 seats. With no party obtaining an overall majority, the AAP formed a minority government with conditional support from the Indian National Congress. The AAP failed to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill in the Delhi assembly and resigned from the government after a short term of 49 days.

President's rule was imposed in the state for a year. The assembly elections were held again in 2015 in which Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party made a clean sweep winning 67 of the 70 constituencies and leaving the BJP with three seats and the Indian National Congress with none.

Protest over Rohith Vemula's death 2016

The suicide of a Dalit scholar of Hyderabad University, Rohith Vermula, triggered a nationwide outrage against the university administration over alleged failure to prevent his suicide. The suicide took place days after the university's executive council expelled five Dalit students, including Vemula, from the hostel and limited their access to the campus for allegedly assaulting an ABVP student leader. Hundreds of students from universities across India participated in protest rallies.

This is a brief history of major protests that took place in India and resulted in significant consequences and changed the course of Indian politics.

The Anti-CAA Protests 2019-2020

The ongoing protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and NRC continue to grow despite the TRP-hungry media focused a lot on trying to view it through a communal lens.

Noted leader, Salman Khurshid, admitted that the nationwide protests could not be engineered by the Congress. Otherwise they would have won in the elections.

Shashi Tharoor clarified that the current protests were not a case of Hindu versus Muslim but an attempt to secure the rights for all enshrined in the constitution of the country.

The sheer diversity of the ways in which people are expressing themselves against the government's divisive policies is an evident proof that they are united and very serious for their fundamental and constitutional values.

The anti-CAA movement is being believed to be the largest after the India Against Corruption movement (IAC), but while the focus of IAC was too narrow, the ongoing protests are nationwide, as they are focused on the renewal of the promise of India to its people.

The most attractive aspect in these protests is that the protestors have kept in their sight the preamble of the constitution of India, which guarantees protection for all. The Constitution is at the tip of every participant's tongue in this movement which is a good sign for the future of the country that people are struggling against the coercive powers to secure freedom, equality, justice and fraternity.

This movement has two very distinct features: The youth mainly students, are performing a vital role for society –always trapped in its divisive politics – and shouldering their responsibilities for saving the values of the constitution. The second feature is that, in spite of all efforts to make this movement a communal one, the efforts to persuade others to join the movement have met with a great success.

This is the reason that the Central Government has stepped back for now on the NRC exercise clearly in response to civil protests that have shown no signs of dwindling, but instead growing bigger and wider all across the country and taking the shape of people's movement covering large swathes of urban India.

The brutal crackdown of Delhi police at JMI students also contributed much to these protests that set off a cascading reaction beyond anyone's expectation and certainly beyond the control of a government that arrogantly believed that the people acquiesce in its every unjust decision.

The Jamia's answer to the police was the flag and the Constitution. Students, especially women protestors greeted policemen with roses, raised placards and voiced their grievances peacefully.

The most significant part of this movement is that people themselves have taken the lead for this protests as they usually wait for the leadership in other matters. Unlike previous protests where leaders led the people, here the people are leaderless but resolute and defiant.

In this movement, whether in college assemblies or in the protest marches they raised their voices, in both style and substance, loud enough to be heard above the din of the city as in the case of Delhi's Shaheen Bagh, assembling to show off their strength.

This can only be termed as an irony for the BJP. They have the requisite numbers in Parliament, but they misjudged the pulse of the people. All these years BJP and its right wing allies had used a narrow, jingoist version of nationhood as a weapon against the depressed classes. They used the Indian flag as a red rag shown to a bull. The BJP volunteers took out 'tiranga yatras' ostensibly to instill feelings of pride in the country but in actual fact to taunt Muslims and liberal Indians.

But to the utter surprise of observers, the Narendra Modi government, four years after gaining a massive mandate, has been rendered speechless by the sight of thousands of flags flying in all corners of India. The BJP used the flag as a threat, as an instrument of coercion, as a test of loyalty for alleged 'anti-national', and finally as a symbol of the PM's New India.

Shaheen Bagh has become the hallmark for this movement. The women come here, day and night in a make-shift pandal waving the tricolor and energetically singing patriotic songs. The flag can be seen imprinted on the cheeks of little children as also on the wrists of their mothers. Many of them here are not well educated but still they are fighting for what is at stake.

Shaheen Bagh's peaceful protests have been replicated throughout the country.

The people's movement has finally moved the state governments. Both Kerala and Punjab passed resolutions against CAA. Kerala has even knocked on the doors of the Supreme Court against it.

The anti-CAA protests occurred all over India and abroad as well. According to the report of the Hindu, close to 48% protests recorded at least one violent incident or police action such as detention, lathi charge or both. Death of at least 31 people was related to the violence that ensued during the protests.

In any protest, both civilians and the government-controlled administrative institutions are equally responsible to maintain peace and calm during the demonstrations as severe clashes have been reported in some states because of non-cooperation.

Map shows districts which recorded at least one violent incident or police action or both and those that didn't. At least 24 districts in U.P. witnessed protests, of which 90% recorded violent incidents or police action or both. Among the metros, only Mumbai witnessed protests where no violence or police actions were recorded to have taken place. Delhi witnessed violent incidents, police action and detention as did Bengaluru and Hyderabad.

Of all CAA protest-related deaths, 70% were recorded in UP followed by 20% in Assam.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court refused to put on hold the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), which is at the core of nationwide protests, and gave the Centre four weeks to respond to petitions on the law, making it clear that it would not grant any stay without hearing the government. The court also said a five-judge constitution bench will give an interim order on some 140 petitions on the law.

It is hope that the Supreme Court will bear in mind the concerns of the people regarding their constitutional rights and force the present government to listen to the voices of reason.

While protests are continuing unabated, the Modi government has refused to give an inch. In any democracy, the only way out for the rulers and the ruled is to seek a dialogue. The process of confrontation can be avoided or at least minimized when the see-saw between the rulers and ruled can be mediated to achieve a balance between the two. If the people want something and the government decides to give in to them, it is good sign that the government is at least willing to listen and has ears close to the ground.

Note: This story has been published as cover story in the Easter Crescent, February, 2020

The Writer is research excutive at MMERC, Mumbai