With every protest planned on these grounds, residents rush to the courts, asking to deny permission to fellow citizens who want to raise certain important issues.
Since school, we Indians have been told pride-inspiring tall stories of protests, fine speeches and ‘non-violent’ protests led by Mahatma Gandhi. The famous Dandi salt march, hunger strikes, slogans like ‘Go back Simon’, Swadeshi, Quit India and so on. Finally, we said bye-bye to the colonial power that ruled over us, Britain. But remember, these stories, like folklore, passed down from generation to generation, show us that within the constitutional framework, you demand your right and demand it in a peaceful way and ensure your rights are protected; if not, PROTEST, till the frustrated ruler gets more frustrated and gives in.
Wow, such stories should be written and told like mutual funds and insurance policy disclaimers: “subject to your risk in the future as political scenario can change”. We, in modern 2020, a free and democratic India, are now being told by the courts in our country how to dress, how to behave, post-dusk curfews are set, how to be a good woman, when to watch adult programmes, what to watch or not, what to eat and what not to, which animal is to be slaughtered and when, how to think, how to speak and most of all, when and where to protest, subject to being allowed to do so. The latest such order from our apex court is, ‘NOT to occupy’ public places for protests. This decision was delivered during the hearing of Shaheen Baug protests and police action to remove the protesters.
Interestingly, Article 19 of the Constitution of India clearly says, “The right to protest, to publicly question and force the government to answer, is a fundamental right”of every citizen of this country. Now the word ‘publicly’ has been used by the founders of our Constitution, gladly.
Tradition of protests
India has always had a culture of protests and prominent leaders who made an impact, from pre-Independence days. Social movements in India have played a crucial role and many personalities have played a prominent role to help India become what she is today, an inclusive, secular country. People could just step out of home and join any protest that was going on in Mumbai.
As part of Mumbai’s history and the integral need to keeping it united and within the state of Maharashtra, the famous Samyukta Maharashtra movement and protests were held. People, including women in nine-yard sarees, children and people, mostly workers, an entire majority of the population that wanted Mumbai to remain integral to the state, walked from their homes to Flora Fountain to proclaim so. It was the fight of the common person, the citizens who believed in their rights and they did it on the streets of then Bombay. On November 21, 1955, then Prime Minister Morarji Desai ordered police to shoot at the protesters and 106 of them were killed.
Speaking of protests and bandhs, there was one man who could bring the country to a halt – the late George Fernandes. When he was a trade union leader, as the president of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation, he demanded fixed working hours for train drivers and pay hikes across the board. For three weeks in May of 1974, no trains ran in the country, because there was no person to run them. Before and since then, we have had the culture of rail roko. The tradition of rasta roko always existed. Now, vehicles stop in their tracks, creating traffic jams for altogether different reasons. In fact, even during bandhs called by the BJP, they have indulged in rasta and rail rokos, preventing people from going to work, which is far worse than protesting on the streets.
Most important, even Mumbai Police have flirted with protests and in fact, there were deaths during the Bombay police riots. Police halted trains and protested for better working conditions in August 1982. My sister and I would walk to our school, situated off Lamington road. At the junction of Lamington and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel roads, the police had placed barricades and started a mini bonfire of tyres, we witnessed this as we girls walked to school. Those days, parents did not interfere with school managements and our schools were kept open, come rain or riot. Most of all, the protests and riots were held on the main roads.
In fact, 1982 was an important year for Bombay city, as trade union leader Datta Samant called the textile mill workers’ strike. There were protests by striking mill workers on various grounds.
The various maidans and playgrounds have been obvious venues for protests. Naturally so, as they are out in the open, it becomes easy to accommodate the crowds, offer mobility and pose less of a safety hazard. Also once, Bombay had many open spaces and maidans. The favourite venues were Girgaum Chowpatty, Azad Maidan, August Kranti Maidan, Kamgar Maidan, Bawla Compound, Shivaji Park and Flora Fountain, to name a few.
We have seen regular protests outside Samrat restaurant, quite close to the seat of power in the state, Mantralaya. It was easy for the protesters to send their emissaries to the various departments to get assurances and hold meetings with the ministers. Over a period of time, this distance has increased further, between those in power and the people.
Dissent and protest are integral to the growth of society. It is an important right granted by the Indian Constitution. People naturally take to it, while some may resort to fast unto death, others may shout, some others may target symbols of power and authority. They want to be heard and seen, plainly. The reason these maidans and venues have been popular is basically because of the locations – their proximity to the centres of power, the BMC, Mantralaya or the Courts. More importantly, proximity to the railway stations and bus stops. The participants can easily reach the venue. Imagine people getting stuck in traffic on their way to a protest. Unfortunately, the common person does not travel in cherry-on-top vehicles like judges, who are completely disconnected from the ground reality of all odds faced by the public to conduct just one protest. It is harrowing the number of letters organisers have to write, give promises and still be at the mercy of authorities who may just deny permission outright.
Pray, where to protest?
Earlier, groups of protesters could take to the streets simply after submitting letters to police and the BMC. The streets have vendors, shops that have encroached into pavements, vehicles that are wrongly parked and similar such woes, but these are of not any concern to the authorities. The fact is, every government has ignored adding numbers to the police force and have moved into more tech surveillance, which has more people than the police force does. Along with the bandobast they have more important duties like guarding powerful personalities. The common public is then an irritant. Slowly, the police and governments began restricting the mobility of the public and places to protest, as it was felt easier to police in such situations. On one hand policing has been the issue and on the other the woke residents. Suddenly, woke citizens have become aware of noise pollution, protecting their grounds and preventing mainly political rallies and protests. This wokeness however, has not been extended to those celebrating weddings and loud festivals on those very maidans. With every protest planned on these grounds, residents rush to the courts, asking to deny permission to fellow citizens who want to raise certain important issues. This has irked the Bombay High Court, saying it cannot be reduced to being a watchman.
Now, such limited venues are allowed that it really has become a joke to hold protests. There are limited numbers of grounds and worse still, fights over who gets rights over them too have intensified. After the open roads at Samrat, protests were restricted to Azad Maidan, but wait, the whole ground is not at one’s disposal. One fine day, the Mumbai Cricket Association ran to the high court, saying these protests were affecting their matches and practice. The court then allotted only one spot, but before citizens could ‘enjoy’ it, the Mumbai Metro project took over large tracts of the Azad Maidan. Now, citizens have to meander through a pathway inside, an obvious deterrent to those travelling by trains. Now the protests are not ‘visible’ which also means the floating population and curious ones are excluded.
The point is, protest is to cause discomfort to the lawmakers. However, with every passing year, sadly, increasingly, it is the citizens and protesters who are being caused discomfort.
Neeta Kolhatkar is a senior journalist with over 30 years of work experience across different media platforms. She is currently a freelancer and media consultant.
(Views Expressed Are Personal)