On 26th January 2021, the farmers’ protests against three undemocratically passed farm Bills finally caught public attention, but for different reasons. They had barged into the Red Fort in New Delhi, refusing to succumb to the lathicharge and barricades, reclaiming a republic which the ruling party had put on sale. They made their priorities clear: Human rights and livelihoods could not be left to the corporates. Governance should not be privatised. Agriculture is not a free market.
This sight was revolting for the keepers of the status quo. The middle class which was conditioned for years to forget the grammar of resistance, were baffled on discovering its messiness, incivility and chaos. To their consciousness that was well versed in conformity, every protest felt like a riot, comparable to the madness of a mob or a disquieting commotion. It was an act of violence because public property was massacred. It was terrorism since majoritarian anxieties were intimidated. What they believed to be farce, was essentially democracy.
Agitations are disruptive by their very nature. Their motive is to compel the authorities to address the concerns of the agitators. When the government assigns designated spots for agitation, it’s merely to make sure that the media and people could easily ignore it. Protests demand and deserve attention, redressal and accountability. They must digress from the authorised routes, invade the ‘sacred spaces‘ where the privileged go to hide, flow through the city like blood in our veins pumped by a heart filled with courage and resilience.
The standards of civility, decency and courtesy in any society are set by the powerful group for their own convenience. This is why mothers of Manipur stripping and protesting against rapes done by army men, seemed offensive and uncomfortable to many while sexual violence by men in uniform looks like casual “collateral damage“. This is why farmers breaking barricades is so anxiety-provoking for the majority but violence unleashed by the State forces feels like an exercise of peacekeeping. This is why women talking about their trauma in graphic details during the #MeToo movement was more infuriating for most, than a society that has normalised sexual terrorism.
One must remember, that revolution won’t speak the language of the oppressors. Their imagination is bound to fail in containing or comprehending it. Civility is a prison. Decency is another word for abiding by the status quo. Resistance is meant to take you by surprise, corrupt your hierarchal standardisations, contaminate your unquestioning consciousness with reason. When oppressors get to write the book of ethics for others, subverting authority will be a sin and conformity, the highest virtue.
How we categorise crowds depends on who commands and builds the narrative. Bhagat Singh is looked upto as an epitome of patriotism and valence for Indians, while he was regarded as a terrorist by the colonisers. Nathuram Godse is thought of as a freedom fighter by right-wing extremists while held as a murderer by the left for having assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. During the Black Lives Matter movement after George Floyd’s death, instances of looting or of property being damaged or Confederate statues being graffitied were viewed as aggressive acts that violated the norms of a civil protest, whereas the instances of police cars ramming into protesters or pepper-spraying them weren’t viewed as violent because they’re coming from agents of the state.
Movements which threaten the public-sanctioned injustice are immediately termed dangerous or addressed as a ‘riot’, evoking visions of disorder and offence to the establishment. Lawlessness or illegality doesn’t necessarily mean wrong. Anarchy is despised only by the ones who are already powerful. For the oppressed, it has always been anarchy. The rich know—in a state of anarchy—farmers won’t be compelled to produce food for them for the lowest of prices, the construction or sanitation workers won’t build their buildings or clean their drains for wages which don’t even fill their stomachs, the police force and judiciary that provides them impunity will be jeopardised.
Lawlessness scares those in favour of whom, the laws of the land are written. Anarchy will hit the privileged the most because they earn from renting their heritage, appropriating the labour of working classes while not producing anything at all. Noam Chomsky wrote in his book, On Anarchism, “Institutional structures are legitimate insofar as they enhance the opportunity to freely inquire and create, out of inner need; otherwise, they are not.”
Decades ago, black abolitionists and fugitives were literally “stealing themselves” in legal terms when they protested against slavery. They were committing a crime by running away since it was illegal for a slave to flee. Engaging in political action for the sake of Black freedom back then while also simultaneously adhering to law of the land couldn’t work because the law itself was racist.
Since 2008, protests in Kashmir have been restricted and hence, the mere assembly of people who disagree with the state can result in getting shot down. In such a militarised state, picking up a stone against an army of well armoured soldiers is easily equated to carrying an AK-47 as if every form of dissent is motivated by money, every separatist is foreign, every objection is terrorist.
There will never be a “legal” way for Dalits and Muslims and women to protest because their rights aren’t legal in the real sense. It’s impossible for disparities to exist at the level they do, unless the state itself is complicit in the death of democracy. Raising a finger can look like a bullet to them, who are aware that the state is guilty of being white or savarna or male. The complicit will never approve for the undoing of inequalities which have historically favoured them.
What is the right way to protest anyway?
Girls at BHU who rallied for security in their college campuses were lathicharged for ‘asking too much’.
Muslim women who pulled off mass sit-in protests at Shaheen Bagh against an Act which literally seeked to disenfranchise them, were dismissed for causing mild inconvenience to the “real” citizens.
IIT Kanpur students were called ‘anti-national’ for reciting Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s verses.
Muslim student activists and veteran tribal activists were jailed under an Act meant for terrorism against state.
Every form of dissent in these cases was democratic, constitution-abiding, civil disobedience. But they were condemned because there is no ‘accepted’ way for the minorities to express their grievances and anger against their lesser rights. It’s not the duty of the marginalised to evoke savarna sympathy, impress their privileged and ignorant hearts for proving that these protests are legitimate. One shouldn’t have to shout the “right” slogans or pass improvised tests for patriotism to qualify for demanding basic rights to live. The onus of non-violence cannot lie with the oppressed.
If Umar Khalid or Azad Ravan was as active in the farmers’ protest as Yogendra Yadav is, they would have been booked under some random IPC long ago. This is what they mean when they say, some people go to jail not for what they do, but for who they are.
Also read: Poster Series: Protest And The Moral Police
“Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed,” wrote Paulo Friere in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
“How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the result of violence? How could they be the sponsors of something whose objective inauguration called forth their existence as oppressed? There would be no oppressed had there been no prior situation of violence to establish their subjugation.“
Featured Image Source: Feminism In India