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Path of Protest

Path of Protest

For three decades, the road behind Jantar Mantar has hosted protests of all kinds, giving voice to those fighting to be heard. Yet many of these protests have not seen fruition.

On April 15, four girls came to Jantar Mantar in Delhi. Aged between 13 and 18, they are from a Dalit community in Bhagana village in Hisar, Haryana. On March 23, they had gone to a field near their houses to relieve themselves. That evening, they were kidnapped and gangraped by members of the Jat community, to teach a lesson to the dissenting Dalits—who were demanding equal redistribution of government land and challenging feudal structures—in the village.

Over the last two months, the villagers have waited in the hope of redress but to no avail. Today, over 100 families from the village have joined them in a sit-in at Jantar Mantar. Time and again, their tents have been dismantled and they have been asked to leave.

Situated on the Sansad Marg of Lutyens’ Delhi, Jantar Mantar is a conglomeration of 13 astronomical buildings in red sandstone. From a distance they look like the elements of a child’s geometry box—built in different shapes and sizes surrounded by trees—in central Delhi’s typical style. The road behind this massive observatory is where people from all over arrive to register their protest. Although the protest space isn’t part of the observatory, it’s widely identified by the name of the famous monument—Jantar Mantar.

The lane is roughly half a kilometre long, barricaded at both ends by police personnel, both men and women. It was famously used by Arvind Kejriwal to launch the Aam Aadmi Party. Many December 16 rape protests were also organised here. In the past, Tibetans in exile, anti-Telangana protests, the Maruti Workers’ Union, the Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement—all have staged a demonstration here to demand national attention.

You can tell a lot about a protest by the crowds that stream away from Jantar Mantar. Sometimes they’re khadi-clad, sometimes they’re young, sometimes they head to the temples. Tonight, it’s the kind of crowd that fills restaurants and bars. A group of ten 20-something interns and media students have come for a Jantar Mantar walk.

Anuj Gupta is leading the group of protest tourists. He tells the others, “When you come for a protest, you have to take care of the clothes to wear, things you carry. Always bring a face-mask and tissues and don’t carry a wallet. Wear shoes that you can run in. Cargo pants are best: you can carry a camera, notebook, phone, small water bottle.”

According to the Delhi police, 1,530 people have been permitted to demonstrate at Jantar Mantar since the December 16 protests erupted in Delhi last year. Each protest is distinguished by the name it acquires—Damini, Bhagana, Bhasha, Kerala, Babaji, Kejriwal. Each term has its own nuanced history, like the etymology of a loanword that’s drifted in from an unknown island.

It is a soup that constantly simmers.

In 1719, Sawai Jai Singh—a Rajput ruler appointed by the Mughals—was witness to a noisy discussion in the court of Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah “Rangeela”, the grandson of Aurangzeb. The debate raged on how to make the astronomical calculations required to determine an auspicious date for the emperor to start a journey. Jai Singh thought the country needed to be educated on the subject of astronomy; as a result, five observatories were built at Delhi, Mathura, Benares, Ujjain and Jaipur.
Built on the outskirts of Shahjahanabad—the New Delhi of its time—the stated purpose of the Delhi Jantar Mantar was to achieve this purpose, and accurate observations to compile Zij, the yearly calendars in the Mughal empire. Readings from the instruments at Jantar Mantar were meant to be used at sunrise, sunset or noon: important times for everyday religious rites. The instruments were also used to measure positions of celestial objects especially at the juncture of seasons and the solstices, all important times in the yearly religious rites.
Jantar Mantar has continued this tradition in the last 26 years. It has served as a metaphor for issues that needed to change their trajectory. It predicts the planetary positions for the way issues are received and how they percolate; whether interest in these issues will live or die.
For 40 years after Independence, Boat Club at Rajpath—next to the Parliament and India Gate— was the official protest venue in Delhi. It was used by former prime minister V. P. Singh several times before the final implementation of the Mandal Commission report.

Hell broke loose for Delhi’s power elite when in October 1988, Mahendra Singh Tikait—the popular farmer leader from western Uttar Pradesh and the doyen of mass protests—occupied the stretch from Vijay Chowk to India Gate for over a week. Five lakh farmers, Hindus and Muslims alike, joined him in converting Rajpath into a parade ground for tractors, and the manicured lawns lining Rajpath as grazing grounds for their cattle.

“Delhi was brought to a halt. For a week, all you could see was either farmers defecating in the India Gate lawns or driving tractors from one end to the other. They broke all street lights and cooked food at Vijay Chowk. They milked cattle in front of the Parliament. The stench of cattle shit became unbearable by the day,” recalls Ram Bharose Nagar, 53, a head constable with Delhi police, who was then posted at Vijay Chowk and is now on the Jantar Mantar police beat.

Tikait, who passed away in 2011, had submitted a 35-point charter of demands that included higher prices for sugarcane and waiving of electricity and water charges for farmers. After a week, the Rajiv Gandhi government had to bow to these demands. Plenty of people in the power corridor were against the sit-ins and protests, with a view that it disrupted daily life and damaged the already shaky economy.

Following Tikait’s chakkajaam—putting a halt to daily traffic in protest—a legislation was passed to shift the protest venue two kilometres from Boat Club to Jantar Mantar.

Tucked behind the Jantar Mantar monument—on a road that leads to the Connaught Place market—the protest space is away from any government building or centre of economic importance. The message was clear: protests can go on but must remain invisible to the public eye, with minimum chances of a spill-over. Since then, it has become a kind of living museum, an open-air theatre of dramatic but unfinished political and social change.

In February this year, the Delhi police placed an advertisement in newspapers: “Want to protest? Book a spot at Jantar Mantar. For gatherings of over 5,000 people, book Ramlila Maidan”. The Delhi police spokesperson, Rajan Bhagat, said, “This ad has been issued to convey the message that we are not against anyone holding a protest; in fact, they are welcome, but a proper procedure needs to be followed.”

Freshly-cut firewood is stacked up, ready to be used for cooking. A barber sits next to the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) toilet and is regularly visited by protestors. There are self-organised encampments, tents and stoves. Three tea shops stand here, selling bread pakoras and soft drinks. A mini dhaba sells a meal for Rs.40.

At present, there are four spots on this road dedicated to rape survivors and victims: three on the footpath lining the Jantar Mantar wall, and one on the opposite side, just next to the police barricade at the entrance. Right now, the road is seeing a two-month-long protest of the Bhagana girls and other families; the 17-month-long protest of Jagjit Kaur, a Jat Sikh rape survivor from Punjab; and the 18-month-old eternal flame with Damini’s name plate outside the shanty of one December 16 Kranti Sena. On the other side of the road, an activist with a poster is demanding that all rapists be led to the noose.

Stereotypes abound, making their fight fragmented and self-centred, like the competitiveness of a corporate job. There is almost no sympathy between different groups of supporters; sectarianism is rampant. The Dalit girls are too new in the scene. Jagjit Kaur is not allowed to join them because she has allegedly used casteist remarks against her rapist, who is a Dalit. She is not joining the Damini Kranti Sena because they allegedly collect funds in the name of Damini and use it for personal expenses. The activist on the other side of the road is not joining all of them because she is thought to “have political ambitions and is too arrogant”.

Jagjit Kaur’s 17-month-long, lone sit-in dharna against Punjab IPS officer Naunihal Singh has been the subject of many foreign documentaries after December 16. There was a tide of journalists and documentary filmmakers who wanted “rape survivors who could talk on camera” at short notice, and they were directed to Jantar Mantar.

Jagjit, 40, with a strong build and a loud, husky voice, does not hide her face. When I last met her in June, 2013, six months into the dharna, she was enthusiastic, passionate and confident. One year later, she cries at the drop of a hat. “This girl Damini has spoilt my life. They fooled the whole nation by yelling Damini, Damini! I came here thinking that I will get justice too but I have wasted 17 months. Why can’t anyone see my posters and documents? Because I am still alive?” she asks, wiping angry tears.
She sends her helper from the village to get another set of photocopies of her documents to hand over to a visiting journalist. Every day, she locks the makeshift door of her shanty with a chain and goes to Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, the Sikh place of worship, to bathe and eat food served in langar. “When I came initially, it was difficult to manage with the NDMC toilet which was always flooded and dirty. Then a few fellow protestors who have been here before I came told me about this better option.”

After 17 months of protest, she is mechanical but efficient. Not even an FIR has been registered in Jagjit’s case, till date. “My family is disturbed because of my protest; my in-laws are maintaining a distance from me; my husband who works in Japan has lost hope in me. My life is over,” she says.

Jagjit has given herself another month. “If nothing happens still, I will become a terrorist and promise to organise a bomb blast at all public rallies. Let all of them die.”

Somwati is one of the old women from Bhagana village. She is in her sixties, and is sitting in protest and in solidarity.
“It is very good that the government created this protest venue at Jantar Mantar,” she says, “but they should have thought about how people will manage their meals.” She points at the makeshift brick stove with firewood. “It rained here yesterday and there was no place to cook. The government must make a closed space where people can cook.”

Her naiveté does raise a genuine concern, since not many get heard without months of sit-ins, if at all. With election season having concluded in May, they still have a long way to go.

Last year, in August 2013, the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA)—which has been spearheading the campaign against manual scavenging for 25 years—staged a sit-in at Jantar Mantar. They burnt a token basket full of indignities. Protesters came from Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Odisha, among others, and demanded an apology from the prime minister.

The protest echoed the revolutionary determination of December 16, but it did not attract lakhs of middle-class supporters to fill the streets, nor was it hotly debated on social media. The protestors also urged the government to provide them with dignified rehabilitation, in addition to speeding the passage of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill, 2012. A PIL filed by the SKA has now entered the tenth year of hearings in the Supreme Court and the final verdict is awaited.

Neha Dixit on Twitter: "Women's organizations gather outside Jantar Mantar  in solidarity with women wrestlers protesting against sexual harassment" / Twitter

Pushpa Rani is a 40-year-old NDMC sweeper who has been deputed at Jantar Mantar for the last 10 years. She says, “While the 1,000 members burnt that huge basket, I was thinking of the number of hours it will take me to clean it up. They do it every once in a while, never giving a thought while throwing food waste, plastic bottles, or burning effigies. They don’t even flush the NDMC toilet when they leave.”

Activities at the protest site range from peaceful protest, to occupation, to more extreme acts of direct action, like vandalism. For each protestor, the formula is pretty much the same: demonstrators take to the venue, decry varying degrees of problems—all justifiable citizens’ complaints, shouting similar slogans that are rarely new but which escalate with each iteration—burn an effigy sometimes, and then depart.

Chote Ram, a mason under the NDMC road department, says, “The footpath tiles are multi-purpose weapons for protestors. People dig them up for stone pelting, for makeshift stoves, installing tents. Every month, we carry out the repair work.”
In comparative accounts of movement—beginning with the freedom struggle in the early 1920s and running through the Internet-driven movement for global justice—social media makes it easier to build up movements quickly, at lower coordination costs.

Lakhan Pal, 28, a graduate from Siwan district of Bihar, has been on a sit-in for the last three years. His demand is employment for all and a minimum wage of Rs.15,000 per month. He has a smart phone with a 3G connection, and Twitter and Facebook accounts. For any protest that the media—mainstream or alternate—misses, he is the person to contact. “Media channels often buy the footage from me. I have also created Facebook pages for ‘Justice for Jagjit Kaur’, ‘Free Asaram Bapu From Jail’ and the Rashtriya Bhasha Andolan.”

Morality is nuanced here. Each protest places its demands above the others’. Manish Pathak, convenor of the Bhartiya Bhasha Andolan, is sitting next to Lakhan and laughs out loud. “We tell him that if he is demanding employment for all, why not look for employment for himself first? What wrong have his wife and children done to starve while he sits on a whimsical protest here?” he says.

The Bhartiya Bhasha Andolan demands that English cease to be the mandatory working language in all government offices. Regional languages must be promoted to make government proceedings more accessible to the poor. The movement started at India Gate in 1985 and has not come a long way in the last 28 years. Last year, they decided to start a sit-in at Jantar Mantar.

“We realised that we had no social media presence and that is why could not mobilise support, because we were still using the old techniques of writing appeals and letters.”

V. N. Bajpayi, 70, dressed in a yellow satin kurta with a sandalwood-smeared forehead, is sitting in solidarity with Manish and others. He adds in impeccable English, “I agree that the coordination cost in mobilising is very low through Internet, but the tedious work that was required to circumvent censorship, or to organise a protest, also helped build infrastructure for decision-making and strategies for sustaining momentum. It is for the lack of it that now movements can rush past that step, often to their own disadvantage.”

Of late, the arrests based on anti-Modi remarks and the death of a Pune engineer—who was beaten to death for his alleged anti-Modi posts by Hindu right wing groups— is further shrinking the scope for superficial dissent. This leads to self-censorship of a dangerous kind. In this light, Jantar Mantar might seem as a life-saving drug to the Indian dissenters.

Bajpayi has started his own organisation called Janakrosh, an NGO working on different social projects which will also monitor the results of Jantar Mantar protests. To the dismay of many, he has used his articulation to help the protestors at the exit of the Jantar Mantar lane, who are sitting in support of Asaram Bapu. “I came here today to witness how stupid people were hell bent on insulting Baba Ramdev,” he says.

The propagation of radical Hinduism, which is increasingly stoking the fire of communalism, is hidden from the public eye at Jantar Mantar. Today, pictures of yoga guru Baba Ramdev and Asaram Bapu stand at the entrance and exit of the road behind Jantar Mantar. Ramdev, dressed in his customary saffron robe, is adorned with a garland made of shoes, and a Jimmy Choo sandal standing as a pendant. Asaram sits cross-legged in a rose-decked turban, with agarbati smoke clouding his face.

The people in the tent with Ramdev’s picture are angry because he “insulted Dalit women” by alleging that Rahul Gandhi, vice-president of the Congress, goes to Dalit houses for “honeymoon”. They are gearing up to burn his effigy. The people in the tent at the exit are feverishly flaring fire in the hawankund in front of Asaram’s picture. They are praying for Asaram’s release from the Rajasthan jail, where he is currently lodged for sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl.

Between these points, there is an elaborate maze of stories of protest. Next to Asaram’s tent, towards the right, is a small shanty with a façade of a white plastic sheet with jottings in Malayalam in smudged red ink. Sunil, a teenage boy, is carefully pouring water on his body at an angle so that the water collects in a tub placed next to him. He uses this water to soak his clothes for washing. C. K. Vimla, a middle-aged woman, sits outside, combing her hair.

Vimla’s son Ramesh was killed in 2002 in Trivandrum. Her face is calm but her eyes are never still, constantly roving. “The murderer wanted to get married to me. He was a drug smuggler.” After protesting in Trivandrum for six years, they moved to Jantar Mantar this January.

She says, “My demand is that all Muslims should be arrested to save the country from terrorism.”
I ask, “All Muslims?”

“Yes. Till now, my demand from the government was rehabilitation for my family and action against the murderer of my son. But now, I also want action against all Muslims.”

Sunil adds, “Because of them, we have no means of survival. We live in this shanty. The other day, it was raining. The anti-Telangana protestors, who were leaving, gave us their flex boards to cover the roof to prevent water from seeping in. Sometimes, we manage food but at other times, we collect the prasad from Asaram’s tent.”

On the other side of the road, Shankar Parshuram, 54, sits on a neatly spread grey blanket. Lean but strong, he is grinding tobacco with his right thumb over his left palm. Shankar worked as a daily wage labourer and came to Jantar Mantar in February this year from his village in Pune district, Maharashtra. Unlike Vimla and Sunil, he doesn’t have a shanty, just a small wooden casket and three big plastic bags neatly covered with his spare lungi.

“My house was burnt down by my neighbours because they were jealous of my content lifestyle,” he says.
“Any other reason?” I ask.
“Do Muslims need any other reason to torture Hindus? I have even written to the Human Rights Commission.”
“How do you manage without a roof?” I ask.

“I sleep here only, under the sky. When it rains, I shift under Bapuji’s tent. See, the peace-loving old man has also been in jail for no reason.” He points towards Asaram’s tent across the road.

With the abrupt anti-Muslim feeling running as high as praised galore for Asaram, it is difficult to imagine the plight of the lone Muslim protestor at Jantar Mantar. Zulfikar Shah, 45, and his 40-year-old wife Fatima Shah have been on a sit-in at Jantar Mantar for the past seven months. The journalist-activist couple from Pakistan is demanding asylum in India. They were exiled from Pakistan in 2012 for their work on the atrocities on minorities, including Christians and Hindus and peasant rights.

“We shifted to Nepal in 2012 but were poisoned there. We have the United Nations Human Rights Commission for Refugees accreditation but the Pakistan High Commission is manipulating our appeal for asylum everywhere. We literally don’t know where to go,” says Zulfikar, as Fatima offers namaz next to the plastic sheet tent they inhabit. All eyes in the vicinity are fixed on her for the next five minutes. In the last seven months, close to Rs.40,000 has been stolen from their bags on various occasions. Local intelligence unit officers keep making rounds in civil clothes.

A number of people jailed from Jantar Mantar have been arrested for disturbing peace and harmony or vandalism. Gayatri Devi, 90, is one of them She has been a sit-in protestor for 14 years. A freedom fighter from Bihar, Gayatri Devi is illiterate and a Bhojpuri speaker. Her pension abruptly stopped way back in the late 1990s, when the government officials told her that she is not an “actual freedom fighter” and removed her name from the fresh list.

“Indira Gandhi visited us in the 1960s in Munger and personally got me enrolled for a freedom fighter’s pension,” she says.

In 1939, she went into hiding for a year-and-a-half after the British arrested all participants of a farmer’s movement organised by Baba Nagarjun, a maithli poet and freedom fighter from Bihar. Her husband died of tuberculosis during the period of hiding. She was three months pregnant then.

“The police arrested me and sent me to an old age home in Tilak Nagar but I come back. Why should I stop protesting? I have nothing to lose except my life. I don’t care any longer but for being here,” she says.

During the December 16 protests, student organisations insisted that the venue of protest should be any but Jantar Mantar. Ishan Anand, president of the Democratic Students’ Front in Delhi, says, “Jantar Mantar has become a part of the status quo. The Delhi police’s advertisement proves that. This negates the idea of a protest. While organising protests, Jantar Mantar is the last option as a protest venue. We have repeated in our speeches that if one demands action, the protest should be outside the Parliament, not Jantar Mantar.”

At one level, Jantar Mantar brings awareness on how much we are unaware of. Yet, it builds a façade of the freedom of dissent in democratic India without actual resolution of the demands. It tops the list of protests in collective memory, often undermining and erasing the committed protests of the likes of Irom Sharmila against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in Manipur or the tribals fighting mining companies in Odisha and Chhattisgarh, by virtue of being in the national capital. Sometimes, it stresses decency to ask for the historical patience of the bereft.

The Delhi police has already received 200 applications for the month of June. Ram Bharose Nagar says, “The Parliament session has begun and protesters will flock here again. That is a real spectacle. You should not miss it.”

Published by FountainInk Magazine on July 4, 2014

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