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A case for the right to protest

Over one year ago, thousands of farmers had gathered en-masse at the borders of New Delhi, to register their protest against the contentious farm laws that had been passed in September 2020, without much deliberation in the Parliament.

A case for the right to protest
Representative image

New Delhi

Last week, after these legislations were repealed, these farmers dismantled their tents, packed up their makeshift homes for the last one year, and proceeded to head back to their States, from the Singhu and Tigri borders and the UP Gate. 

It was a much-deserved and rightful culmination of the year-long agitation that saw hundreds of casualties and was by and large a peaceful demonstration, save for a few errant incidents that left a bad taste in the mouth.

The victory of the farmers – setting aside the political motivations of the ruling party in two critical poll-bound States, Punjab and UP – seemed like a victory of democracy too. 

A fundamental tenet of a political system – of the people, by the people, and for the people, seemed to have been upheld in India after a long time. The repeal of the farm laws is significant as it has transpired when ordinary people across the world have been making news for standing up for something as quintessential as the basic right to live.

In the aftermath of the killing of African American George Floyd by police officers on duty, the Black Lives Matter movement assumed a gravitas that it had not for several years now. It’s not that the Black population in America had not protested about racial discrimination early on – from the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s to the assault on Rodney King by LAPD officers in the 90s. 

But this time, it felt different as Confederate statues came tumbling down, debates on the impact of colonisation and slavery regained momentum, the question of reparations was brought up, and more significantly, police reforms involving the lesser use of force and reporting of police misconduct became part of legislation in many US States, a reform that even India could find inspiration in.

These past few years have also seen unprecedented coverage being given to a topic that we had shoved under the carpet, thanks to the vested interests of Big Oil and Big Auto – climate change. Many were quick to dismiss the exploits of Swedish youth campaigner Greta Thunberg, asking her to go back to school instead of taking time out to save the world. 

Today, it’s hard to go through a CoP26 report without finding a reference to at least one of the climate challenges that Thunberg has been vocal about. Her Fridays for Future is an example of how one unassuming teenager with nothing but her strength of conviction managed to make the world, along with its political leaders and business moguls sit up and take note.

It must be remembered that India is the birthplace of non-violent dissent, perpetuated by Mahatma Gandhi and followed by the likes of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. And keeping with that spirit of civil disobedience, an octogenarian Bilkis Dadi became the face of the Shaheen Bagh protests in December 2019. 

Having mobilised the support of hundreds of women, braving rain and heat, Dadi was among the most formidable voices in the protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, the NRC and the NPR. 

While the agitation was dismantled in the aftermath of the Delhi lockdown imposed in March 2020 due to the pandemic, with many calling it an unfulfilled strike, the protests became a reminder of how ordinary citizens could prompt a nationwide discourse for reform, if they choose to stick together.

To protest requires commitment, sacrifice, and a sense of service over self. And it’s essential that a spirit of civil disobedience is woven into the fabric of our democracy – as a conduit for course correction in the larger scheme of things.

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