Protests: A Plea for Justice or an opposition propaganda?

The Stephanian Forum delves into the significance of protests through a cogitative analysis of history.


It is a widely held belief that one of the strongest catalysts of change in a society is one that challenges its mainstream beliefs and norms and shakes them to the core. Thus in order to leave an indelible mark on society and surmount, what might perhaps be categorised by many as insurmountable, actors of change often rely on protests and demonstrations as vehicles of change. However, often has the debate of the entire requirement and necessity of protests been surfaced and sparked several other debates in relation to the exact motive and result of these demonstrations. Presently, when the entire world is taken by a storm of demonstrations and protests against the status quo, it is important to understand the character of the protests in terms of fruition and to investigate into the necessity of having them.


Throughout history, protests have come to be as social movements made by small groups who are loosely connected but have a common purpose to be united. In these movements, protests have played an important role, highlighting the ability of ordinary citizens to dissent. However, critics often question the very basis of such demonstrations, if the very motive of a protest is not realised, and see them as a waste or unrequited acts. 


The fact that a protest ‘failed’ is in itself very subjective. One way of interpreting it would be that the protest failed to mobilize enough people to exert pressure on the concerned authorities and thus, failed to bring about a change. Another would be that the protest mobilized the people on a large scale but was suppressed by the authorities (the government in most cases) who would unleash the wrath of their powerful machinery on the public. While the former is an instance of public passivity, the latter hints at a rather compounded situation. This instance is ironic. In a democracy, the government derives its authority from the will and consent of the people. yet here, protests which signify the people’s dissent have failed to manifest the public’s sovereign power over the government. Such a scenario is rather precarious since it highlights the fact that the will of the people is no longer the basis of the authority of government, thus, indicating the death of sovereignty, one of the fundamental principles on which any democratic nation is established.


We must not undermine the very basis of a protest, and most importantly not forget that it was solely because of such demonstrations that India today stands as an independent nation free from any kind of foreign oppression. 


With recent protests around the country, coming on the roads is once again seen to be a common way for people to voice their grievances to the concerned ‘authority’. The success of a protest does not always lie in achieving something concrete and tangible. A protest can be successful if it moves the conscience of people towards grievances of their brethren. A protest can be successful if it leaves the authorities ‘shaken’. The sheer realization of the fact that the common man can come down on the streets and lend a voice to their concerns has helped history keep a check on people in power.


However, it will be unfair to say that protests have always been successful in nature and one must direct itself to its full capacity by partaking in such activities. For instance, Salman Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, earned the ire of the Islamic clergy across the world. The Government of India, led by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, banned the book soon after it was published in 1988, coming under pressure from the Islamic fundamentalists in India. In 1989, a fatwa was issued against Rushdie by the Supreme Leader of Iran, a figure revered by Shia Muslims- Ayatollah Khomeini. The fatwa called upon the faithful Muslims to execute Rushdie for his ‘sin’, which led to a number of attempts on Rushdie’s life and several riots, leading to the deaths of many people. The fatwa stands to this date, but the Iranian government’s stand against Rushdie has softened and it has, over the years, decided against the implementation of the fatwa. This protest against the book can be seen as a failure in the long run because, firstly, the book continued to be sold in various countries and it is often pointed out that the issuance of the fatwa is believed to have actually increased the sales of the book in the UK, making it one of the Vintage’s all-time bestsellers. 


On April 15, 1989, protesters gathered in Tienanmen Square, Beijing, to demonstrate against the lack of state mourning for Communist Party of China General Secretary Hu Yaobang, a man known to be tolerant of dissenting voices within the party. Along with other protesters from various political groups and of differing allegiances, the crowd reached around 100,000 strong. While uprisings against communist states across Eastern Europe were rolling back the power of authoritarian states, the Chinese authorities decided to act. The state reaction was severe, and when the army was sent in to clear the square, around 500 to 1,000 people were killed, though many more may have been quietly murdered afterward.


At the same time, it is important to remind ourselves that it was only because of these demonstrations that the world came free from oppression, orthodox fanatics and fantasies, unjust and immutable attitudes, violence and slavery. Outside India, popular movements for democracy cascaded across the Middle East and North Africa. These were not Marxist or Islamist movements, and while there was great diversity in the expectations for what democracy could look like, there was shared fatigue with the authoritarian rule. In this protest, the participants were not the urban poor, unionized labour, existing opposition members or any minorities with problems. They were middle-class, educated and powerless youths. There was no discrimination against gender in this protest. Hence this is how the protest got its name “Arab Spring”, which was a series of anti-government protests, uprisings, and armed rebellions that spread across much of the Islamic world in the early 2010s. It began in response to oppressive regimes and a low standard of living, starting with protests in Tunisia.

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Each newsflash is a visual of streets gone riverine with masses that march against the suppression of dissent. Every headline paints protests in numbers and figures. Such has been the face of Indian media as of late. In the dawning winter of 2019, India took to the streets in response to the Citizenship Amendment Act. Democracy’s inherent notion of power with the people came into play- and it did so with full throttle on the socio-political theatre. Civil Disobedience, in the words of Gandhi,  becomes a sacred duty when the State becomes lawless and corrupt. Folk politics assumes importance then. Similarly, America’s civil rights movement impeccably elucidates upon the relationship that power, people and the institution of protest share. The monumental Montgomery Bus Boycott was organised to protest segregated seating on buses. The protest spanned over a year, from the 5th of December, 1955 to the 20th of December, 1956.


Recent suppression by the authorities to stop these protests have not only raised safety concerns but also shaken the very spirit of activists all across the globe. Thus events in the past and present analysis have raised questions on the overarching strategy and effectiveness of crowd-control measures—issues which are not new, but remain relevant to this day. Primary example of such instances can be related to the situations in Kashmir, protesting crowds have primarily involved agitated citizens that weaponize stones against security officials. Police and security force personnel’s use of “non-lethal” pellet guns in response has been indiscriminate and excessive. Conservative estimates show that in 2016 alone, over 90 civilians were killed by injuries caused by pellets and over 8,000 people were admitted in hospital with other injuries including permanent blindness. 


Such has been the long history and reality of protests all across the world. Where, on the one hand, activists claimed protests as their freedom of speech and standing up for the very essence of democracy and secularism, and on the other hand, authorities and critics upheld the view that protests were nothing but a reaction of the oppositions shielded by the masses. Hence, clashes between the protestors and organisations have been a long lived battle. One thing that has always remained constant is people have made their opinions and voices heard one way or another.