Anatomy of activism, as it were

Updated: 04 November, 2020 07:39 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

With non-violence being non-negotiable, are we progressively seeing more protests by middle-classes now, than ever in history?

A  'Not in my name' silent protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on June 28, 2017, following a spate anti-Muslim killings. Pic/AFP; (inset) the cover of Inquilab: A Decade of Protest. Pic/
A 'Not in my name' silent protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on June 28, 2017, following a spate anti-Muslim killings. Pic/AFP; (inset) the cover of Inquilab: A Decade of Protest. Pic/

Mayank ShekharMuch as we love Anupam Kher as an actor — barring perhaps the one time he played former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh like a penguin — his performance that left many baffled once, was in 2015. He got on the streets of New Delhi, to march from India Gate to Rashtrapati Bhawan, to submit to the President of India a memorandum, roughly arguing that Indians were incapable of intolerance.

And that nobody had a business stating otherwise. Which is strange, because protests are usually held to speak truth to power. Except Kher had audience with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, no less, after the march. Of course, we've seen infinitely more preposterous 'counter-protests' on streets since — including ones held in favour of rape-accused!

But I just had to ask Kher on an ABP news television show then, exactly what did he intend to achieve by ratting to the government about 75 equally accomplished artistes/intellectuals, who had returned their state awards/honours, reacting to reported cases of religion-based crimes in India. These private citizens had actively given up something they owned. He had got on the street, against them!

Citing an author on that list of award-returnees (who wasn't on the show to defend herself), he said she received a prize by the government in 1986: "Where was she, when 1984 (anti-Sikh riots in Delhi) happened?"

'Where were you, when…' is a phrase sometimes thrown, when there is no argument left to defend the indefensible. You could be fact-checked on where you were when you were not even a thought in your parents' head.

And, let's say, you were even an adult at the time — what a common question like this indicates is if you've not publicly protested about something then, you have forfeited your right to protest about anything else, all your life thereafter!

The other barb thrown at protesters is, "But what about…" Implying, if you have grouse against one thing, you must hold equal and opposite grouse about everything else. Fact is, you may be more moved by minority rights, and I can't stop caring about climate change. This is called personal choice; not hypocrisy.

Going back to Kher, who held no public office in 2015, to the best of my knowledge. He said he had started the India Gate march against private citizens, intending to lead 500 people, but ended up with 15,000! Unsure if these were political supporters and volunteers, which is what any party would like its voters to graduate towards.

Either way, never in the history of independent protests and non-partisan demonstrations has gathering thousands of people been easier than with social media over the past decade or so. It's something the Indian government was first shaken up by in 2011, seeing the shape Anna Hazare's anti-corruption campaign took, on the national stage. Serial faster Hazare up until then used to be a running joke among Maharashtra journalists.

But the bigger shock (for the government) was watching India's '2.5 per-centers' — thin top-layer that pays income tax — and/or their kith, kids and kin, braving water cannons at the India Gate, protesting against Nirbhaya rape in 2012.

This is when news anchor Arnab Goswami told me Pranab Mukherjee, cabinet minister (then), called him to say (presumably in Bengali): "Are you turning (India) into Misr?" Referring to Arab Spring — series of anti-government protests, through Asia and Africa in the early 2010s. That started from Misr, which is what Egyptians call Egypt! The fact is that TV was merely reporting, albeit 24x7, social media's spill-over to the street.

Its best example before my eyes is probably the #NotInMyName street protests, spread over a crazy number of cities, from Bombay, Bangalore to Boston, against religion-based violence, with India's upper-class — that mysteriously identifies itself as the middle-class — even holding placards to say, 'Even we can't believe we're here!'

This began with an ordinary Facebook post by one Saba Dewan in June, 2017, as actor-activist Swara Bhasker points out, in her lengthy foreword to the Harper Collins book Inquilab, which catalogues speeches and letters from (mainly) national-level protests over the past decade. It's a decent scrapbook, given that it's impossible to keep track of protests, per minute, online — over a random KBC quiz question, to a perfectly innocuous jewellery ad.

What social media has done is turn most people I know into activists of some kind — whether or not they hit the streets for what they believe in (although they do). You can sense activism not so much in their social media posts, as what they press like/dislike button to; in an alternate world, where retweets/shares are definitely endorsements, and RT is the new charity.

None of these people I know holds aspirations to public office. Neither do they have political parties or propaganda machineries behind them. What chance do they have against a state, for instance, that is gazillion times more powerful than their vote, once in five years? And even more fellow citizens actively trashing everything they say?

I recently heard two journalists with an activist bent, or vice versa, Ravish Kumar and Aakar Patel propose victory/change as being immaterial as an outcome. Kumar says it's simply about showing up at the proverbial battlefield. Patel compares writing unpopular opinion to being that dissenting judge in a Supreme Court bench. Point!

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14

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First Published: 04 November, 2020 06:45 IST

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