Mumbai: Out of sight and site is out of mind
Azad Maidan's official protest site moved inside because of Metro work makes it a low-visibility location
There was a time when Azad Maidan's front fence facing the BMC building near CSMT was an immediate eyeball grabber. From posters of various protests to confrontational banners demanding people's rights, the agitations piqued curiousity. Locals stopped to stare, at times endorsing the causes those crusading espoused. Doctors have held agitations at the Azad Maidan protest site at violence against the medical community. Water woes have led to a number of agitations at the South Mumbai venue. Price rise has led to sloganeering. Even the gay community has held protests at the maidan.
Now, though, the regular protest site has lost its this-place-in-your-face location. Ongoing Metro work has meant that activists have been shunted metres inside the Maidan and are no longer visible from the front. They can be seen through the side fence, but that, too, only if you peer closely. If you want to reach the official protest site, you need to walk at least 100m inside the maidan.
Mumbai activist Gurupreet Singh Anand said, "What is the use of this protest site where hardly anybody can see you? I held a protest recently near the Bandra police station. I got attention in 10 minutes, but I took a risk by doing so. If I had protested inside Azad Maidan, who would have known?"
Vidya Chavan looks at the shrinking of space not just literally but metaphorically, too. "It is an attempt by this government to shut out dissent on any issue," she said angrily, adding, "recently, a group of women held a small, peaceful protest at Shivaji Park against the Mumbai mayor. The police told us to move to Azad Maidan, but we are practically invisible there."
Chavan recalls a time when, "activists were allowed to march right till Hutatma Chowk. Then, the police stopped us at Samrat restaurant, Churchgate. Finally, even that shrank." Chavan said, "Earlier because we were so visible, we have even protested right in front of the BMC building, it struck a chord with people. Many passers-by would ad hoc join us or congratulate us for amplifying the voice of the common man. Today, activists have to run to courts if they dare hold a protest at some venue, all this costs time and money." She said the constant noise from the Metro work at Azad Maidan, "also drowns out sloganeering."
Last year, an advocate, Bhushan Malgaonkar, went on a fast inside Azad Maidan to press for a Lokpal (anti-corruption authority). When this reporter had met him, a weak Bhushan whose fast had entered the fifth day was lying on a makeshift bed deep inside the Maidan. While Malgaonkar's anti-corruption platform would have resonated with a wide audience, he was not immediately seen as he was several metres inside the maidan.
Firoze Mithiborwala, part of several civic groups said, "we had held a couple of protests outside the CSMT subway No 1 outside Cannon pav-bhaji stall, as there was more visibility. We were allowed just for a while. Otherwise, it is the inner recesses of the maidan, for all protests." Mithiborwala claimed that protesters feel stifled with the authorities shunting them to relative obscurity citing court orders or threaten to apply the British colonial Section 144 which is the unlawful assembly act.
Mithiborwala added, "these are excuses to snuff out voices. When participants are shunted to a place where the public cannot see or hear them, then a lot of punch in the protest is lost." Clearly, for those who believe in the power of the protest, the new location at Azad Maidan frustratingly spells out-of-sight-out-of-mind.
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