Putting the 'act' back in activism'

Jul 03, 2013, 01:46 IST | Anjana Vaswani

As the Uttarakhand disaster mobilises people to reach out to help, looking at how serious we are about getting involved in change

As revellers returned home satisfied with how they brought in 2013 and uniformed drivers, having steered swanky cars costing lakhs of rupees, made their way back to their respective 10x10 quarters in shanties, 15,000 people trekked from Mankhurd in East Mumbai to Mantralaya to demand a regularisation of slums.

Mumtaz Shaikh
Crusader: Mumtaz Shaikh

Led by activist Medha Patkar, thousands of supporters of this Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan camped at Azad Maidan to protest against the illegal demolitions of shanties in Golibar, Sion Koliwada and other parts of the city. Ten days later, pacified by assurances, activists called an end to the agitation.

Enough is enough: School children and teachers protest against the rape of a five-year old girl in New Delhi on April 23, 2013. Police arrested two men for the crime, but officers faced protests and a hail of criticism over their insensitive handling of the case. Pic/AFP

Within a week, disgruntled builders responded with violence. Activists went back to work and finally, in April, Maharashtra Chief Minister (CM) Prithviraj Chavan offered them few written assurances which included the stalling of six slum rehabilitation projects at least until enquiries were complete. The battle rages on.

A matter of shelter: Medha Patkar led activists and slum dwellers on January 1, 2013, on a two-day march to protest against the housing problems they faced. Pic/Atul Kamble

While patience and perseverance are integral to activism, as the protests showed, it seems the birth of Internet activism has turned around the dictum of Acta Non Verba (Deeds not words). Since they initiated their India operations in May last year, Change.org, a USA-based website that facilitates online petitions, has seen 6,00,000 Indians -- 1,20,000 of whom are from Maharashtra alone -- register with them.

Changemaker: Raheel Khursheed

Raheel Khursheed, director - communications, Change.org, (a former journalist and member of human rights organisation Amnesty) says, “This (rise of Internet crusaders) is consistent with how things are happening around the world. Information hierarchies have broken down and more people are now able to identify the gaps in the system. Initially, people engaged with the system once in five years, every time it was time to vote; today, as was evidenced in the 2010-2011 anti-corruption movement, people want to hold lawmakers accountable and effect change now.”

Playing to a different beat: Anuradha Pal

Wrong attitude
Mumtaz Shaikh, Coordinator, Committee of Resource Organisations (CORO) isn’t a fan. A resident of the Vashi slum Sahayadrinagar, Shaikh who was a teenager when she started working to assist battered women, procure basic facilities for slum dwellers and battle illiteracy, says, “There is a lot of work to be done and though these days it is fashionable to support a cause, signing a petition is not enough.” Offering the example of the Right to Pee campaign which aims at procuring bathroom facilities for women, Shaikh says, “Since the issue concerns the health and well-being of women who work at your homes and street vendors, nobody really cares about it. That’s the attitude: I think about my problems, you worry about yours. If people are serious about change, begin by changing that.”

All show
Lawyer and human rights activist Shakil Ahmed who runs the Hindi newspaper Janata Ka Aaina worries that rampant activism such as we’ve witnessed in the last year or so can be counterproductive in the catharsis it offers. “Protests, marches and rallies are evidence of the mass discontent with the authorities. This, combined with a feeling of guilt because you know you’re living a comfortable life even while you complain about the rift between the haves and have-nots, because you live in a single-community neighbourhood even though you make speeches about communal harmony... that would make it hard for you to sleep at night, but you sign on a dotted line and you feel a little better about yourself.” Ahmed believes such activism is about making a show rather than a difference. “In real life, in a real way, no one takes a stand. Most people won’t even make an effort to look into the record of candidates they vote for.”

For power
Ahmed’s views bring to mind a recent article authored by a Paris-based columnist Bennett Voyles, in which he weighs the possible causes of ‘Manif pour tous’ (Protest for all) the recent protest against gay marriages in France. Voyles points out that in France, “Homosexual acts between consenting adults have been legal since 1791,” and “Average age of a first marriage is now over 30, and many people never bother to get married at all.” He then arrives at a theory that may hold true in India too: “The French tend to trade tolerance for an outward show of cultural assimilation,” he writes, tying this into the homogeneity delivered by the burqa ban. 

Voyles also quotes Scott Gunther, author of The Elastic Closet: A History of Homosexuality in France, 1942-present (Palgrave, 2009), who links the protests to the country’s economic problems: “When things feel down, people tend to grab onto whatever remaining sources of power that they can find.” If this is so, then, given the inflation and the collapse of the rupee, President Pranab Mukherjee’s recently-expressed confidence in our economy may just not be enough to thwart rebellion.

Not me
Classical musician Anuradha Pal however believes the spurt of activism has more to do with a mass understanding of what a democracy is and how it ought to function. But Pal whose online petition asking for the abolition of the special airline fee for musical instruments has collected just over 2,300 signatures in the last months has also discovered, “People feel this is not their battle. Music and Art form the culture of your country... how does it not concern you?” Not disheartened, Pal lists other issues she’d like to protest against: “Politically-motivated proposals to introduce the African Cheetah in India and Gir Lions in Madhya Pradesh, with zero concern for the animal or the environment; senseless moral policing and ridiculously high entertainment tax that impedes cultural performances.”

On an average, 40 to 50 similarly motivated individuals create India-centric petitions on Change.org every week, reveals Khursheed. “We see this as the first step of your engagement, an expression of intent. As matters progress we may advise signatories to a campaign to send out emails to decision makers, to make phone calls or assemble at a location – from our point of view, it’s a journey from cynicism to engagement and from engagement to action,” he says.

Popular causes
So what’s India losing sleep over? Khursheed tells us, “We’ve had petitions to push for disability rights, anti-corruption petitions, petitions concerning urban infrastructure and, since the Nirbhaya case, we’ve seen a spurt in the number of petitions for prevention of violence against women.” Bollywood is on the bandwagon too. Farhan Akhtar initiated Men Against Rape and Discrimination (MARD), Pooja Bhatt recently announced that she would auction a role in her next film to collect funds for Oxfam’s project to curb violence against women, Aamir Khan addressed the issue on his show Satyamev Jayate and the list goes on.
If modern activism is not about outward appearances though, one wonders why the issue of men’s rights finds fewer advocates – does no one want severe sentences for women who are discovered to have filed bogus cases of sexual harassment, violence or rape? What am I thinking? That’s not my problem.

Fighting fit
In the last few years, activism saw a resurgence because of the Jessica Lall murder case. Lall was murdered in 1999 and the police arrested Siddharth Vashisht, also known as Manu Sharma, the son of politician Venod Sharma, for the murder. The trial court conducting the proceedings, acquitted him in February 2006. The acquittal angered friends and family of the Lalls. The sentiment spread among the general public who saw it as a failure of the justice system. Intense public protests finally convinced the Delhi High Court to reopen the case in a fast track court. In December 2006, the High Court found Manu Sharma guilty and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

Activism reached its peak again in April 2011 when Anna Hazare started an indefinite fast to end corruption at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. He wanted the Jan Lokpal Bill to be implemented. The scams that he and Arvind Kejriwal brought to light angered the public enough that youngsters actually took the day off from work to march in Azad Maidan in support of Hazare. The ‘I am Anna’ chant took off with people from all walks of life signing petitions and wearing Hazare’s trademark white cap.

Recently, it was the rape and murder of a student in New Delhi in December 2012 that shocked people to fight for women’s rights. Both women and men took to the streets in cities all across the country to protest against the lack of safety for women. The protests went on for almost a month with angry protesters even attacking Sheila Dixit at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar when she came to pacify them.

These protests had hardly died when the rape of a five-year-old girl in Delhi came to light. The fact that the rape could have been prevented if the police had acted quickly when her parents first reported her missing, angered protesters even further. Fed up, they demanded the Delhi police commissioner should resign. His refusal to do so angered the protesters even further. 

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