Participating in protests on Delhi’s protest street, Jantar Mantar, is an instructive exercise at all times; but sometimes as the protest against the killings in Handwara showed, some are more instructive than others, writes Nirupama Sekhri, this time on issues of nationalism and freedom
It was a sizzling 43 degrees Celsius on Saturday, 16th April, when a small group of people responded to a protest call by AISA (All India Students’ Association), AIPWA (All India Progressive Women Association) and the JNUSU (JNU Students’ Union). The protesters gathered at Jantar Mantar to protest against the killings of five civilians by the armed forces in Handwara, Kashmir.
The nervousness about the meeting was palpable, and was made even more so by the numbers of police personnel deployed at the venue. They outnumbered the meagre gathering of protesters at least four times over.
However, despite the poor turnout of protesters and the overwhelming turnout of police, the proceedings on that sweltering Saturday reflected the sad state of one of the most important institutions on which a fearlessly democratic and peacefully diverse society depends.
Media as Propaganda
Before the proceedings had even gotten underway, two photojournalists, one from The Tribune and the other from PTI sauntered across to the protesting group. In that particularly crass Delhi mannerism that Boman Irani so masterfully portrayed in ‘Khosla ka Ghosla’, the Tribune photographer demanded if the Kashmiris had a Pakistani flag smuggled in somewhere that they would be unfurling at some point.
When some of the group members said that was a highly offensive question, his peer, the PTI photographer, warned them, waving his finger in their faces, “Remember this is Delhi, not Srinagar.”
This wasn’t uncommon we were informed by some of the participating protesters. It may not have been uncommon, but it was downright depressing.
The role mainstream media has played, and continues to play, in the reactionary coverage of the unrest in Kashmir has been highly irresponsible to say the least. It has been clubbed so rigidly with a hysterical anti-Pakistan rhetoric that the ‘common’, educated person - a category the two photojournalists belong under - sees any protest from the valley as anti-India and automatically pro-Pakistan.
India is the largest country in south Asia with age-old ties with neighbouring countries and their diaspora, yet none of them claim any cause for discussion and debate like Pakistan does – not even if political upheavals are rocking Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, not even if the leaders of Maldives, Nepal and Japan are visiting the capital.
This is not just plain bad, selective journalism; it has substantial geo-political ramifications. Our media’s melodramatic obsession with Pakistan is causing us to lose important ground to China as with many of our neighbours.
Instead of setting positive, constructive, visionary national agenda, the media is spawning grotesque nationalists like the two we witnessed at that meeting.
The Pop-up nationalist brigade
Half-way through the protest, as one of the organisers gave a speech, cries of ‘Bharat mata ki jai’ ripped the air. We had been joined by a small bunch of big men, wearing crisply ironed, snowy white kurta-pajamas. Their faces contorted with passion, they were emitting loud chants in tempo with their fists pumping the air.
Senior police officers teamed up with some of us to request the group to find themselves another place in the large, open area to holler their love for India. Whether genuinely convinced or just disappointed at the small turn out, they complied and melted away shortly.
The rise of the lumpen proletariat is another disturbing trend, led by the likes of Anupam Kher and Chetan Bhagat. The remedy according to them to any grievance is chanting the spell of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ (with a little Modi thrown in).
The faces of protest
The speeches themselves rendered by Kavita Krishnan, Shehla Rashid and Sucheta De, seemed tired and tiring. The same shrill anti-government rhetoric with different victims this time that has been at an even higher timbre than before, since JNU erupted in February earlier.
It makes one wonder if the students and faculties of higher institutions of learning need to engage in some serious introspection about the content and style of protests they are becoming the faces of.
Sloganeering, orating emotionally charged azaadi speeches, does not require years of intellectual investment. Neither does the courting of state wrath by a handful of students change anything for the youth in Kashmir or the mothers of Rohith Vemulas.
Politicians and political parties are easy, simple targets, but as social scientists show, problems of power, poverty, oppression and exploitation involve many more players.
The effectiveness of students’ unions, especially elite ones like those of JNU, will be realised only when they can evolve from confrontational, reactionary methods of expressing dissent to encouraging peaceful, reasoned, informed dialogue and debate among and between politicians, media and the public at large.
Muffling Inconvenient Voices
We asked some of the Kashmiri participants to share their experiences of living in Kashmir. They declined, for a really disquieting reason: “If we talk in an open forum like this one about our or our families or friends’ lives in Kashmir, they’ll get to us ….. we’ll get phone calls … our families in Kashmir will get phone-calls. I am passionate about the Kashmiri issue but not at the cost of the safety of family and friends living in Kashmir.” This was the standard response.
What kind of a freedom are we talking about that scuttles any expression of rage and pain because it’s just inconvenient to try and look at things any other way than we have blindly committed ourselves to!
A constructive future is possible if and only if, our media, universities and civil society members are willing to move out of the pathology of pummelling easy punching-bags, and enormously expanding their bandwidth to listen and talk, debate and dialogue, especially with points of view that they perceive as wrong and disagreeable, without resorting to quick, cathartic bellowing.
Because whether they like it or not, the Government can do that louder and better!
Inspired by MAD comic’s ‘Intelligent Answers to Stupid Questions’, we decided to answer the question put up by the Tribune and PTI photographers:
Stupid Question: Are you carrying a Pakistani flag to raise here?
1. No, we have only one, and it’s gone to the laundry.
2. No, it came back from the laundry but had shrunk, so I’m using it like a handkerchief.
3. No, we burnt it after Pakistan lost in the T-20 world cup series last month.
4. No, we left it on Mount Everest.
5. No, we have our own.
6. No, my flagpole looks too bare when I take it down.
7. No, we're from Aksai chin so we're carrying a Chinese flag instead.
8. Yes, but only intelligent people can see it.