Whose Protest is Legitimate? A Reading List

The place that protests have in society is determined by the legitimacy with which they are seen. 

Recently, a spate of protests erupted across the country, starting in Assam, as the Parliament passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). Soon after, a number of students across various universities in India began to organise and protest against the CAA, such as in Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh. The government response to these protests has been to shut down the internet, even in patches of Delhi, where students from Jamia Millia Islamia University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and other institutions held protests. Furthermore, the brutality of the state in response to these protests has varied from region to region. Worrying reports have surfaced from Uttar Pradesh, in particular, and four people were reportedly killed by police firing in Assam. With protests having taken place in almost every corner of the country, the Guardian pointed out that these spate of protests may be the largest India has witnessed in decades. Almost all of these protests have been somewhat spontaneous in nature, unbacked by any political party. Waves of citizens have been taking to the streets, the most remarkable example of which has been the sit-in at Shaheen Bagh, Delhi, which has now become a bastion for the anti-CAA movement. 

Following the chronology of these protests, a number of questions about the nature of protests itself have come up. Myriad issues are being clubbed under the umbrella of anti-CAA protests. Some issues  have compounded over time, and these protests are being seen as a space in which adjacent issues tied to the CAA can be aired, such as the abrogation of Article 370 and consequently the internet shutdown in Kashmir. Questions have been raised about the legitimacy of certain sections of these protests. What cause is worthy of protest, and what cause is not? These questions about the various issues that the anti-CAA movement encapsulates, prevents us from exploring the intersections of the protest. 

Protest means different things to different people, and the expression of dissent varies. Who is coming out to protest and why? For example, a parent may agree with the CAA and the central government, but might still come to protest against the mob violence that JNU students suffered. How the state and the public reacts to protests determines the legitimacy with which a protest is seen. 

Therefore, whose protest is seen as legitimate? Whose protest is not? What kind of protest is acceptable and why? 

In this reading list, we will find answers to some of these questions. 

Irrational Political Behaviour

Should exercising one’s right to vote be the only legitimate form of political expression?

In 1971, during a series of elections, Satish K Arora wrote that protests had become an issue that was discussed in campaigns. What were permissible methods and quantities of dissent were up for debate, and an inconvenienced citizenry was made part of the electoral rhetoric. Protest was not seen as political participation in these campaigns, and as Arora writes, protests drew mixed reactions from the administration and the public. Protests have often been dismissed as “irrational political behaviour,” though evidence has pointed to the contrary. According to Arora, protestors represent a set of well-articulated community values that the establishment tends to deny. 

There is increasing evidence to indicate that protest and dissent are not the activity of merely the irrational and opportunistic sectors of society. Instead, they represent a particular mode of political participation chosen by those of the citizenry who, still retaining notions of personal effectiveness, feel that the system can and must be hurled, or pushed, into action. For possibly the first time in contemporary history a wide-ranging and concerted attempt is being made to systematically record the collective cries of anguish and to understand those who have taken upon themselves — often against overwhelming odds and the possibility of immense injury to themselves — the public articulation of deeply felt resentments against organised power. 

Non-violent Protest and Legitimacy

One of the most contentious aspects of protests is the involvement of violence. Even with the recent protests, several quarters of the public (even the liberals) were quick to condemn the protests at Jamia because of the alleged use of force, though a video later showed that the police attacked the students in the library unprovoked. Perhaps because of Gandhi’s legacy in India, non-violent protest has acquired a degree of legitimacy that, David Hardiman argues, has been painted as a somewhat “timeless phenomenon.” However, Hardiman argues, non-violence as a protest ethic is very much rooted in modernity, and that it was a specific strategic reaction against the coercive and legal apparatuses of the state. 

My argument is that, to have any useful analytical meaning, “non-violent resistance” must entail a self-conscious choice by those involved, with the non-violent path being a clear strategic preference that is chosen over and above the other possible path, that of violent resistance. I would maintain that this – and here I agree with Randle – is a consciously modern move. In the past, political protestors resisted in the way that they were used to, and in whatever way came to hand. If we look at earlier protests, we find that, as a rule, they were not informed by any stated principle of non-violence as such. Protestors acted pragmatically, according to circumstance. If many felt the need for violence, and they could get away with it to a greater or lesser degree, then they were quite prepared to be violent. 

No Level Playing Ground

How did legitimacy come to be associated with only non-violent protest? Why are violent protests considered to be lacking in moral grounding? In his 2010 article, Sumanta Banerjee argues that the legitimacy that comes with non-violent protest is very likely an ideological tool that has been instituted in public discourse so the modern state is able to dismiss legitimate (but violent) dissent as unethical, and thereby justify the use of counter-force. Banerjee writes that, “The language of the conflict, and the terms on which it has to be fought out”  are already decided by the state, and thus, the act of protest is always an unequal contest between the protestors and the state.

If we follow the history of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, we shall find that the latter had not always resorted to physical resistance. In fact, they had thrown up apostles of non-violence from Buddha and Jesus to Gandhi and Martin Luther King. There is a long history of various non-violent means to resolve conflicts, starting with appeals and attempts at negotiations, and failing which, adoption of non-violent forms of resistance (e g, boycott, no-tax campaigns, industrial strikes, satyagraha, non-cooperation, passive resistance, etc). But throughout history, the rulers have invariably retaliated against such non-violent demonstrations by the ruled, with violence. Non-violence as the only means of resistance had most often failed to achieve the goals of freedom and democracy in our part of the world. It surely cannot claim to be the sole decisive factor in persuading the colonisers to peacefully give up power in recent history – whether in India, Vietnam, or South Africa. 

The Optics of Protest

Given the unequal structures that Banerjee outlines in his article, the use of force no longer works in favour of protestors, even when the protestors themselves are subjected to various degrees of violence by the state in the form of water-cannons, lathi-charges, detentions, and in some cases, even arrests. How does one perform one’s dissent then? 

Pranathi Diwakar writes that we protest because we want to be seen as registering our dissent by the state. Diwakar refers to the misappropriation of protests, or the disproportionate performance of one’s “wokeness,” or one’s social awareness, which might harm the actual stakeholders of the protest. 

Though being seen as dissenting is part of the protest, hollow rhetoric has no place in a fraught political moment. Finally, being seen can be the very thing that is turned against a protestor by those who want to discredit that protest. In capturing partial and misleading visuals, and doctoring videos or photographs, those supporting the CAA and NRC can misattribute violence to protestors, discredit their legitimacy, and “out” the protestors to those that might turn their vitriol against them: parents, relatives, and neighbours. Young students are a vulnerable group whose agency can be undermined by familial control, social surveillance, and the fear of retribution.

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