IS DEMOCRACY BACK at the chowk? Sample this: It took a strong people's movement extending over years, massive public opinion mobilisation, the legacy of Chipko agitation and tireless efforts of civil society to push the Indian government to move on the environmental front.
As a result, India set up the National Green Tribunal. One of the first moves of this NGT was, guess what, not to stop the government from committing wholesale rape of the environment, not a stoppage to its anti-poor mining policies, not a roadblock in the way of decimation of the forest cover in the name of development.
Instead, the first thing the NGT did was to save the manicured lawns of the Jantar Mantar from the crowds of the unwashed, aggrieved, voiceless, marginalised sons and daughters of Mother India who would often come crying and converge at the Jantar Mantar so that someone listens to their fervent pleas.
How democratic a regime is can be easily measured by how it engages with the people who gather at the chowk, shouting slogans, challenging power, speaking truth to those in the seat of the government.
In any country, the state of the democracy is best measured by taking the temperature of democracy at the chowk. How democratic a regime is can be easily measured by how it engages with the people who gather at the chowk, shouting slogans, challenging power, speaking truth to those in the seat of the government.
If lathi-charges and water cannons are the norm, then democracy can only be described as fractured. If Section 144 is in place for years, and there is ban on people grouping together to demand justice for any perceived wrong, then consider democracy dead and buried for all practical purposes.
Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab, made sure years ago that its Matka Chowk stays beautified and always presents a picture-perfect postcard look. So it banished the protesting farmers forever.
Even Chandigarh's famed Sector 17 plaza is invariably under Section 144 and a police chowki is bang in the middle to ensure that any motley group of protestors remains confined to a small corner. Intimidating cops note down the names and phone numbers of any protestors, reason enough for many mothers to tell their children not to venture anywhere near a group that might be demanding action in a rape or murder case or kidnapping case.
The state of the democracy in the chowk in India is pathetic, but the recent judgment of the Supreme Court has ushered in a ray of hope. Significantly, it has also provided a moment to ponder the state of affairs in Punjab, and given its trade unionists, farmer leaders and civil society some food for thought.
The Supreme Court has said Jantar Mantar cannot be barred to all protestors forever, and has even opened up the iconic Boat Club for protests. It has asked the Centre to come up with parameters and guidelines to grant permission for such protests.
Why did the National Green Tribunal find the protestors too noisy? Because For repressive regimes, the silence of the wronged is golden.
A bench of Justice A K Sikri and Justice Ashok Bhushan has reiterated that "the right to protest is ... a fundamental right under the Constitution... and is crucial in a democracy which rests on participation of an informed citizenry in governance.”
The SC was pronouncing its judgment on a petition by NGO Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan challenging the "repeated imposition” of Section 144 CrPC to curb protests in central Delhi.
But let us return to the ban imposed by the NGT. Why did the National Green Tribunal find the protestors too noisy? A quarter century earlier, the ruling sultans of Delhi had found that the Boat Club was being ruined by farmers swarming the capital, seeking proper remuneration for their produce.
In Chandigarh, the protesters were told to take their protests from Matka Chowk to Sector 25 near the cremation grounds where only the dead could hear their cries.
The fact is that the powers that be are finding it increasingly intolerable to listen to the cries of people raising their voice. For them, the sundry groups of people with a grouse in make-shift tents or on a durrie signify actual danger.
Those who demand justice are the biggest threat to regimes all through history.
Not even the most repressive regimes in the Arab world, where they think little before mowing down protesters, had ever thought of accusing protesters of noise pollution. Not even at the height of Tiananmen Square protests did Beijing claim that the decibel level was too high.
For repressive regimes, the silence of the wronged is golden. For any Deputy Commissioner or Home Secretary in Chandigarh, even the idea of an Occupy Wall Street style movement could lead to a severe bout of diarrhoea.
It's a pity the writ of the NGT does not run to the World Social Forum venues which regularly see some of the most democratic and noisy protests in the world.
The recent decision of the SC should jolt the activists in Punjab who had meekly gulped the sarkari farmaan of keeping Matka Chowk free of any protests.
Just a few years ago, Punjab was agog with talk of torture in the police thanas. Well, that still happens, and everyone and his uncle knows that.
Now that the state has developed a new democratically-sanctioned model of torture in the public square -- beating up nurses, anganwadi workers, farmers, angry people protesting against the death of anyone in police custody, relatives demanding inquiry into killing of a kidnapped child -- it has also ensured that the aggrieved hordes do not come marching into the town.
So you cannot protest at the Matka Chowk, just a few hundred yards from the seat of power, the Punjab Assembly. Regimes of various hues in Punjab have been constantly shrinking and eliminating democratic spaces where people can raise their voice. Law comes handy as a convenient tool, and Section 144 is beloved of all Deputy Commissioners.
Matka Chowk was made a no-go zone for protesters by the Chandigarh Administration by using the law, fair and square. That the democratic voices were stifled in the process was a minor aspect that neither the shrieking anchors cared about, nor did Chandigarh's elite media
. Editors, too, like their City Beautiful to be calm, free of noise pollution. So they did not squirm when Chandigarh's elite told the farmers, the protesting wage-demanding teachers, job-searching youth to shift to a site next to the cremation grounds.
It is a site completely removed from the daily life of the city, away from the eyes of the people. It is easier for farmers to gather there, raise slogans, and then disperse, without anyone noticing them. Unless the dead are listening.
What does it take an editor to understand that the very purpose of protests is to pressurise the government through public exposure, not convince the dead? Apathy.
Those who demand justice are the biggest threat to regimes all through history.
The point of any public protest is always to inform the people about how a government has wronged its own citizens. Chandigarh's leading media houses sided with the powers that be.
"They ran amok, now they’re back,” said a newspaper in a screaming headline to warn people of what it claimed were marauding hordes of farmers. Editors
in glass houses can easily miss the connection between a five star hotel that came up near the Matka Chowk and the administration's actions of debarring the milling crowds of rather shabbily dressed farmers who could be seen from its windows.
Silence, as we all know, is the most insidious way of extending support. The fact is that those tasked with seeking an answer on behalf of the nation preferred to either stay silent, or be part of the apparatus that killed the democracy in the chowk.
Punjab’s then ruling Congress party, as well as the opposition Akali Dal refused to be sucked into any debate when the Chandigarh Administration slapped a blanket ban on anyone from Punjab coming to Chandigarh to protest against the government.
Not one of their leaders went and sat at the Matka Chowk, or the Jantar Mantar when the Punjab Assembly passed a blanket law -- "The Punjab (Prevention of Damage to Public and Private Property) Act -- the likes of which could only have been possible in North Korea or pre-reforms China, prohibiting any protest, agitation, dharna on any issue in the state without permission from the government.
Editors, too, like their City Beautiful to be calm, free of noise pollution. So they did not squirm when Chandigarh's elite told the protesters to shift to a site next to the cremation grounds.
Punjabis must guard against attempts to snatch away democratic spaces that allow breathing room for ideas. The voice of the dissenter is not meant for the dead at a cremation site.
When a state suppresses the cry for justice on account of charges of noise pollution, it joins the ranks of the conscience-dead. It votes for the calm of the graveyard silence.
Now that the Supreme Court has moved to open up the Boat Club and Jantar Mantar, it is time for the farmer leaders, the trade unionists, the teachers' unions, the nurses unions', the Anganwadi workers, the civil society leaders to make sure that they reclaim their democratic spaces.
The health of the democracy is measured at the chowk. It is time we stand as sons and daughters of a democratic country and swarm the chowk to mark our presence. The Supreme Court judgement should be an inspiration to those fighting for the poor, the marginalised, the farmers, the dalits, the minorities.
When the health of a democracy is at peril, the believers in democracy should check it out in the chowk. Matka Chowk is as good as any other place. So is Jantar Mantar. So is Ram Lila Maidan. So is the Boat Club.
This is the time to speak up, to be at the chowk, to be at the Matka Chowk. When will we see you there?
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