sukhpreet, najeeb, gauri lankesh...
Abey Tu Bahar Nikal, Chowk Mein Aa
Abey Tu Bahar Nikal, Chowk Mein Aa

The 10-yard-radius protest

In the bustling plaza of Sector 17, Chandigarh where the soul of Corbusier still hangs around in the corridors, few discount sales shoppers pay attention to this bunch. It is a motley bunch I have been watching for years now. A few faces now appear less regularly, while a few new ones have become ‘the new regulars’. They call themselves a crowd, but as crowds in the town square go, this one is absolutely manageable. So manageable, that no one manages it. They raise slogans, full-throated. They make speeches, full-throated. Every now and then, you listen to an Inquilab Zindabad. Every few minutes, someone starts her or his speech with ‘Lal Salaam’. At times, a young couple, clearly in love, stops and stares askance, trying to understand what’s happening. A family stays a little away from the 10-yard-radius circle that the protesters form instinctively, and then moves on. 
On Wednesday, it happened again. The same faces. Lal Salaam & Inquilab Zindabad. And its new cousin – Bekhauf Azadi. 
The cops stayed a long distance away from the 10-yard-radius protest.
They were there for Dr Sukhpreet Kaur, a young teacher at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, who went missing about 12 days back, and was believed to have been kidnapped. If you are someone who remains cued into news, you would have understood from the small posters these protesters held aloft that they want the police to bring back Sukhpreet, safe and sound. 
It is necessary to understand this crowd, and since it is a small one, it is easier to know them. A professor of philosophy from Panjab University, a senator from the same university, a few Ph.D. scholars, a journalist who is not there to cover the event, a former registrar of a varsity, a senior activist of Swaraj Abhiyan, a bursting with anger young man who keeps complaining in his gruff voice why so many people a few feet away are not finding a few minutes to come and listen to what this angry crowd has to say, some young students fired by a zeal to stand up for the voiceless, a young girl who raises a slogan that either makes you fall in love with 10-yard-radius protests, or forever stay away from them — Pitri Satta Murdabaad!
Some new faces are there. Meet Satya Raj Nagpaul, a cinematographer who also happens to have under his belt a National Film Award for Best Cinematography. I had not seen him earlier. A young man called Abhishek. "Sir, I want to work with kids in slums and I need your guidance,” he tells anyone who wants to listen.
How do you protest in a world that has become so noisy? How do you protest in a society that makes its peace with police firing into the crowds to maintain peace? How do you protest in times when the judiciary starts seeing Section 144 as a sacrosanct letter of the law that must not be breached? How do you question patriarchy when it is the language spoken at home, and at office? 
In a differently constructed society, this is the bunch with which you would have proudly taken a selfie and flaunted it all around. "Look Mom, me with the big heads.” In the real world, of course, you can see people all around, either paying no heed, or clicking selfies. Of course, not with the 10-yard-radius protest in the background.
They last came here for Gauri Lankesh. Before that, for a March for Science. Before that… You can bet it is always a worthy cause. A Najeeb of JNU who remains missing. A Sukhpreet of GNDU they want back. A Varnika Kundu of Panchkula they want to remain safe, drive home listening to her favourite music, preferably without being stalked. A slum of Chandigarh facing demolition without any plans to rehabilitate people.

And you can bet good money that it was always a 10-yard-radius. I made friends with Dr Pyare Lal Garg, a paediatric surgeon, and Rajwinder Bains, a leading lawyer, at these protests. Sometimes, if he checks his whatsapp messages, academician-turned-politician Prof Manjit Singh is also here. Sometimes, he is the one who convenes the 10-yard-radius event. Dr Jagdish Chander, professor and head, Microbiology, at Govt Hospital, Sector 32, Chandigarh is a regular. So is Kanwaljit, a CPI (ML) activist. Harpreet Kaur, an active member of Students For Society. At times, I have spotted Prof Kuldip Puri of Panjab University. Once I recall seeing Prof Meera Nanda, and buying a spare copy of The God Market to gift a friend.

I have seen people growing old, attending these protests. And I have seen some people who do not seem a day older than they looked many years ago. I met them first here. I used to be young in those days. I met them here last yesterday, and at least three people called me ‘uncle’.
I haven’t moved too far away from the 10-yard circle; I haven’t moved too much into it. 
In almost 20 years, the 10-yard circle hasn’t moved any closer to the crowds around it.
But at times it wonders – and worries – why apparently respectable people in the town square do not listen to them? It also worries about how to amplify its voice so that someone in the administration listens. It debates about the steps it must take to ensure that the cops act in the case of someone who has been kidnapped.
"Should we print some leaflets and give these around? Should we bring more posters? Can we have a bigger banner? Should we get a megaphone?”
Clearly, they do not have a PR machinery. All they know is how to send a whatsapp message.
That has not been working very well. The local media does not turn up. A leading local newspaper has been putting out a distorted version of events. The issue comes up before the protestors — who hardly look like protestors. University professors, research scholars, an IISER fellow, a lawyer, okay, two lawyers, and a lot of inspiration do not look like protestors.

But they come up with an idea.
"Let’s go and meet the editor.”
And then tell him the truth.
Bravery has many forms, but trying to get a serious dialogue going in the chowk used to seem ridiculous. You do something really, really ridiculous, like shouting Pittri Satta Murdabad. That's the only way to ensure that somethings remain Murdabad, others Zindabad, and one day, we have an Inquilab. Hra Salaam. (Mujhe pata hai tum ko red achha nahi lagta. Apni marzi ka colour use karo.)
On Thursday, they were at the offices of The Tribune. Meeting editor Harish Khare, senior editorial hand Sandeep Dikshit and someone from the bureau who lectured university professors & doctoral students about various aspects of reporting. "Consent ka bhee mamla hai.” He was addressing people who have been shouting hoarse about khap panchayats and honour killings for years now.
Come Friday, they will be back in the town square, or on Saturday, or on Sunday. Perhaps they may try a new tactic — walk through the crowds, double file, in front of the shops offering season discounts, shouting Hum Kya Chahte – Azadi. Bekhauf Azadi!!! 

They did that on Wednesday. Then the downtown heard a loud Down Down. I wasn’t paying attention. "Patriarchy Down Down!” went up a crazed voice, cracking with rage. "Downdown, Downdown.” That answer imbued me with more hope. Of being more ridiculous.
"Aap ka whatsapp chalta hai na?” An affirmative response was so reassuring. It means this guy will receive the message and will come. It is important to keep the 10-yard-radius protest going.
Otherwise where else will I hear this soul-rousing heart-scorching wail of a slogan – PITTRI SATTA, MURDABAD!
The day I find out that it was the last such 10-yard-radius protest, will be the day I would no more want to live in this city. To keep that spirit alive, I am ready to do anything. Anything. ANYTHING. ANYTHING.
Still don’t believe me? After I finished reading "If Men Could Menstruate” once again after years, I went to the rooftop of my house late in the night yesterday and shouted a full-throated ‘Gloria Steinem Zindabad.’
It did not seem ridiculous. 
I know it was, but it did not seem.
Just as the idea of dreaming of a better, humane world is ridiculous, but it does not seem so after you shout a few slogans in that 10-yard-radius. Next time you are around, do come.
Bring a poster, some anger, a clenched fist.
Whatsapp use karte hain aap?

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