IT IS INCONVENIENT to be unemployed; utterly so when you are faced with a dispensation that refuses to see the inconvenience of it. Hundreds of teachers in Punjab who find themselves either unemployed, or underemployed, have intermittently been climbing water tanks to protest.
Every age sees a new normal of display of public protest. The politics of resistance has always had iconic forms: from pre-Independence non-violent gatherings, morchas and jathas to post-Independence rallies at Delhi’s Boat Club, pad-yatras, and then a culture of burning effigies, destroying public property, damaging buses, blocking roads and railways, finally culminating in gherao of the Assembly building or the CM’s house. For some time now, the people in Punjab have been speaking to the state from rather commanding heights. Welcome to the Tank Top Protest. Every aggrieved group of citizens has been climbing water tanks across Punjab, a new normal of display of public protest.
Protesters climb water tanks after exhausting the standard set of tools: appeals to the babudom’s good sense, dharnas, sit-ins in front ministers’ houses, being hauled to the nearest police station. Finally, a time comes to take that step, reach for the sky, or at least the tank top.
Years after a 27-year-old Kiranjit Kaur of Kapurthala decided that the government needs to be shown some light and climbed atop a 100-feet high water tank, equipped with a bottle of kerosene, the form of protest continues to be the favourite of many with a grievance.
Kiranjit had ignited herself, but failed to ignite a debate over the paradigm of governance. Her last interface with the regime was a local police officer who had taunted her for indulging in drama. The theatre of the absurd is now a routine vaudeville act.
The ubiquitous water tank has now been permanently etched into the people’s collective memory as a launch pad for a thousand demands, and with hundreds of thousands having many bonafide demands, the state doesn’t have enough policemen to secure all the watertanks.
Across Punjab, administrators now pay special attention to deployment of cops to guard access to water tanks. Cops, the regime has calculated, cost less than good governance.
In each case, the government poses as if it has a justifiable defence, forgetting that at the end of the day, this is a failure to deliver the simplest of expectations: a job, some work. The people are speaking to the state in the grammar of violence, and the state is talking back in the same idiom. With thousands of cops, obviously the state will speak the language of violence louder. Pushed, the people are shrieking back, and climbing water tanks.
Iconic forms of protest keep evolving, each deadlier than the past forms. In Kashmir, they have stones. In the north-east, they have bandhs, towns under siege. The new normal of climbing atop water tanks will soon be, or already is, just staple news. With regimes of any political colour hardly listening, one shudders to think what the next form of public protest will be.
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