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‘How To Start A Revolution’ Is Like A Guidebook To Modern Revolutions #DocumentaryReview

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By Apurav Maggu:

The decade from hell (2000-2010) (as quoted by TIME) met its redemption when a collective conscience of the people arose and strove towards a democracy and stood for freedom and liberty. A notion and a myth that Arabs are better off with their Sheikhs, Mullah, oil and dictators was broken when the whole Middle East rose against their vicious regimes.


It might be true that Arab Spring now may have turned into an Arab winter and a possibility of it turning into a Arab ‘freeze’, yet, nobody can for once deny the fact that the notion to choose your own ruler is dear to all and that there is no concept of ‘Benevolent dictator’ or a dictator who would swoop in and cure all ills of the society (an idea, that is completely making its sway in the Indian society as corruption is rising).

People like Julian Assange and organizations such as wikileaks and Anonymous may have played a crucial and a pivotal role in exposing the heavy handedness of various regimes, crackdown of civil liberties, yet, one man and one book which kept them inspired during the height of the viciousness of their regimes was Gene Sharp and his book ‘From Dictatorship to Democracy.’ Gene sharp’s occupation is ‘bringing down dictators’ by using non-violent methods. His book lists 200 ways to bring down a govt. from methods like civil disobedience to running a parallel govt. and having an active civil society to not paying taxes. His ideas and methods took center stage during many of the uprisings and many unheard ones too (notably the ‘green movement of Iran’ in 2009).

A Korean War enlistee who refused to take part in the war, he has advocated peace and non violent forms of struggles to bring down dictatorships and savage regimes. The Albert Einstein institute run by him has been actively promoting the cause of non-violent struggles in those parts of the world where gun culture seems to be the law of the land and due process of law.

He, and Bob Halevy (another Korean war draftee), have pursued and actively encouraged civil society members to be engaged in the conflicts. From the bulldozer revolution in Serbia to velvet revolution in Kyrgyzstan and from Orange revolution in Ukraine to Rose revolution in Georgia, he has actively promoted civil society members to be the vanguard of non-violent means and bring about an all-people’s revolution. He has so helped the organizers to organize a coordinated attack of colors, symbols, etc. to actively promote the cause and coalesce the whole society to rise up.

He gave simple but highly effective lessons as to why and how, should there be a protest.

Lesson-1 Plan a strategy

Many a times, as he pointed out, that people and revolutions fail even if they lead a coordinated action against their dictators, quoting the example of Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Tiananmen was not the only place where protest were happening but 350 major parts of China witnessed severe protesting against the govt.

However, the reason it failed, was that people didn’t know what to demand. The demands were various ranging from the Communist government’s role to root out corruption and from democracy to employment from the state and thus culminating into rag —tag demand of atomized people which were met with a crackdown. The conclusion was that you cannot possibly work like this. Improvisation, during the protests, is not the way to work.

Lesson-2 Overcome Atomization

One of the major reasons that Arab Societies were not able to create ideal conditions to topple their dictators was the severe atomization of their societies. Gadaffi of Libya, Mubarak of Egypt and Ben Ali of Tunisia depended on a small group of population for their ‘people’s support.’ The dictators subsidized them, supported their families and made them rich in order to make a ruling class among the populace and thus clinging onto power for many years.


But when all the major Middle East and Maghreb regions saw their youth population peak and with zero chances of employability, the anger needed a vent. Soon, Mohammad Bouzizi became the youth icon in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria etc. when he immolated himself uniting all people, irrespective of class and religion to protest and topple the leaders. Thus, atomized society, fused into one and further army and the police became innocent bystanders when the decisions about the nation’s fate were being taken on the street (notably Tahrir Square).

Bulldozer revolution, Serbia, 2000

Slobodan Milosevic, a man known for fuelling ethnic and religious conflicts in the Balkans was known to have held onto power for ten years via repressive tactics. His nationalist wars in the former Yugoslavia claimed hundreds and thousands of lives and he single-handedly created a refugee crisis never seen since the world war in Europe. But, people’s patience was about to be tested with him when Serbia went to poll in September 2000.

Srdja Popovic, the leader of Otpor (Serbian for Resistance) rose up and brought all civil society members together to take Milosevic head on. So, he, with the training of Bob Halevy, brought together all 13 parties and members and coalesced them into one group to oppose Milosevic [ He talks about his experience in this ted talk].

After four years of constant struggle and grueling bitter fights amongst several society leaders and dissenters, the group (OTPOR) finally took the centre stage. Using innovative techniques like banging saucer pans from 7:30 to 8:30 every morning in nearly every house in Serbia and wearing OTPOR t-shirts (since there was no law against wearing them).

Considering how the images are used by media, the protestors used ‘spin control’ to their advantage, by putting women in front of the protest, so that army and the police would think twice before hitting the protesters with tear gas cans or rubber bullets to break off the rally.


While the voting was being held, the protester knew that Milosevic would use voter fraud to his advantage, the voters occupied the RTS building (propaganda radio channel of the nation) with an excavator/bulldozer and censored all the information. Raising the Serbian flag high and above, thus, marking the end of an era.

Lessons learnt here were, co-opt people and do not use violence by shifting the pillars that support dictators to support Democracy.

Transporting it to East Europe

The success of the revolution in Serbia would inspire many subsequent underground resistances, notably in East Europe. The Rose Revolution in Georgia to overthrow Eduard Shevardnadze and in Ukraine to topple Leonid Kuchma’s rule. The Pussy Riots in Russia protesting against the church for supporting Putin, thus inspiring a generation that options other than guns are at their disposal and when used effectively, can lead to successful changes in the society without any collateral damage.

Rating the documentary

Rating the documentary would be doing grave injustice to it for it has again created a new space and respect for non-violent means of fighting back in my mind. It clearly poked hole into certain theories which people have had, for e.g. the idea of a benevolent dictator or the ‘rice bowl theory’ which states that food demands precedes demands for civil rights.

Seeing the current state of our Union of India, I would definitely recommend this documentary, along with the book ‘from dictatorship to democracy.’ Although, made in 2012, it doesn’t go into the details of the failure of Arab spring or failure of the ‘Occupy wall street’ or ‘the green Movement in Iran’, but seeing how the state is cracking down on our civil liberties, I think this documentary is insightful for every one of us.

You must be to comment.
  1. Surender Maggu

    It is nice to see that People are following Gandhian ways in other parts of the world whereas in India we are , i think drifting away from his path.

  2. Rohit Chauhan

    Everyone knew about the storm that the Arab Spring was, but what was missing was an understanding of it. I truly believe that our Civil Society too needs to take lessons from it. Thanks for this nice piece, which keeping the documentary in the forefront tries to explain the larger dynamics at play.

  3. Ridhi Murari

    Insightful and great connection of points. Good work.

  4. Nitin

    saw yesterday. thanks

  5. Sanjana Gogna

    you have provided a constructive insight of the documentary. lack of awareness and direction can cause serious impediment to a protest; thus a protest should be taken seriously and planned meticulously with clear goals and vision commonly shared among the protesters.

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