We Set Out To Document India’s Rich Culture Of Protests And Here’s What We Discovered …

Protests, like in any working democracy, have been intrinsic to the idea of India. Gandhi’s Dandi March and Non-cooperation Movement, Chipko Movement, Narmada Bachao Andolan and India Against Corruption are only a few of the movements which caught everyone’s imagination. Each of these movements had its own methodology of messaging and mobilizing the masses. The unique ways in which protesters fight for seemingly untenable causes are a heritage worth preserving. “Hum Le Ke Rahenge” taps into this rich repository of collective action in India and amplifies dissenting voices from all parts of the country, irrespective of political inclination.

For an engineer who did not start questioning the bubble he was living in till he turned 25, I was quite unaware of India’s protest culture. I had read about various protests but never experienced them. I considered myself an apolitical person till the time I realized, thanks to the tadka of liberal arts education, that caste-class-gender privileges had led me to believe so.  Even while I was at Ashoka University, some of my batchmates would keep on insisting that we go to Jantar Mantar for one protest or the other, but it always seemed like “too much effort”.

Brainstorming at Kahaani Wale, we came up with the idea to document India’s culture of protest. It seemed like a learning opportunity to peek into a world which I had previously decided to not belong to. While returning home, on a DTC bus, I saw a passenger stage a successful mini-protest against the conductor. It was to get back the ₹2 change he had paid extra for the ticket, which the conductor had completely forgotten about. Soon the title “Hum Le Ke Rahenge” struck my mind.

Once we started attending protests, we couldn’t help but recognize the undying faith and hope people put into the democratic fabric of our country. We met individuals who had been protesting for anywhere between 2-15 years, living permanently at Jantar Mantar, thus making their lives into protests. Many of the causes, especially those of individual protesters, seemed unachievable to us, but what kept them going intrigued us.

The “Joota Maaro Andolan”, led by Machhindranath Suryavanshi, is a classic example of the resilience of a protester. It aims at rooting out corruption in India. Once we compared the scale of the goal to the number of people sitting at the Dharna, four to be exact, we asked Machhindranath if it had been worth the 11 years that he had spent sitting at Jantar Mantar. He said something which kept coming back to us from protestors of all varieties. “What other option do we have?” For tangible gratification, he helps people file RTI’s. His team of four seemed happy with what they’d achieved in more than a decade.

We soon decided that we would see the protests from an observer’s point of view, without becoming involved in the causes. The idea would be to capture the broader culture of protesting and to not make the project cause-specific. This ensured that we attended protests irrespective of political inclinations. This put us in a dicey position, especially when it came to protests against mob-lynching. While the BJP organized #SaveBengal campaign as a reaction to the Basirhat incident, Imran Pratapgarhi organized Lahu Bol Raha Hai, an effort to counter mob-lynching by letting people know the worth of blood by organizing a donation camp. The #NotInMyName movement also sprang up to detest the mob-lynchings. Each of these protests had a different explanation for the same events. We thought it best to capture the different points of view and let our audiences decide what sense they could derive out of them.

Within no time at Jantar Mantar, we realized that media played a central role in giving voice to the protests. While one could see a horde of media channel vans when it came to covering the #SaveBengal, #NotInMyName, Gorkhaland, Gauri Lankesh and Tamil Nadu Farmers’ protests, the individual protesters kept craving for media attention. Was this the result of the topicality of the issue, BJP’s Media Cell’s efforts, Gorkhaland’s visually engaging march which used a 110-meter long flag, the Tamil Nadu Farmers’ innovativeness to come up with a new protest idea every day, or simply the assurance of higher TRP’s?

One individual gave us clarity on this doubt. Santosh Murat Singh, an ex-cook of Nana Patekar, has been protesting for five years to prove that he’s alive. He narrates how as a response to his love marriage with a Dalit woman, his relatives duped him of his property by proving his death in an accident. Being extremely articulate and still managing a satirical sense of humour, he has been able to catch the media’s attention. He even pitches story titles like “Kabar Se Khabar” and directs the cameramen about which angle they should use. In spite of extensive media coverage, his battle remains unfinished. He tells how there are more than 40,000 cases similar to his. We wonder if media-coverage can change their fortune.

In terms of employing methods to make protests more engaging, the activists try their hands at poetry, songs, drama, and slogans to add rhetoric to their cause. Protests like the Dharna on NREGA, full of singing and dancing, broke our set perception of how protests look, and how people participate in them. We have started releasing a short documentary, focusing on one protest, every week. The first leg of the campaign focuses on protests that happened at Jantar Mantar during July to October 2017.

Now that the official protest space is being shifted to Ramlila Maidan due to an NGT ruling, the documentation has also become the memory of a physical space. We are closely following how the switch between the spaces happens, and if that causes a rupture in the ideological space that a democracy should provide to protesters.

Team Kahaani Wale hopes to give you a flavour of the chaos that goes unnoticed in our beloved country.

Watch the full series here.

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