When I got the Cooke Town residents’ WhatsApp forward to join a protest against the rape and murder in Kathua, I felt glad(for a whole two minutes before the scepticism set in) that someone had taken the initiative. For days, the Hindu Ekta Manch had been grating on my nerves and now finally, there was a chance to do something about it. Something that didn’t involve Bangalore’s Town Hall.
As grand a backdrop as it may be for protests, with its towering magnificence and striking Smithsonian-style pillars, I was always unsure of myself at Town Hall. Tucked neatly away from the city crowds, it’s placed where even the traffic cannot pause for more than 60 seconds. I always thought protests are about spreading awareness, reaching out to other people, making them stop and ask what’s going on. But at Town Hall, the only others there are the media.
If you count on them to spread the word for you, the numbers that show up and the significance of the organising parties of the protest determine which page you make it to. The sloganeering is for them to quote, the posters for them to photograph, the reach for them to decide. Protest at Town Hall and people will know about it only after you’re done.
I’ve heard people judge Bangalore’s protests in many ways. Based on the number of Kannada posters versus the number of English ones, the number of women speakers versus men, red flags versus blue, political parties versus NGOs. It is not the cause but the approach that’s problematic, they say. My scepticism stems from the same thinking.
The political agenda behind the angry sloganeering of students is just as scary as the indifference behind casual conversation of Cooke Towners at a supposedly silent protest. “Death to rapists” yell the very same boys who, as a friend pointed out, whistle at girls on the street and have probably never thought about capital punishment before. “What ya, just drop in for dinner one of these days,” laughs a woman on Davis road while the man behind her discusses how to best get rid of fleas on Golden Retrievers. They both hold posters that scream “Justice For Kathua!”
On September 5, Gauri Lankesh was murdered outside her house in Bangalore. On September 12, over 150 organisations came together to protest, leading a massive rally from the Central Railway Station to Central Grounds. Everybody came, despite their differences. It felt incredible to be at the ‘I Am Gauri‘ protest, it inspired hope, not scepticism. The incident was undoubtedly a wake-up call but more importantly, those who organised the rally were some of India’s biggest socio-political activists – journalists, celebrities, lawyers, politicians and students who had the resources to mobilise such large, diverse numbers.
But sometimes, those who want to protest aren’t activists.
I grew up among people who discussed politics but never actively engaged with it. While everyone agreed on the need for awareness, ‘keep safe distance’ was the unspoken policy. But distance and awareness work against each other. Awareness pushes you towards action while distance ties you down until all that you’re left with is helplessness and cynicism. College woke me up to this and somewhere in my second year I told Amma, “Hey ma, forget law or journalism, I want to be an activist.”
Then, just a few months ago, I came across some old pamphlets from one of Bangalore’s prominent activist groups. I found them while sifting through material at an ongoing archival project on the city’s queer movement — pamphlets on everything from the rape and murder of Bhanwari Devi to the use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima. They were part of the archive because the same group that made them also helped protest against Section 377.
“You come for ours, we’ll come for yours” — from women’s rights in Rajasthan to ‘foreign invasion’ of multinational companies to student rights to GST on handicrafts, it was the usual suspects who organise protests against every kind of issue. I understand that it is not easy to choose one issue over the other, I get that these issues are not in fact, unrelated. But somehow, it felt like it was one fixed group of people who had taken on the role of protesting. As if it was a profession in itself.
It dawned on me then that instead of it being law or activism, it made sense for it to be law and activism. Or architect and activist, IT professional and activist, resident of the neighbourhood and activist. So when I saw people coming together to protest against the rape and murder of the Kathua victim that day, I was amazed to see that very few people there considered themselves full-time activists. Leaderless, the protest was a bit clumsy, but maybe that’s the point. That even those who’ve never protested before, are now protesting.
When I interviewed people after the ‘Not In My Name’ protests last year, one of the things I heard was “Why leave it to the unions to do everything?” And yes, that’s absolutely it! Unions were formed to act as our representatives, but increasingly, we are relying on them and the NGOs to oppose on our behalves while we just go on with our lives. When I zoom out a little to peer with crossed fingers into the long run, I cannot help but think that if people are now ready to protest for themselves, then maybe they’ll soon be ready to take the next steps too. Be it meeting the HR managers of their company, or the heads of their departments, or the sub-inspectors of their districts; be it supporting formal complaints or organising discussions and workshops or filing Public Interest Litigations.
#MeToo was not initiated by a women’s rights organisation and the women who made it a movement never had to identify as feminists or leftists or belonging to the ‘old school’. It was the problem that people identified with, not the necessarily the approach alone. As writer Moira Donegan describes, the #MeToo movement was universal without being uniform and on a much smaller scale, that’s what ‘My Street My Protest’ is too. Sprinkled across the city, people didn’t stand as one but they stood all the same.
When people asked what Bangalore is famous for, I used to think of the bull temple and then shake my head like an 80-year-old cynic and say, “Apathy.” I still like saying that, but it doesn’t come as easily anymore. I find myself thinking twice.