Dharna Mana Hai: How Mamata Banerjee Has Turned the Art of Protest Into a Circus Sideshow


Dharna Mana Hai: How Mamata Banerjee Has Turned the Art of Protest Into a Circus Sideshow

Illustration: Shruti Yatam


Mamata Banerjee has finally called off her three-day dharna in Kolkata, claiming a moral victory. The sight of the chief minister protesting in the streets raises many unanswered questions. Of course, the most obvious one is why would a CM, who said nothing when more than six of her ministers were arrested in the chit fund ponzi scam, suddenly go on dharna when a police commissioner is called in for questioning by the CBI? Other than for good publicity of course.

However, there is more at stake here than politics. Since the Constitution makes peaceful protesting legal, as a regular citizen, Ms Banerjee has as much right to sit down in the middle of a busy intersection in the city and cause the closure of a busy thoroughfare without any consequences to her person as the rest of us. But, our right to protest can be reasonably restricted if it disrupts public order, as judged by the police and state. However, if the chief minister and the police commissioner of Kolkata are the ones protesting, who exercises regulation against them?

Very rarely in the annals of history, has an active government resorted to protests to “save the Constitution,” which was Banerjee’s stated aim. It does seem rather redundant that the very keepers of the administration would abandon it in favour of large-scale disruption of everyday life.

However, this “grassroots” politician has issued a clarion call for mass-scale protests all over the country against the Centre, and most state parties have answered positively. The sight of West Bengal’s Didi holding a dharna, with the acting police commissioner no less, for “non-political” reasons while sitting on a stage bearing the message “Save India” makes for great optics, but can it be considered anything more than a publicity stunt?

However, if the chief minister and the police commissioner of Kolkata are the ones protesting, who exercises regulation against them?

In reality, Banerjee is sitting on an arterial road on one of the busiest intersections of the city, with a man wanted for questioning in a scam that swallowed half of her ministers, and holding cabinet meetings backstage. She even held an investiture ceremony and gave away medals to police officers. If this isn’t an elaborately planned joke, then Kangana Ranaut must be the sweetest, warmest person in showbiz.

Unfortunately, these kind of theatrics are effective publicity magnets. The trouble is, neither the Centre nor the state is breaking the law. So they squabble and run to the Supreme Court like errant siblings and the SC breaks them apart like a patient parent.

The SC has ruled that Rajeev Kumar cannot be arrested but must appear for questioning in a different state than Bengal. Both the Centre and the state have celebrated the verdict. However, Mamata Banerjee is still on her Satyagraha, waiting for other Opposition members to fly down and join her.

While we can and actively do protest over things that require change, our protests are usually directed toward a government or institution that has failed us. No one is still asking why she, as a Chief Minister vested with the powers and the interests to protect the state suddenly went on a strike. Is there not an underlying oxymoron of a government on protest?


NurPhoto / Contributor / Getty Images

To go on protest is to abandon hope in the Constitution’s ability to rectify your situation. Her strike does have one lone precedent in recent history – Delhi Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal.

Arvind Kejriwal, in 2014, sat outside Raj Bhavan on a dharna for 30 hours, threatening to stop the Republic Day parade. He called himself an anarchist, slept on the road, and held cabinet meetings in his car. In the second instance he went even further, refusing to leave the residence of the Delhi Lieutenant Governor. In his defence he was trying to force the Centre to take action against a drug ring in one case, and stop a long-drawn strike of IAS officers another time. He also said it was more of a “non-cooperation” movement than an active protest. So while his move was rather strange, it was perhaps only as disruptive as throwing a chair in Parliament to get your point across.

To force your opponent’s hand is the primary aim of any protest. Which is why you always have a very definite, achievable goal and usually the empathy of the masses.

Mamata Banerjee knows this, for she happens to excel at dharna politics. Her indefinite hunger strike in Singur forced Tata to shift their steel plant to Sanand in one of the largest business migrations of all times – and ousted a 34 year old CPM government. However, this is her first time resorting to dharnas as a Chief Minister.

To force your opponent’s hand is the primary aim of any protest.

Dharna politics and mass appeal have worked for her before. Especially if she keeps up the show of doing her duties – she skipped the State Budget session of the Assembly but held a meeting on a police outpost, and also kept signing documents on the dais – and being on protest at the same time, her visibility and constant news-time garners for her more support than any one-time rally.

However, truth is, in the process she deliberately is dismantling peaceful protesting as an effective tool for social change.

Sit-ins, largely successful during the Civil Rights Movement in America and as the chief tool for non-violent resistance of Gandhi during the Indian Freedom Struggle, is the only weapon the subaltern possesses. Students in various universities sit-in for protests for quantifiable change, and so have peasants, mothers of missing Kashmiri children, and others demanding justice.

When Banerjee sat on her first dharna, she clearly said what she wanted – Tata Steel to take their factory elsewhere. This time, as acting chief minister, she has built a public stage and made a spectacle of herself instead.

Indian politics is nothing if not entertaining – but each of these actions have very real consequences, for our state, and everyday citizens. Though I secretly suspect that some part of us has given up on actually finding someone who takes running  the nation seriously, so the vote now goes to the party that can entertain us the most. A bit like the circus, really.