The Death of a Culture of Protest


The Death of a Culture of Protest

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Wednesday marked the beginning of an early summer solstice in Delhi. It also marked the end of the culture of peaceful protests in the country.

Ironically, it was a seminar on “Culture of Protest” that set the ball rolling. On February 21, Umar Khalid of JNU fame was scheduled to speak on the subject after he received an invite from Wordcraft, Ramjas College’s Literary Society. But even before he arrived at the campus, he was surrounded by members of RSS’s student wing, Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, and Delhi University Students’ Union, who then cut off electricity to the hall and hurled stones and tree branches through the window panes of the venue, as chants of “Vande Mataram” and “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” filled the air – the two slogans on which the idea of patriotism has pivoted over the last year.

Umar Khalid’s speech, had it been delivered, may have garnered some social-media traction, since it was strategically planned around the anniversary of what is now called the “JNU moment”. But in its non-delivery, the speech managed to make a far more indicting statement. A peaceful protest march organised on Wednesday, citing a violation of freedom of speech, turned into an opportunity to slap around “jhola bearers”. ABVP and DUSU members had gathered like wolves, waiting to pounce on these jhola-bearing creatures as if they were radical criminals carrying weapons of mass destruction. Constables hung around complaining about not having eaten since breakfast and comparing notes on sweat lines on their khakhis as “Dilli police haaye haaye” chants grew louder under the hot sun. Watching this carefully, was a group that proudly declared that no Jat will ever go to JNU due to “this protest nonsense”.

Suddenly, at around 5pm, things took a turn for the worse. A group of ABVP members barged into the barricaded area from narrow lanes behind the main road, successfully coming within 15 feet of the protesters, screaming “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”. A scuffle ensued with the police, who were gentle in the face of this onslaught. As they pushed the ABVP group back, two empty police buses entered and were parked near the protesters, whose sloganeering kept getting louder.


I was shown a lathi and told to push back.

Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Being easily mistaken for a student along with the protesters, I was shown a lathi and told to push back. The nearer we got to the edge of the cordon, the bigger the crowd got, allowing the waiting ABVP members to mix into the gathering. Everyone stood around with bated breath waiting for an instruction. And then, we all heard it together…

A woman’s scream. Chaos ensued.

The bystanders around me seemed elated, making jokes about whether these students will now be able to go back to JNU and smoke up and have sex.

The police broke the JNU protest circle, picking up whoever they could and shoving them into the empty buses. Those who resisted got slapped, kicked, had their clothes torn, as the onlookers rejoiced. The women protesters, who were screaming, were being picked up by male constables by the shoulder, as a small number of women constables watched on. Seeing the scuffle unfold, two women ABVP members joined in, letting the whacks fly at those being picked up. During the time I was there, the police didn’t charge at them. The bystanders around me seemed elated, helping the police apprehend students trying to get away, making jokes about whether these students will now be able to go back to JNU and smoke up, have sex, or be able to reach difficult places while taking a bath. “Arre, kya bol rahe ho, yeh log kabhi nahate hi nahi hain,” one of them said to loud applause.

“Jo darr raha hai usko pakdo,” became ABVP’s mantra in deciding who deserved a thrashing. I looked straight up at the horror unfolding before me. Around me, shopkeepers, who had downed shutters earlier in the afternoon, opened their stores and hid behind the counters; nearby residents flocked to their balconies to cheer and take photos. A group of four girls, clearly protesters, then got away and ran toward the cluster of shops. They were jeered with the taunt “Pakistani Pakistani”. One of them decided to confront a heckler, who didn’t even flinch before slapping her. Now panicking, another protester, wearing a hijab, asked bystanders about a way out of the bedlam. “Pakistan jao tum,” came a swift reply.


The women protesters were being picked up by male constables by the shoulder.

Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

As the police continued to round up protesters, the screams got louder. This time, one came from behind me. One protester, who was trying to make an escape, was being dragged back by members of the ABVP. Two police constables ran toward them, pleading with the ABVP to let the protester go. He stood up and ran; the ABVP goons laughed, as the constables let them walk scot-free.

Ten minutes later, the violence began to die down. The street that the protesters had occupied was empty, its occupants filling the two buses, being driven to God knows where, amid a chorus of “Vande Mataram”. ABVP members now proudly gave bytes to the cameras in front of the police thana, enjoying their freedom of speech.

If February 9, 2016, laid the foundation of the idea of peaceful protest as an anti-national movement, the last year has been spent building upon that – with added violence. Last year, the perpetrators of violence at least had the crutch of the antagonising chant, “Afzal tere kaatil zinda hain”, that the JNU students had chanted. This year, there isn’t even that. This year, the protesters have been disrupted and violated on the feeblest of excuses – a lecture on a mere idea. As we create this culture of zero tolerance, there’s one structure that has come into view – a final resting place for the freedom of speech. And the epitaph on this tomb should serve as a warning to the rest of the country that wants to speak its mind: They don’t forget, they don’t forgive, and in time, they come for everyone.