India from its inception has been built on a legacy of popular movements shaped by the concerns of its leaders and citizens. Today, protests find themselves criminalised. However, a look back at the country’s past shows that it is various protests that have shaped our national conscience and identity. Protests have enabled reforms by giving people a platform for democratic participation and political accountability, says PARVATHI SAJIV.
S roars of protests echoes on the streets, you realise that the country’s heart is beating faster than ever. Each day, new voices join the crowds and fight for their rights. Each day we dream that India will live up to its true meaning and uphold its sacred literature. Each day, our voices grow louder. Protests aren’t recent to India – there have been several protests that have shaped our country’s subsequent socio-political situation.
Our tryst with protests begins before Independence. Known as the Quit India Movement, it is considered the turning point in India’s struggles for freedom from the British Raj. People across the country came together to fight against the Britishers. While the ideas of poorna swaraj or complete freedom began circulating amongst the masses in 1921, the Quit India Movement in 1942 gave the momentum to move forward.
QUIT INDIA MOVEMENT
During world war II, Japanese troops were approaching Indian borders and international pressure mounted on Britain to resolve India’s future uncertainty. Stafford Cripps, a member of the War Cabinet, along with his committee to discuss the British Government’s Draft Declaration. After the war, the draft granted India Dominion status, but it didn’t give immediate and total self-rule to India. In response to this, Mahatma Gandhi called for the Quit India Movement.
At the All India Congress Committee session in Bombay, Gandhi introduced the resolution to start Quit India Movement and was passed.
Gandhi gave the call ‘Do or Die’ in his speech delivered at the Gowalia Tank Maidan, now popularly known as August Kranti Maidan.
As the masses took to the streets, senior leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Abul Kalam Azad, and Mahatma Gandhi were arrested on sedition charges. More than 100000 people were arrested, and the government resorted to violence. The British suppressed the movement as people were shot, lathi-charged, villages burnt, and fines imposed.
The struggle towards a unified nation with the diversity it holds also led to conflicts post-independence.
In 1949, the Constituent Assembly chose Hindi as the official language of the Union of India but was given a fifteen-year grace period where English and Hindi would be in use. South Indian politicians were apprehensive of this change. Thus, the Academy of Tamil Culture passed a resolution urging that English continue as the official language of the union and for communication in 1956. Some of the signatories included C. N. Annadurai, E. V. Ramasamy Periyar, and C. Rajagopalachari.
Given Jawaharlal Nehru’s sentiment towards the south, he piloted the passing of an Official Languages Act, suggesting that English ‘may’ still be used along with Hindi in official communication. But Nehru’s death in 1964 led the Tamil politicians to sit in uncertainty and apprehension over implementing the Official Languages Act.
When 1965 approached, Hindi became the official language of India, and Madras retaliated with protests. The protestors, mostly students, demanded the deletion of chapter 17 of the Indian Constitution, which dealt with the nation’s official language. Anti- Hindi imposition agitation continued for fifty-five days where protestors made bonfires to burn effigies of Hindi demons, burned Hindi books and pages of the Constitution, and hartals, dharnas, and bandhs became daily news.
Finally, the central government backed down and made a radio broadcast on February 11, 1965, promising to honour Nehru’s assurances. They assured that English would continue to be used for Centre-state and intrastate communications and All India Civil Services examination to Tamilians.
The impact of the 1965 agitation was felt in the 1967 elections when the Congress government lost power in Tamil Nadu.
While protests became prominent in the South, Northeastern states too were raising their voices.
THE ASSAM MOVEMENT
As the number of undocumented immigrants in Assam rose, the Assamese started an agitation to protect their rights, homeland and culture from those illegal migrants trying to enter the state. This movement gained traction and was led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad. They developed a set of programmes to enable protests and demonstrations that would eventually force the government to take a stand.
Some of the key demands were to ensure that foreigners who entered Assam between 1951 and 1961 were given full citizenship, including the right to vote. But those who entered between 1961 and 1971 were to be denied voting rights for ten years but would enjoy all other rights of citizenship, and people entering after 1971 were to be deported.
This issue kept the flame of the protests burning for six years since its beginning in 1979, as students took to the streets and complained about the illegal immigrants.
The Indira Gandhi Government back then continued to engage the protestors without reaching a consensual agreement.
A package for the economic development of Assam was also worked out, including a second oil refinery, a paper mill, and an institute of technology.
After Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the Rajiv Gandhi government signed an agreement with the protesters – AASU and All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad – bringing the agitation to an end.
The Assam Accord was a Memorandum of Settlement signed by the Government of India and Assam, All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) in New Delhi on August 15, 1985.
Traveling to the west of the country, on 20 December 1973, students of LD Engineering College in Ahmedabad began raising their voices over campus grievances, like canteen charges. Known as Navnirman Andolan, this socio-political movement began as students went on strike to protest against a 20% hike in hostel food fees. The police used force against the students, which resulted in protests over other campuses. This movement started as a protest by students against hostel charges but grew into a state-wide agitation against large-scale corruption in the government. It got tremendous support as the Congress government then was seen as a corrupt one when Chimanbhai Patel was the chief minister.
A statewide strike in Gujarat organised in January 1974 resulted in clashes between police and the people in 33 towns.
Student protesters attacked Congress’s vehicles and property of legislators and corporators to frighten them into resigning. The government imposed a curfew in 44 towns, and the agitation spread throughout Gujarat. The army was called in to restore peace in Ahmedabad on 28 January 1974. Indira Gandhi asked Chimanbhai Patel, the Chief Minister back then, to resign. The governor suspended the state assembly and imposed the president’s rule.
While this took place in Gujarat, akin to this, uprisings were coming alive in Bihar. The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a right-wing all India student organisation, picketed the Bihar State Assembly in March. Joined by freedom fighter Jayaprakash Narayan, or JP, the students continued their protests as they torched government buildings, public warehouses and two newspaper offices. JP called for a Sampoorna Kranti – to revolt against the corrupt system as they pressured MLAs to resign.
The Jayaprakash Narayan movement led to the emergence of India’s political leaders as they protested against Indira Gandhi’s declaration of the Emergency.
The emergence of Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar and Ram Vilas Paswan, and the iconic images of Sitaram Yechury as the JNU Students’ Union leader and George Fernandes are still in the minds of those who survived the Emergency.
The student-backed JP movement successfully relegated Indira Gandhi to the margins of Indian democracy and installed the first non-Congress government at the Centre – Janata Party led by Morarji Desai.
MANDAL COMMISSION PROTESTS
The Janata Government in 1977 appointed the ‘Backward Classes Commission’, which later came to be known as ‘Mandal’ Commission’ after the Bihari politician Bindeshwari Prasad Mandal. The Mandal Commission concluded that caste was still a main indicator of backwardness. Specific castes which constituted about 50 percent of the Indian population were considered backward. Their lack of representation in administration prompted the Commission to recommend that 27 percent of posts in the Central Government be reserved for these castes. This was in addition to the 22.5 percent already set apart for Scheduled Castes and Tribes.
Indira Gandhi and Rajeev Gandhi’s succeeding governments showed no interest in the report, but it was revived in 1989 under Prime Minister V.P Singh. In 1990, Singh announced that the Government would implement the Mandal Report. Henceforth, 27 percent of all vacancies in the Government of India would be reserved for candidates from the ‘Socially and Educationally Backward Classes’ identified by the Commission.
The report sparked debate amongst intellectual circles, and finally, a case was brought before the Supreme Court of India contesting the constitutional validity of the Mandal Commission’s recommendations. A student, Rajiv Goswami, set himself on fire in protest of the accepted Mandal Commission report. Following this, other students – mostly upper-caste started self-immolating themselves. Their hopes of government jobs were being taken away due to reservation.
There were nearly 200 suicide attempts where 62 students succumbed to their injuries during the Mandal agitation.
Protests were organised across northern India, where schools, colleges, and shops were shut, government buildings were attacked, and people engaged in battle with the police.
The divide between Andhra Pradesh and Telangana perturbed them from the beginning. In the 1960s, a significant movement broke out, demanding the creation of Telangana. The intellectuals complained of politicians diverting investment away to the pampered coastal districts. Back then, citizens met it with street protests, and considerable forces intervened.
The demand for Telangana kept on burning through dharnas and strikes throughout the years.
In the 2000s, the Congress party allied with Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and promised to support the creation of Telangana state and the formation of a new States Reorganization Commission. After coming to power, Congress reneged the promise as they were opposed by Andhra Pradesh Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy and being vetoed by the left parties – a crucial support system for the survival of the government.
By 2009, the death of Y. S. Rajasekhar Reddy revived the demand for Telangana. Led by K. Chandrasekhar Rao ( KCR), the Telangana Movement gained momentum as he went on a fast unto death, demanding a separate Telangana state’s immediate constitution. Thousands of KCR’s followers flocked to the streets, disrupting life in Hyderabad.
Seeing the agitation, the UPA Government in December 2009. made a promise that they will initiate the process to form Telangana. After a series of prolonged negotiations, Andhra Pradesh was formally bifurcated. The two states would share Hyderabad as their capital for ten years, after which it would be exclusively Telangana’s.
While people have taken to the streets to fight for their rights, they also fought to preserve what is rightfully theirs – which was evident in the Narmada Bachao Andolan.
NARMADA BACHAO ANDOLAN
In the 1990s, the Narmada Bachao Andolan ( Save the Narmada Movement) became one of the most celebrated tribal assertions in the country. The movement, led by Medha Patkar, a social worker, aimed at stopping a massive dam on the Narmada river.
The project, if implemented, would render some 200,000 people homeless, among which a majority were Adivasis in origin.
Patkar organised tribals to march to the dam’s site in Gujarat, the city of Bhopal, and Delhi to demand justice. She also undertook long fasts to draw attention to the sufferings. While the struggle was unsuccessful against the dam, this protest received attention and questioned the Government’s role in resettling millions displaced by such projects.
One of Ratan Tata’s dream projects was to create the “people’s car”- The Nano Car. The West Bengal government asked the Tatas to set up an automobile plant in the state and was offered land in Singur for the Nano Plant. The land in Singur is a fertile agricultural tract with irrigation and rainfall, which was now promised to the industrialists without the consent of the farmers. So, the farmers, backed by the political support of Mamata Banerjee, undertook several protests, processions and demonstrations against the Tata project.
The protests lasted over a year, prompting Tata to shut the work at Singur and shift the plant and machinery outside West Bengal.
The Tatas found a new location in Sanand, Gujarat, where the Government allocated 1,100 acres of land. Given the Tatas’ excellent relations with Narendra Modi, he could finally see his dream come to reality with the Nano project.
INDIA AGAINST CORRUPTION MOVEMENT
In 2011, the telecom and commonwealth game scams took centre stage amid all the other corruption issues that plagued the nation. Anna Hazare started a fast at Jantar Mantar, Delhi, with one aim – to focus national attention on the problem of Corruption. He also wanted the Government to pass the Lokpal Bill to appoint a Lokpal or ombudsman to detect and punish corrupt officials and politicians. Hazare sat on stage as anti-corruption activists made speeches, with celebrities joining the cause. An umbrella organisation called “India against corruption” was created to support Hazare.
Members of India Against Corruption like Arvind Kejriwal helped organise supportive vigils in cities where candles were lit and songs sung in solidarity. Students and young professionals took the message across the internet in support of Anna Hazare. Eventually, the Government announced that they would set up a committee to prepare a Lokpal Bill where five Cabinet ministers would work with five people nominated by India Against Corruption.
Anna Hazare broke his fast in renewed hope of the Bill being passed before Independence Day 2011. His efforts led to more dialogue around Corruption in the country, and in the last week of July, the Union Cabinet approved a Lokpal Bill.
The Bill, however, did not meet the activists’ approval as it exempted the prime minister, the higher judiciary, and the conduct of Parliament members from its purview. Anna Hazare announced that he would start a fast till the Government meets their approval. In this process, he was arrested and taken to Tihar Jail, refused bail, and began fasting in prison. This led to thousands of people in Delhi and across the country protesting against the Government. Finally, upon his release, Hazare moved to Ramlila Maidan, and he continued his fast.
Over the days, students, workers, and professionals came to see the spectacle and finally, both Houses of Parliament decided unanimously to pass a revised Lokpal Bill that would incorporate Hazare and his colleagues’ ideas. Hazare ended his fast towards the end of August, and the people took to the streets to celebrate the “people’s victory”.
These protests are a reminder that dissent cannot be curbed. The most dangerous deed is to be filled with silence. Today we raise our voices against oppression across caste, gender and race. As we expand our representatives each day, we educate, revolutionise, and experience a shared reality of fighting for our desires, dreams, and rights.
(Parvathi Sajiv is a student of the Symbiosis Centre for Media and Communication, Pune, and an intern at The Leaflet.)