Why are so many Indians protesting?
Citizens are finding innovative ways to protest and are often doing so without the help of political parties, who often arrive ‘late to the party’
Though the recent violence in Shillong began over a minor scuffle and spread through a fabricated story on Whatsapp, it took almost a week to de-escalate tensions between members of the Sikh community, long-time settlers in the Punjabi Lane area of the city, and Khasis, a dominant tribal community of Meghalaya.
Similarly, a reckless police action in Thoothukudi (Tamil Nadu) last month turned a peaceful protest into a violent tragedy. These incidents are just the latest in a spate of large-scale protests in India, such as the farmers in Maharashtra marching to Mumbai to draw attention to the agrarian crisis and the nationwide protests in April in reaction to the Kathua and Unnao rape cases.
Political commentators have argued that there has been a substantial increase in the number of protests and clashes in the country, that the spike coincides with elections and that it is linked to particular parties assuming power in the states. The increase in the incidence of protests also signals dissatisfaction with the incumbents — either with the Narendra Modiled BJP government in the centre or the ruling parties in the states.
We tested these hypotheses using a comprehensive dataset by ACLED (Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project) that has documented incidents of political violence and protests across the country starting January 2016. The ACLED (www.acleddata.com to access this data) tracks information from English language newspapers and may not be exhaustive. However, the trend in the number of protests and violent incidents is comparable with other data sources such as Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD) and National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB).
The data presented in chart 1 and 2 helps in making a few points. First, there has been some increase in the number of protests and clashes across India in the last couple of years. Second, more than a third of protests occurred in capitals cities (this includes the National Capital Territory of Delhi). Protestors justifiably expect that holding protests in capitals garners more attention and hence greater media coverage. Third, greater media attention creates an impression that the protests are widespread and are happening across the country all the time.
We analysed the state-level patterns for each state and found that the peaks in chart 1 are occurring due to spikes at different points in different states. In chart 2, we present some important states that have been in the news owing to such protests and clashes. North-eastern states (except Assam), north and central India (except Punjab and Haryana) and south India (except Tamil Nadu) have remained largely peaceful. The state-level patterns make it clear that though the national trend shows an overall increase in the number of protests and clashes when aggregated, this increase is largely due to some states such as Tamil Nadu where the average number of incidents per month after Jayalalitha’s sudden demise is twice as high as any other state.
Finally, contrary to claims made by political commentators about the electoral connection, we find that the protests are neither related to polls or its results. Among the 16 states that went to the polls since January 2016, there was no uniform pattern of increase in protests and violence just before the polls in at least seven states. While some did see an increase in protest activity before or during polls, in many cases the rise was incremental rather than exponential. If these protests are not related to elections or electoral outcomes, then why are they happening? And what are political parties doing during these protests? In our view, two interrelated factors — greater politicisation of groups and increasing awareness of individual rights — are at play.
In the past few years, as political parties have become vehicles of narrow sectional interests, it has led to greater politicisation of groups. Groups and communities – based on religion, caste, gender, language, region or otherwise — protest when they are unhappy with how the state has responded to their demands.
The Indian state, no matter which party is in power, presents itself as maibaap to its citizens. It, however, does not have the resources at its command to meet the demands raised by multiple and often competing groups. When these demands are not satisfied on favorable terms, it often takes organised action in the form of protests (and sometimes violence), for the state to respond. Over time this process has become ritualised into three distinct phases. A group’s demands are not heard or met. The group organises to protest, often violently. The state responds favourably.
This politicisation of groups has helped the marginalised sections of society to become more aware of their individual rights. With rapid socio-economic changes, the deeply entrenched patterns of social dominance are also on the decline. Traditional sources of power are waning. Groups that previously did not enjoy much power are not only finding ways to express their discontent with dominant groups but are also asserting themselves. This has often led to reprisals from socially dominant groups. Thus, both the assertion and retaliation result in further protests and clashes.
Interestingly, in both cases, citizens are finding innovative ways to protest, and they are often doing so without the help of political parties. Politicians arrive ‘late to the party’. Their late arrival is increasingly making it evident to everyone that a politician’s presence is merely to gain mileage . This also makes it harder for political parties to reap electoral dividends from these protests.
For instance, it was recently reported that a Dalit couple in the Kasganj district of UP wanted to take their marriage procession through their village which is dominated by upper-caste Thakurs. When the Thakurs refused to grant access, citing tradition, the couple approached the local authorities who also denied their request, on somewhat frivolous grounds. In this case, the individual right of the couple to celebrate their marriage came in the way of the social dominance of the upper castes, leading to a protest by Dalits. After that, the couple approached the police, pleaded with the media, wrote to the CM and even petitioned the Allahabad High Court which then directed the district administration to help the couple. Only once the news spread that the couple had written to the CM and approached the court, did the war of words between BJP, SP, and BSP begin.
The absence of political parties when they are most needed is a significant cause for concern. If the frequency of such incidents continues to increase, it will lead to a further decline of public trust in the country’s institutions. Political parties enjoy the greatest legitimacy when they become vehicles of popular sentiment and public grievance. But as political parties continue to get dominated by vested interests, the real danger is that incidents like Shillong and Thoothukudi may become more frequent.
The authors are with the University of California, Berkeley.
A bus is set on fire during a protest against the construction of a copper smelter by Vedanta Resources, in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, on May 23.