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’

Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - - HTINSIGHT - Pradeep Ch­hib­ber, Harsh Shah and Rahul Verma

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.

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