Jan­tar Man­tar: In­dia’s protest street

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

At one end of a back­street in down­town Delhi a group of women hold a vigil to de­mand rapists be ex­e­cuted, while at the other acolytes of a spir­i­tual leader ar­rested for sex­ual as­sault de­mand his re­lease. Any­one seek­ing a glimpse of the be­wil­der­ing range of is­sues an­i­mat­ing vot­ers in the world’s largest democ­racy should stroll past par­lia­ment and head a few hun­dreds yards north to Jan­tar Man­tar. Here on any given day, ev­ery­one from re­tired gen­er­als to land­less wid­ows can be seen hold­ing forth in a tree-lined av­enue tucked be­hind some of the city’s swanki­est ho­tels and most fa­mous land­marks.

Some protests at­tract crowds in their thou­sands while other causes are cham­pi­oned by lone cam­paign­ers who hand out leaflets to cu­ri­ous passersby. A stone’s throw from In­dia’s cor­ri­dors of power and fenced off with bar­ri­cades, Jan­tar Man­tar car­ries echoes of Speaker’s Cor­ner in Lon­don or the Oc­cupy move­ment’s takeover of McPher­son Square in Wash­ing­ton. But as the smell of freshly-cooked dosas and other street food wafts down the road, min­gling with the smoke of hand-rolled bidi cig­a­rettes-it has a uniquely In­dian aroma. The mish­mash of mal­con­tents in­cludes some who turn up day af­ter day for years and oth­ers who camp out overnight to air their griev­ances.

A vet­eran de­mand­ing re­forms to army pen­sions poi­soned him­self to death in early Novem­ber and in 2015, a farmer hanged him­self from a tree in front of hor­ri­fied on­look­ers. San­tosh Singh has been protest­ing here for four years to per­suade author­i­ties to re­turn land that he says was ef­fec­tively stolen by his own fam­ily by declar­ing him dead. Singh says his fam­ily de­stroyed all his records and then told the author­i­ties he had died be­cause they wanted his land for them­selves. “The me­dia is wit­ness to the fact that I’m alive,” Singh said when asked what mo­ti­vated him day af­ter day.

Show of strength

An­jit Kumar, an of­fi­cial in the Aam Aadmi anti-cor­rup­tion party who is a reg­u­lar visi­tor in sup­port of a string of causes, says Jan­tar Man­tar is a good place to catch the eye of jour­nal­ists milling around par­lia­ment. “You can show your strength there,” he said. Civil protests have a rich his­tory in In­dia, with Ma­hatma Gandhi’s cam­paigns of non-vi­o­lence, such as the 1930 Salt March, play­ing a vi­tal part in shap­ing op­po­si­tion to Bri­tish colo­nial rule. In the early 1990s, pro­tes­tors in Delhi used to be able to march up and down Ra­j­path, the thor­ough­fare which sweeps past the pres­i­den­tial palace and major gov­ern­ment min­istries that were built by the Bri­tish. But author­i­ties then be­gan im­pos­ing re­stric­tions, even­tu­ally des­ig­nat­ing Jan­tar Man­tar as one of the few places where pro­tes­tors could gather. Lo­cal his­to­rian So­hail Hashmi said it was shame­ful politi­cians had shunted their crit­ics into a sidestreet. “Those mass mo­bi­liza­tions on Ra­j­path were an op­por­tu­nity for the peo­ple to com­mu­ni­cate their anger di­rectly to the gov­ern­ment. Now it’s no longer pos­si­ble to do any­thing more than have a sym­bolic protest,” said Hashmi. “How can a gov­ern­ment, an elected gov­ern­ment, refuse to meet peo­ple who have brought them to power?” While min­is­ters and law­mak­ers rarely deign to visit, the ranks of out­side broad­cast vans at­test to the me­dia’s ap­petite for the pro­tes­tors’ sto­ries.

Drum for Trump

When Don­ald Trump won the US pres­i­dency, cam­era­men were on hand to cap­ture a group of ul­tra-na­tion­al­ist Hin­dus cel­e­brate by bang­ing drums. Some cam­paign­ers are less in­ter­ested in pub­lic­ity but rather want to demon­strate com­mit­ment to a cause, what­ever the per­sonal sac­ri­fice. One group of women has been cam­paign­ing for nearly four years to de­mand the death penalty for any­one con­victed of rape, in­clud­ing mi­nors, since a deadly gang-rape on a bus in Delhi in De­cem­ber 2012. Some ini­tially quit their jobs but “life be­came very dif­fi­cult to man­age and they had to go back to work,” said one of the pro­tes­tors who comes in the evenings af­ter a day in the of­fice. Fur­ther down the line is an equally pas­sion­ate group whose de­mand is for the re­lease of Asaram Bapu, a self-pro­claimed Hindu god­man or guru, who has been in cus­tody since 2013 on charges of sex­ual as­sault­ing a 16-year-old girl. Sev­eral hun­dred of the 75-year-old Bapu’s sup­port­ers clashed with po­lice in May-one of the rare oc­ca­sions when Jan­tar Man­tar’s gen­eral cul­ture of lively but peace­ful protest de­gen­er­ated into vi­o­lence. — AFP

NEW DELHI: Ac­tivists from ‘Save the Cow’ tie a cow to a tree at protest venue, Jan­tar Man­tar in New Delhi. — AFP

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