How does India protest? A look at trends in demonstrations across the country over the past three decades

  • India is hardly the only country in Asia to witness large-scale demonstrations: Citizens in Hong Kong have been protesting against the Chinese extradition bill, and for democracy for the past six months

  • Additional protests against government policies have been reported in Indonesia, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon

  • Along with teargas, both Indian and Chinese governments have also resorted to suspending internet services in various regions to discourage dissenting citizens

Article 19 of the Indian Constitution states that citizens of this country have the fundamental right to express themselves, in adherence to the law. A typical way in which citizens have historically expressed displeasure with a law or policy is via protest. Ongoing citizen demonstrations in India are predominantly against the Citizenship Amendment Act or CAA and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC), and have witnessed huge turnouts across cities and regions. Thus, using dissent and organising extended marches and hunger strikes as a means of expression is not new to India. Peaceful protesting holds a special place in India: Mahatma Gandhi pioneered the use of civil disobedience (satyagraha, for instance).

The Mass Mobilization (MM) project is an initiative by researchers at Binghamton University (New York) to document citizen protests across the world since 1990. Protest data is gathered from newspaper reporting of incidents in national and international media. For each protest event, the project records protester demands, government responses, protest location, and protester identities. Data from India reveals that the number of protests, as well as the duration, was highest in 2015. This year could be viewed as an inflexion point of sorts in student-organised and student-led activism. Some of the events that incited demonstrations in 2015 included the sexual harassment of women at Jadavpur University (that ultimately led to the vice-chancellor resigning) and protests against the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII).

The graphics below depict the number of protests from the MM data for the past three decades, with notable spikes in 2002, 2008, and 2016. Nearly half of all protests in India were violent, nearly double the corresponding figure for the world:

 How does India protest? A look at trends in demonstrations across the country over the past three decades

Blue line indicates the average trend in India
Red line indicates the average trend in the World
Source: Mass Mobilization Project (2019)

 

Protest durations across time for India with blue line indicating average country trend Source: MM Project (2019)

Protest durations across time for India with blue line indicating average country trend
Source: MM Project (2019)

Back to the present day and India is hardly the only country in Asia to witness large-scale demonstrations: Citizens in Hong Kong have been protesting against the Chinese extradition bill, and for democracy for the past six months. Additional protests against government policies have been reported in Indonesia, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. Along with teargas, both Indian and Chinese governments have also resorted to suspending internet services in various regions to discourage dissenting citizens.

Part of the reaction is potentially motivated by the spread of a protest: For instance, protesters in Hong Kong are also marching into malls and chanting slogans, which is not the case in India. Iran, to avoid its dirty linen from being washed in world news, also suspended its country's internet, to avoid information on internal matters reaching the international community. The MM dataset also has information on how governments respond to such dissent, and in India (much like the rest of the world) this suggests that ignorance is a common state response:

Notably, the data does not show crackdowns on citizen freedom by shutting down communications, especially via the internet (India is a global leader in deploying this method). The increasing use of internet suspension as a tool to quell citizen activism is largely on account of the use of social media to spread word about protests. This also depends on who is the key demographic that is protesting: When it comes to the youth, protests spread over social media quickly to mobilise support.

Data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) project show that a majority of demonstrations in North India are backed by labour groups, whereas in almost every other region, they are backed by political parties. Student groups (the centre of the ongoing anti-CAA rallies) are most active in the Eastern region, perhaps on account of active student politics in such states as West Bengal.

When it comes to other marginalised groups that may not be defined by age cohorts, there are various innovations in the method of protest to draw the government's attention. For example, extreme measures such as eating one's own faeces, rats, threatening to drink their own urine have been resorted to by farmers of Tamil Nadu in 2017. Dalits in Gujarat dissented against self-styled cow vigilantes by dumping cow carcasses outside government offices. This draws perhaps from the storied history of protest culture in India, which has seen everything from protests against prevalent social practices such as sati to the demand for workers' rights by mill workers in Mumbai.

Thus, ongoing citizen demonstrations in India and elsewhere are largely beginning to be driven by angered youth and are less likely to be violent. Data from the MM project suggests that State-caused violence occurs more frequently than protester violence in India. These often differ by the cause for which one might rally: Movements for greater State action on climate change are often peaceful and non-violent, whereas those against government apathy toward other social or economic issues (such as women's safety or inflation) are sometimes characterised by greater outrage and violence.

This holds several implications for the emergence of a new class of protesters in India (eg urban middle-class youths/students) who may not have the same exposure to politics and policies across regions. For example, student activism is a more common feature in North and East Indian universities. One thing’s for sure: Protests — not to mention the types of protests — are evolving.

Anchal Khandelwal and Anirudh Tagat are research assistant and research author respectively at the Department of Economics, Monk Prayogshala. Monk Prayogshala is a not-for-profit academic research organisation based in Mumbai that works in the social sciences.

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Updated Date: Jan 10, 2020 13:48:13 IST