The Significance of an All-India Protest Campaign in the Time of Corona
On Sept. 5, around 500 groups – human rights organisations, women’s associations, trade unions and LGBTQIA+ collectives – came together to coordinate a nationwide campaign by the name of “Hum Agar Uthe Nahin Toh (If We Do Not Rise).” This comes months after India was ranked 83rd out of 195 countries in a report titled “Freedom in the World 2020” by the U.S.-based research organisation Freedom House that tracks civil and political liberties globally. In one year, India’s score declined by four points, the biggest fall among the 25 largest democracies of the world, bringing it precariously close to the bottom among nations marked as “Free.”
To register dissent against “targeted attacks on the constitutional rights of the people of India,” several activities and programmes were organised across 28 states and union territories throughout the day, both online and offline. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, physical demonstrations were held only in a limited way at the neighbourhood level.
The date for this protest call was selected such that it coincided with the third death anniversary of journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh. A bold critic of right-wing Hindu extremism and Hindu nationalist politics, she was assassinated outside her home in the southern city of Bengaluru, the capital of Karnataka state, in 2017.
Her death has come to represent what is increasingly being seen as an attack on freedom of expression and a targeted silencing of activists with views that do not align with those of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It is, then, only appropriate that this date was chosen for a campaign that seeks to safeguard constitutional values and rights.
According to the campaign’s concept note, raising a united voice has now become imperative because of the “collapse of democratic institutions” such as the judiciary, attacks on religious minorities, growing crony capitalism and poor handling of the coronavirus crisis, among other issues.
This also comes in the context of the women-led national movement against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) being brought to a sudden halt in March due to the pandemic-induced lockdown. Several activists who were involved in these protests have been arrested since then.
For context, the CAA, passed by the Parliament last December, is a law that fast-tracks Indian citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Parsi, Buddhist and Christian religious minorities who fled from the neighboring countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh before December 2014, but curiously leaves out Muslims.
Even as the internet opens up new avenues to create awareness on social issues and fight for causes, the coronavirus has, in a lot of ways, created a five-month interval in the movie of people’s movements in India. As Dr. Syeda Hameed, former member of the Planning Commission and founding member of the Muslim Women’s Forum in India, said, “Our spirits were low, there was a feeling of helplessness. But this campaign is bringing us back to the streets and giving us ummeed (hope).”
As part of the campaign, individuals and groups were invited to raise their voice on any issue that affects them by making videos and posters and sharing them on social media, doing live sessions on Facebook, gathering in small numbers for physical protests while observing all the required COVID-related precautions, and giving memoranda to the local authorities.
In rural and urban areas alike, people gathered in their neighbourhoods wearing masks and holding posters in their hands; photographs and videos of sloganeering and singing in small groups have been shared on the official Facebook page of the campaign.
In the online sphere, ordinary citizens from across the country shared videos of themselves extending their support in their local languages. Artists joined in big numbers to use creative ways – dance, music, theatre, poetry and artwork – to protest online. This included singer Ankur Tewari who did a one-hour music session, theatre artist Maya Rao, who recited Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” in Hindi, classical dancer Mallika Sarabhai and actress Lillete Dubey.
Others who lent their voices to the social media video campaign are author Arundhati Roy, lawyer Prashant Bhushan and Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association Kavita Krishnan. Additionally, collectives such as Lok Theatre and Indian Alliance Paris organised online public programmes and meetings with multiple speakers using web conferencing platforms like Zoom.
The reason “If We Do Not Rise” marks a significant moment is because of its participatory and unifying nature which has brought together 500 bodies with different agendas to collaborate under one broad banner, while simultaneously addressing specific issues too.
“This is the first time, at least as far as I know, that there is a national level campaign which is covering every single social issue around us, whether it is privatisation, the plight of farmers, migrant workers’ issues, or domestic violence,” said social activist Shabnam Hashmi, who is actively involved in the overall national coordination of the campaign.
Fifteen fact-sheets have been prepared on varied topics including Violence Against Women, Political Prisoners, Environment and Health; the collation of data on all these subjects and creation of these public documents reveal a desire to effect concrete and targeted change in each sphere.
This network of organisations has not come together only for one day. According to Hashmi, they are planning to have a meeting very soon with everyone who participated in the campaign to discuss how to proceed further.
“We want this network to stay together and work together for years. It may not be on an everyday basis, but at least once a month or once every two months we will try to do some action across India. We expect even more groups to join in!” Hashmi said.
As they say, democracy is only as healthy as the amount of public participation that it enables and allows in forms beyond voting during elections. This protest campaign’s participatory and large-scale nature, even in spite of the social distancing constraints of our times, is a reminder that it is the people who most constructively find ways to keep governments all over the world in check, even when political parties fail to do so.