A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India, while dismissing the review petition on its ‘Right to Protest’ judgment observed as follows:
“The constitutional scheme comes with a right to protest and express dissent but with an obligation to have certain duties. The right to protest cannot be anytime and everywhere. There may be some spontaneous protests but in case of prolonged dissent/protest, there cannot be continued occupation of public place affecting rights of others.”
Notwithstanding the constitutional underpinnings of the ‘right to protest’, the question is: why is an act of protest considered a practical, effective, and much preferred tool for bringing about social change?
Why Protest is the “Most Important Agent of Social Transformation”
First, ‘protest’ is a form of direct spontaneous action by an emotionally-charged people who are aggrieved and feel let down by formal institutionalised structures like political lobbying and litigation. People resort to protest when State organs fail or are unwilling to legislate in favour of the vulnerable and marginalised.
American sociologists Fuentes and Frank find an act of protest as the “most important agent of social transformation” because it seeks to fill the void created by State organs which choose to serve vested private interests over public good.
Recently, over 10,000 Thai youth thronged the streets of Bangkok to protest against the monarch, who has not just amassed power and wealth from the hands of elected representatives and strengthened laws against dissent towards the monarchy, but has been remotely governing the island country from a hotel in Germany.
Typically, a protest does not always require too many resources, time, and expertise. However, in some cases, when protests continue over a period of time, and often end up becoming a movement — as is the case with the ongoing farmers’ agitation — its sustenance then depends on funds and other resources.
A Collective Movement Against Injustice
Second, an act of protest is typically a collective mass movement carried out against an unjust or oppressive law and policy of the government. American sociologist Neil Smelser noted that the fundamental conditions that set the stage for a protest to occur are a shared moral sense of injustice, discrimination, and oppression; fear of deprivation of life and livelihood; uncertainty about the future; anxiety over loss of identity; and feelings of exploitation.
Fuentes and Frank have highlighted that protests seek to deepen and redefine democracy by shifting the centre of gravity in law and policymaking from a purely ‘economic’ angle to ‘human rights’ and ‘civil society’ perspectives.
For instance, the raison d’etre for the protest movement that engulfed the Arab world in 2010 was the popular demand and collective action by its people against ‘kleptocracy’. The precipitating factors that triggered mass protests against regimes across the Arab world were mass poverty, unemployment, and corruption.
What Protests Seek to Achieve
Third, the end goal of a protest is to bring about ‘de facto’ and ‘substantive’ equality rather than just ‘de jure’ and ‘formal’ equality. Undoubtedly, judges pronouncing judgments and experts drafting parliamentary committee reports, are well-versed with the legal and economic rationale behind the law and policy but are completely disconnected from the perspectives, traditional values and belief systems, emotions, sentiments, and organic needs of the aggrieved people. For example, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement in 2013 in the United States, that exposed and challenged the widespread police brutality against people of colour, white supremacy, and racism writ large in the American law and society, spiralled into simultaneous protests across the world. The movement also resurfaced in mid-2020 after the murder of a black man George Floyd, in Minnesota, USA.
Further, even the Shaheen Bagh protests in India was due to the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which sought to redefine ‘Indian citizenship’ on the basis of ‘religion’, and was seen as discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Protests seek to represent grassroots-level problems that more often than not do not reach official forums or aren’t given the importance they deserve. No wonder, the official versions of ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ are completely divorced from the lived realities of the vulnerable and the marginalised.
For instance, the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ (Yellow Vests) protests in France in 2018, were against the government’s decision to raise the cost of diesel by 20 percent, which would lead to a further increase in economic inequality. The rural folk who travelled miles everyday to their workplace within the city cried ‘Hail Mary’, and openly critiqued the government’s pro-urban elite stance. The French government had to ultimately scrap the fuel tax. Such is the power of protest.
Egalitarian Nature Of Protests: All Are Welcome
Fourth, a protest (usually) has diverse social membership with no hierarchical leadership structure or formal decision-making procedures. The most striking feature of recent protests in India is that oppressed and marginalised people like certain religious minorities, sexual and gender minorities (LGBTQIA+), women, urban and rural poor, farmers, disadvantaged castes like the Dalits have came out in large numbers from the seclusion of their homes to throw themselves into the heart of the protests.
The recent civilian protests in Myanmar by people from all walks of life including labourers, teachers, firefighters, health workers, civil servants, police officers and security personnel, is proof of how people are brought together by a common cause.
What’s the Point of a Protest March?
Fifth, the predominant objective of a protest is to gain visibility, draw the public’s attention to the needs, vulnerabilities and problems faced by the aggrieved parties as a direct result of the government’s action and to persuade the government to alter it. The autonomy, flexibility, and informality inherent in a protest gives the participants a variety of means and strategies to choose from to meet their end goals. But the resounding call in all protests is: ‘WE’ would like to have a ‘SAY’ in laws and policies that directly affect ‘US’.
American political scientist, Gene Sharp listed 198 methods of non-violent action and grouped them into three broad categories:
- ‘Non-Violent Protests and Persuasion’ tactics like meetings, speeches, caricatures, slogans, picketing, deputations, vigils, singing, renouncing honours, walk-outs, and communication through social media
- ‘Social, Political and Economic Non-Cooperation’ tactics namely social boycott and strikes
- ‘Non-Violent Intervention’ like varied boycotts, lockouts, protest strike by peasants and workers, hartal, civil disobedience of ‘illegitimate' laws, judicial noncooperation et cetera.
Creative Means Of Protest
The youth in Thailand used creative tactics as a symbol of protest against monarchical tyranny and the government’s free speech gag orders: they displayed the three finger salute of defiance inspired by the ‘Hunger Games’ trilogy; dressed up as wizards and carried banners with the slogan ‘The One Who Cannot be Named’ typifying the monarch as Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series; released inflatable toy ducks in the air like in a carnival; and dropped letters of protest into dummy post boxes installed at the gates of the Royal Palace. These flamboyant yet non-violent tactics were replicated by protesters in a host of other South Asian nations.
Russians have also protested in an unusual way against Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian policies and the arrest and imprisonment of opposition politician Alexei Navalny; on Valentine’s Day citizens across the country gathered outside their homes for 15 minutes shining their mobile phone torches and arranging candles in the shape of a heart.
“We Have Our Troubles” But “We Are A Genuine Democracy”
Arundhati Roy in her book ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ writes that “compared with our neighbouring countries, […] India with all her unfortunate inequalities, cruelties and discrimination is still like a little corner of paradise. We have our troubles, our terrible moments, yes but these are only aberrations.”
Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, displayed dissatisfaction at ‘andolanjeevis’, those grumbling intellectuals and professional dissenters who constantly carp about this great country. As Roy has aptly put, “Frankly, they can only do it because they are allowed to. And they are allowed to because, for all our imperfections, we are a genuine democracy.”
(Prerna Dhoop is a human rights lawyer and Vandana Dhoop is an independent research consultant. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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