Since 23 April, several Indian wrestlers -- many of them Olympians -- have been protesting at Delhi's iconic Jantar Mantar against the (now sidelined) Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president and a BJP Member of Parliament, Brijbhushan Sharan Singh. The 66-year-old has been accused of sexual harassment by female wrestlers.
An FIR was finally registered against him on 28 April. After much struggle and despite attempts to demean and isolate the concerns of female wrestlers, an investigation has now begun.
Just before the wrestlers made it to Jantar Mantar, I had coordinated a 60-day peaceful protest by National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) workers at the same venue under the platform of NREGA Sangharsh Morcha. The wrestlers’ protest began on the very day that the NREGA workers’ dharna ended.
For decades, the Jantar Mantar protest site has been a democratic free space where citizens have been registering their concerns coming from all over the country. Earlier this was a larger area stretching across the Jantar Mantar lane from Kerala House to the end of the lane. People used to even stay at night at the protest site and the information was required to submit to the police regarding the protest.
Now the protest area has been shortened to a greater extent making it a place with less than 500 metres of the area with many barricades on both sides. A protest can only be held from 10 am to 4 pm. Currently at the Jantar Mantar protest site, to hold a protest one has to take permission from Parliament Street Police station 10 days before the day of the protest. An organisation/union, under their letterhead, is allowed to take permission once in the span of the next 10 days. Having all these difficulties and the complexities that a person or any organisation/union goes through, those who do not belong to Delhi cannot think of doing a protest in the national capital.
Why the NREGA Workers Have Been Protesting
NREGA guarantees 100 days of manual work to each rural household demanding work. It has played a monumental role in establishing the right to work, decline in distress migration, and creating ecologically sustainable assets in rural areas. Over the past few years, however, NREGA has been systematically undermined and weakened by the Union government.
This year with the lowest budget for NREGA and the imposition of newer technocratic ‘solutions’ in the name of ‘good governance’, transparency, and removal of corruption, the government has unleashed another assault on the entire programme.
Workers from across the country demand an increase in the budget of the programme as well as an increase in the daily wage which is extremely low. The wage rate ranges from Rs 221 to Rs 357 per day. The workers' demand to remove technocratic measures in NREGA such as the National Mobile Monitoring System (NMMS-Digital attendance system) and Aadhar-based payment system has gained solidarity.
For this purpose, workers from West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and other states reached Jantar Mantar in batches starting 13 February.
The protest, however, got disrupted largely because of the barriers which were put up by the Delhi police and the concerned authorities in New Delhi. It is important to share this harsh reality with the country as the authorities treat innocent civilians, many of whom are victims of state repression, as criminals, for exhibiting their democratic right to protest.
Daily Struggles Faced by Protesters
To hold a protest at the Jantar Mantar protest site requires permission to be taken from the nearby Parliament Street police station 10 days in advance.
During the NREGA workers' 60 days protest, we took permission for each day resulting in a tedious process. On the issue of getting phone calls from police personnel, since I had managed the permission thing for the protest for the whole 60 days, I received calls from the police almost every day at literally any hour of the day. First they called those who had signed for the permission letter, and then called me.
This does not end here, as the person who submits the permission letter goes through regular harassment from the police personnel through phone calls in the form of intimidation. There is continued pressure to visit the police station one day before the protest date for a meeting with police officials.
This naturally creates fear and anxiety in everyone. Imagine the plight of rural women from various parts of the country who have to repeatedly face this harassment from police officials just to get permission to voice their anguish. Workers after travelling thousands of kilometres faced discrimination daily by the city dwellers.
The gurudwaras in New Delhi have traditionally been the only hope for peaceful protestors -- largely poor and from marginalised backgrounds -- over the years for crucial food and lodging. This is no more a reality. Staying at a night shelter 10 km away from Jantar Mantar with hardly any necessities, everyday struggle in the Delhi buses, abuse, and disrespectful behavior by the local commuters have added to all the miseries. Even at the protest site, the lack of proper drinking water and clean washrooms had been a concerning challenge, especially for the women workers.
Throughout the protest period, there were various instances where protests to avail drinking water at Jantar Mantar were done by the workers. All of these difficulties to hold a protest clearly signal that the poor are not welcome in the national capital to voice their concerns.
The government which promotes itself as the ‘mother of democracy’ is shutting down every avenue where a person can express themselves freely and democratically in the country. The 60 days of the sit-in by workers continued because of the unaccountability of the government. The workers met the the Union Minister of Rural Development six times with no fruitful outcomes or any commitment from the government.
The Need to Reclaim Public Spaces
The protest by one of the most marginalised sections of the country is an example of strength and at the same time, it reflected the inhuman nature of the Union government that has turned a blind eye after wilfully driving them to the corner.
Even the wrestlers protesting currently at the Jantar Mantar are facing extreme difficulties while continuing their protest with the basic infrastructural needs such as water and electricity along with the recent violence on them by the Delhi police. The barricades by the Delhi police at both ends of the Jantar Mantar protest sites reflect the shrinking democratic space. Every day with more restrictions, the walls are closing in and shutting every scope of free speech.
Currently, the kind of approach toward any democratic agitation by the regime is weakening an individual’s overall hope and belief in a system that ensures justice.
It is important to reclaim public spaces such as the Jantar Mantar protest site in every part of the country, not only for those in the public eye but for every citizen and worker of the country.
(Raj Shekhar is a researcher, activist, and the national coordinator for the Right to Food Campaign)