Home >opinion >Protests and public squares

A public square is meaningless without people, but some governments like it that way. Even with manicured lawns, spotless, tree-lined avenues, the square’s emptiness signifies something deeper—the hollowness of a society where people are afraid to get together, except when forced to cheer ceremonial military parades.

Left to their own devices, people do funny things at such squares that governments—elected or not—don’t like. Like gathering spontaneously in large numbers and demanding change. Indians tried doing it at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919, and General Reginald Dyer decided to teach the natives a lesson. Some 1,650 rounds were fired and officially 379 were killed (the unofficial figure is much larger). In Ciénaga in Colombia in 1928, security forces gave a five-minute warning to striking banana plantation workers, before spraying bullets, and the massacre has become part of Colombian folklore, captured most movingly by the Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez in his 1967 novel, Cienaños de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude).

Fast forward to 4 June 1989. At Tiananmen Square, thousands of students had gathered demanding political change. As a column of tanks emerged on one of the avenues, a young man in a white shirt and dark trousers went up to the tanks, telling them to stop. When the first tank tried to go sideways and overtake him, the man walked to his left, blocking the tank from moving further. So the tank turned to its left, to go past the man. But not only did he move to his right and stopped the tank, he climbed atop and talked to the soldiers. That delicate pas de deux is inspiring, even though the victory was fragile. The man then got off and left with a few people (looking at the full video (http://bit.ly/11r891K ) it is difficult to tell if he is going away willingly or being led away). He was never to be heard of again, or seen since. Meanwhile soldiers shot students at the square, and even today, the full extent of the number of dead is not known, but is estimated to run into thousands.

Two years ago it was another square—Tahrir, in Cairo, where Egyptians congregated, and ended Hosni Mubarak’s 32-year rule. “Eat a good breakfast. Take a rucksack with a gas mask and swimming goggles. Write your name on your arm. Write your details into a message on your mobile. And go to the square," they were told in a tweet, and they came well-prepared, facing tear gas and bullets. The novelist Ahdaf Soueif, who was at the square, wrote: “Tahrir is about dignity and image as much as it is about the economy and corruption. People are acutely aware of how much their government has messed with their heads, worked to divide them, maligned them to the world."

And maligning protesters is what governments are good at. Call them ruffians, anti-social elements, foreign-inspired agents, and worse. When they rise they assert their pride, and it is the pride that the state seeks to crush. Read the Turkish bloggers from Istanbul published on Wednesday, where they try to protect another square—this time Taksim—from being gobbled up by a company that wants to build a mall, and in which, according to Turkish newspapers, the Prime Minister’s son-in-law has a stake. The Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan calls the protesters “looters" and threatens them, saying “For every 100,000 protesters I will bring a million from my party."

When asked, “What are you hoping to gain by complaining about our country to foreigners?" Defne Suman, on her blog Insanlik Hali writes: “By so-called complaining about my country I am hoping to gain freedom of expression and speech, respect for human rights, control over the decisions I make concerning…my body, the right to legally congregate in any part of the city without being considered a terrorist."

Open squares are places where people want to express themselves. Poets and writers understand that need, which is why the day after Tiananmen Square was bloodied, Vikram Seth wrote a short poem, applauding “brave people seeking to be free, of rottenness, of tyranny," and five years later, K. Satchidanandan surreptitiously visited the square, and wrote:

A tempest

snorts from under the earth.

The full moon rises like the

burning eye of the one

who rose from the dead.

Ordinariness

has been restored.

The tank man was taken away, but we remember. The silenced poet’s voice too can be heard loudly, however deeply they might try to bury him.

In Chile, the Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda supported Salvador Allende, and on 11 September 1973, the CIA-backed General Augusto Pinochet overthrew Allende. Neruda, who had cancer, died 12 days later, and for years, rumours persisted that he was poisoned. Even as his body is now being exhumed to investigate his death, his words remind us: “You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming."

You can kill the students in the square, but you cannot stop the next rising.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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