Home / Opinion / ‘Beda’ will not be televised

At times, it takes an ill-conceived idea like a steel flyover to bring back a better idea like civic action. Bengaluru’s citizens formed a human chain on Sunday to protest the construction of a steel flyover. The proposed flyover would ease traffic congestion, but at the cost of cutting down 800 trees and damaging many heritage buildings in the city. The word in vogue on Sunday was beda, which is Kannada for “don’t want".

In 1970, the American poet-musician Gil Scott-Heron and a few friends were watching the news about a political demonstration. The news report outlined details of the rally, and Scott-Heron said, “People ought to get out there and do something." Then he said, “The revolution won’t be televised." The statement gave rise to an iconic song about the nature of resistance. Like any work of art, Scott-Heron’s song, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is an artefact of its time.

‘People getting out there and doing something’ was more than an off-hand remark. It summarized an attitude towards democracy prevalent at the time. It emerged from a faith in the power of the collective, in the ability of a mobilized public to bring about radical overhaul to dysfunctional systems. We were the “people", “doing something" was the impulse, and “out there" was where the magic happened. Or, at least, that was the idea. But ideas, like people, can lose their way. Who even says revolution now without a touch of self-caricature? The spaces for saying beda have shrunk both in our minds as well as our cities.

For instance, in 2014, the office of the deputy commissioner of police, New Delhi, issued an ad ‘inviting’ protests in Jantar Mantar. The ad is curiously worded—“Want to hold Dharna/Protest! Upto 5000 persons. Welcome to Jantar Mantar"(sic). The Indian Express carried a report on the ad, which appeared in its print edition on 7 February 2014. The report contains a delightful sentence—“Police said protests without permission would be viewed as an ‘encroachment’ (sic)".

The rationale of the beleaguered but well-meaning Delhi Police was that there were simply too many applicants who wanted to take out protests in an area where law and order couldn’t be compromised. Hence, gatherings of up to 5,000 people would be allowed at Jantar Mantar. Gatherings of more than 5,000 people had to be held at the Ramlila Maidan further north. It would seem that the Delhi Police was trying to create a land-use map of civil disobedience.

Words like “permission" and “encroachment" are important terms in the state’s lexicon when countering resistance. These words are laws unto themselves, governed by the unimpeachable logic of “law and order... cannot be compromised". It is a short nosedive from that to “this is for your own good". But as the novelist Jeanette Winterson observed, “There was so much good being done to the public in those days that I am surprised we are all not saints."

Jantar Mantar is now a well-functioning absurdity. The area adjoining the 18th century observatory is cordoned off by police vans and itinerant ice-cream vendors. Inside, there are expo-style stalls for protests of various persuasions. Here, the state has granted both the permission and the space to protest. But in limiting it to Jantar Mantar, the protest’s engagement with the life of the city has been curbed, thereby making the resistance less relevant than it could be. By spatially confining resistance in the city, it has also become easier to ignore it. Protest has literally been put in its place.

Resistance, thankfully, is a slippery thing. The revolution might not be televised, but it can certainly be WhatsApped, live-tweeted and Chinese-whispered.

In April, Bengaluru witnessed spontaneous demonstrations against the amendment of the Employees’ Provident Fund withdrawal rules. The protests were notably called “leaderless" since the uprisings seemed to be led by women factory workers unaffiliated to any particular political party.

The charge of “leaderlessness" points towards two things—one, the garden-variety sexism that expects revolutions to be led by men; and two, that the revolution is leaderless because it can be decentralized, mobile, and networked. Bengaluru’s incident is proof that you should never underestimate a bunch of angry, hardworking women who have WhatsApp on their phones.

Have you been in Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar market on a Sunday afternoon? Through the teeming crowds, one voice might ring clear—“Checker, checker!", warning the shopkeepers of the municipal official’s impending visit. The information is passed on in a flash, and the sprawling, unruly market begins to be taken apart, bundled up and concealed. Within the hour, the market is back, overrunning pavements, roads, shopfronts, in total defiance of officially sanctioned uses of public space.

Very recently, a popular tea-vendor on Delhi’s Kasturba Gandhi Marg had his makeshift station impounded, much to the dismay of his loyal customers. But he was back in a week, resisting the municipality’s logic of where he ought to be, which was not on that pavement.

This could well be a coping strategy within the precarious informal economy, but it is also an act of reclamation. Disciplining protest by ring-fencing them in Jantar Mantar is no victory in the face of small, significant and pervasive acts of everyday resistance.

One says beda in so many ways in contested Indian cities. Thank God for human chains and protests. Beda is dead. Long live beda.

Rihan Najib is a staff writer at Mint.

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