9 min read.Updated: 27 Dec 2019, 11:14 PM ISTNisha Susan
A universal iconography built on youth, irreverence, and a certain fluidity of leadership defines the protest culture of 2019 from Hong Kong, Lebanon and Sudan all the way to India
Both the ‘suddenly’ and ‘gradually’ aspects of the 2019 protests reward inspection
On the evening of 19 December, a Twitter account run by the students of the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) in Bengaluru tweeted, “Protests dispersed for the day. To continue tomorrow." The tweet embodied a certain long view of the nature of the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), anti-National Register of Citizens (NRC) protests. Though protests had begun in Assam in early December, the national wave of protests began after the police violence on the campuses of Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University on 15 December.
In a matter of four days, the habit of asking each other “where is today’s protest?" had arrived among urban populations who had never or rarely been to a street protest before. Perhaps it’s the new normal for 2019. Looking at street protests across the world this year has almost always prompted the befuddled “did you see it coming?" remark. As a phrase from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises captures perfectly, it happened in two ways —“gradually, then suddenly".
The world hasn’t seen a wave of anti-state street protests like this since the late 1980s in Eastern Europe or Korea, surpassing in scale and reaching even the geopolitical shock of the Arab Spring protests of the early 2010s. In a way, these are the heirs of the Arab Spring protests. Towards the end of Jasmine Days, Malayalam writer Benyamin’s novel set in a nameless Arab revolution, the narrator says: “The City was not completely back to normal. A petrol bomb aimed at a passing police car. A burning tyre on the road or a smashed light signal. They were mostly the pranks of 10- and 12-year-olds. The government had silenced one generation of youth by suppressing these protests, but the generation that would take their place was already brimming with anger." From Hong Kong to Lebanon, from Chile to Catalonia, from Iraq to Russia, the streets have been quaking all year with anti-state protesters.
The visible aspects of the 2019 global protests and their seeming suddenness have fascinating similarities and reward inspection as much as the gradual build-up. The most obvious similarity is how young these protesters are. Many Hong Kong activists are famously teenagers and children as young as 11 and 12. The protests that led the Chilean president to declare a state of emergency in October were kicked off by middle-school students who campaigned for commuters to jump subway turnstiles and reject a hike in transit fare. Greta Thunberg, the girl who made climate change household conversation around the world, is 16. Rejecting decades of conventional sectarian leadership, young Lebanese exploded “suddenly" with rage about a proposed charge on WhatsApp phone calls and continued with anti-corruption protests, sprawling on sofas and carpets on national highways, dancing on the street to rap songs that demanded a regime change.
The internet is intrinsic to these protests and governments everywhere, including India (recently dubbed the shutdown capital of the world), have responded by cutting off their people from this essential service. Perhaps governments assumed that people no longer remember how to organize in real life, or IRL as a decade of living on the internet would term it. Coming together offline then, coming together in coordinated, clever and effective actions, finding friendship, romance and camaraderie where there was once isolation and a sense of impotence—protests are often a place to rediscover or simply discover the beauty of IRL.
The cultural references in 2019’s global protests are necessarily youthful. In Hong Kong, the protesters frequently quote a line from The Hunger Games: “If we burn, you burn with us." Avengers is part of the canon, with the evil Thanos often standing in for the Hong Kong government. In India, Faiz Ahmad Faiz has returned widely but we also acquire the contemporary references of young poet Aamir Aziz or those of reality TV show Bigg Boss. When a commuter told a group of Lebanese protesters who surrounded her car that her baby was scared, they sang Baby Shark to him. The Harry Potter universe is omnipresent in young people’s protests. It is startling but completely effective when, on Twitter, activist Kavita Krishnan accuses a TV news anchor of being the Minister for Magic and adds later that “a Muggleborn register is already underway". When Chilean protesters disabled police equipment with brightly coloured lasers, it felt like a J.K. Rowling legacy while Rowling herself was being cancelled for her embarrassing political positions.
But that’s okay. No one needs Rowling’s blessings. A major marker of 2019’s protests has been the lack of visible leaders. Hong Kong protesters have taken the Bruce Lee quote, “Be formless, shapeless, like water", to heart. To not have a head is to not have a head to be lopped off. To be spontaneous and not know where the next rally is means that the police doesn’t know where the next rally is. To be spontaneous is to jump in and turn your shaadi (wedding) photographs or graduation ceremony into an anti-CAA protest.
This horizontal transmission of information is hugely enabled by technology, of course. But it is also a completely different approach to organizing. Benson Issac, an activist, pointed out several interesting details in a recent anti-CAA protest in Bengaluru. Section 144 was imposed in Bengaluru on 19 December; there was confusion about the dangers of assembling for a protest that had been announced. Eventually, news of the extreme police action in Delhi galvanized hundreds, and then thousands, to assemble in waves, ending with the police seemingly giving up on rounding up people.
Issac says that unlike the classical model of protests, there was extreme heterogeneity in what people wore, and, of course, a great range of difference in the information held by protesters.
At this protest in Bengaluru, Issac says he witnessed mid-flight course corrections of small kinds that Hong Kong protesters would have approved of for their shapeless, formless ways. “For instance, near Town Hall there was some singing of Vande Mataram and people went along. Then I saw some people with a more sharply articulated understanding of nationalism explain to others very quickly the difficult connotations of Vande Mataram. They suggested that we don’t sing it any more and then it wasn’t sung."
He narrates another incident, which points out why these protests do require a Bruce Lee approach. “Towards the end of the day, there was a moment when it seemed like it was a good time to pack up and go home. Section 144 had been defied and the point had been made. To linger would perhaps end in the police once more gaining steam. I saw an older Dalit activist try to persuade a group of young men to leave. First there was suspicion. Who was he? Also, the young men saw it as leaving the field just when we are winning. After they argued a little, the activist approached a group of older visibly Muslim men and spoke to them to persuade the young men. He had understood that these young protesters would see the Muslim men as having moral authority that day. It worked."
Authority is fluid in these protests and is often less vested in particular people and more in visual culture. Just watching the anti-CAA protests allows you to see the swift “memefication" of protest practice. A witty poster that was first seen in a Mumbai protest—Hindu Muslim hai raazi, to kya karega Nazi—reappeared in Bengaluru two days later after a sojourn as a moderately popular image on Twitter. Some posters actually had small text credit lines, borrowing from the protocols of the internet. The “it’s so bad that (insert X) are here" posters have mushroomed everywhere at Indian protests.
Back in October, a young Lebanese protester had a poster that read “It’s so bad you made me forget how bad season 8 was," referring to Game Of Thrones.
But visual cues play a bigger role than evoking amused recognition. In April, 22-year-old Sudanese architecture student Alaa Salah stood on a car and chanted and sang. Her strong, graceful arm, covered head and moon earrings instantly became the abiding image of the Sudanese protests. It was this image of “the Nubian queen" that cued the eye to understand that the three women students of Jamia—Ladeeda Sakhaloon, Aysha Renna, Chanda Yadav, standing on a car on the cold night of 12 December with strong arms raised—were revolutionaries standing up against tyranny. But long before the Indian gaze was learning this, back in Sudan, Salah herself had gained authority through the visual. Her white outfit, the toub, had already become a symbol of the female protesters before Lana Haroun’s photo of Salah went viral. As Salah said in an interview, “the toub has a kind of power", and it reminded her compatriots of the Kandakas, ancient queens of Sudan. It also recalled for young Sudanese the politically active women of the 1940s and 1950s who had worn the toub while marching against previous military dictatorships. Sometimes a toub is not just a toub.
These protests are often moving and emotional not just for voyeurs far away, they are also moments of great beauty for their young participants, despite them paying terribly high personal costs with death, disability and imprisonment. Having urged you to partake of the glorious surfaces of these political protests, you are urged—as is the traditional duty of essayists—to look beyond the surface. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, speaking at an Occupy Wall Street protest in October 2011, discussed the narcissism of protests: “There is a danger. Don’t fall in love with yourselves. We have a nice time here. But remember, carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then? I don’t want you to remember these days, you know, like ‘Oh. We were young and it was beautiful.’"
Some of the dissonance is seen in the aftermath of revolutions. In understanding who gets a seat at the table and who experiences more personal suffering. Tejaswini Niranjana, an Indian scholar currently working in Hong Kong, is wryly aware of being a killjoy when she points out to gleeful outsiders who “love" the Hong Kong protests that the political situation is packed with the dissonance stemming from a protest culture heavy on tactics and light on debate. It leads to, as she points out, instances such as the protesters (who often signal their rejection of China by lavishly praising the US) vandalizing several Starbucks outlets because the local franchise is operated by a huge company whose Chinese owner criticized the activists as “radical". Or when she says that the heavy involvement of prepubescent schoolchildren in these protests might also be a way of getting away from the extreme repression of Hong Kong schools. “Young people in Hong Kong talk all the time about how much they hated school. If you are 12 years old, then wouldn’t you also want to run around the city and learn to make a bomb instead?" she asks. And suddenly The Hunger Games’ lexicon takes on a new, dark yet meaningful, dimension.
We see other dissonances. Anti-CAA protests are young, beautiful and moving when they happen at Jantar Mantar but earn grievous injuries in police action and judicial custody when they happen a few kilometres away in the high Muslim population area of Daryaganj.
As film-maker Paromita Vohra wrote about the anti-CAA protests: “We don’t know what the outcome of the protests will be. They have shown people they are not alone in their thinking and given many their first offline political engagement… Creativity, intelligence and love unleashed are powerful things too, differently than money or guns, because, in the end the human being is the document."
While our interest in rebellion may come suddenly, we can learn more about rebelling gradually and in good faith. And then it can perhaps really be our new normal.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.