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A file photo of agitators in Delhi (Photo: Mint)
A file photo of agitators in Delhi (Photo: Mint)

Opinion | How the Indian street agitator suddenly got serious

As the lure of the West has receded, middle class youth have become deeply interested in politics

Not long ago, Indian agitators were scrawny men who erupted in something that resembled joy, and went in a festive procession, laughing and waving at the news cameras. They were very different from the more serious and athletic Palestinians or Kashmiris who pelted stones at SUVs, using correct throwing techniques.

Often, agitating Indians made effigies, which all looked the same, perhaps the reason why they always had name tags. At times, the police, with no particular provocation, would charge as though they had decided to go home early. And the fleeing protesters, in trying to get some distance between their backs and the baton, finally looked serious.

Indian agitators today have gotten better at agitating. How did they get so serious?

Nothing in the history of street protests in India would have predicted the gravity and style of modern urban Indian protests.

Even though the first heroes of free India were actually agitators, our street protests after the departure of the British were, curiously, farces. There were exceptions, but my point is in the generalization.

In Chennai, where I was raised, Tamil politicians frequently went on “fasts unto death", with long torchlights stuffed with bananas that they secretly consumed. Once, some people went on a fast unto death, and a rival group assembled across the road and swore to eat biryani until they died.

Inspired by Gandhi, hundreds of Indians in free India have gone on death fasts, including an umpire who wanted to be given more matches to officiate. Most of them neither died nor got what they fought for. It is as if what Indians picked up from Gandhi was not the option of death in such a fast, but of ending it with the ceremonial orange juice.

The late Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa, too, had gone on a death fast. It is hard for me to forget the scene. She loomed large under a tent as malnourished women around her wailed and begged her to eat.

There have been very serious and substantial peaceful protests in modern India, like the Chipko movement during which villagers, mostly women, tried to save their forest from corporations by hugging trees and not letting go. But these movements are islands of seriousness in an ocean of farce.

Through this all, the elite did not take part in street protests. In Kerala and West Bengal, the urban middle classes were not unfamiliar with agitation. And, of course, there were the posh gaanja Naxals who were about to change the world, but when the police caught them, they called their papas to rescue them from reality. Even so, it is reasonable to say that until very recently, India’s elite did not agitate. Even the early feminist agitations were mostly political festivities of the provincial. For instance, a protest march in the 1990s of a group of women who, enraged by online nudity, stood outside the American consulate asking America to punish an American company called “The Internet".

Many cultural protests, too, though visually intimidating, were farces. Like one by Bharatiya Kamgar Sena members who demonstrated outside a restaurant called Bombay Blue and demanded that it be called Mumbai Blue.

The agitations of more lethal cultural organizations were never really agitations; they were criminal assaults. Every year, several groups across India attack lovers on Valentine’s Day. They dole out instant punishment, even marry off some of the couples. Once in Mumbai, Shiv Sainiks invaded a Valentine’s Day party and beat up the youth. This led to one of the most courageous protests in India. The host of that ill-fated party, a young man, threw another Valentine’s Day party in defiance. Many attended. It went off peacefully.

Around the time, in 2007, an artist was attacked by guardians of Hindu values for a painting that contained some nudity, and it was the artist whom the police first arrested. A dozen art lovers went to the Jehangir Art Gallery and held up elegant English placards that said in aesthetic fonts things like, “Live in Fear". I wondered whom they were talking to. Were they talking among themselves, standing outside a gallery? They looked like installation art.

The Indian urban middle class did eventually become serious agitators, and that happened all of a sudden. In November 2008, when 10 terrorists from Pakistan attacked Mumbai, a segment of the urban middle class, who always had contempt for politicians, erupted. They found an ally in news television. And, for a short period, they believed that the nexus between the middle class and the media could defeat the tyranny of the majority. This was the genesis of the anti-corruption movement. At the time, Delhi’s Westernized liberal media did not realize that the anti-corruption movement was in reality a new middle-class revolt against the Congress party.

That movement trained a new generation to agitate and to believe in agitation as a moral force. They hit the streets again when news broke that a young woman was raped by several men in a moving bus in Delhi. The agitators successfully cast rape as political failure.

Now, the Indian urban agitator is more complex, and agitations are a braid of many classes—the candle people, the techies, the merchants and the vast poor. For the first time in free India, its middle class youth are deeply interested in politics as illusions of an easy rich life in the West have receded. And they don’t wave at the cameras anymore.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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