Breaking the Collective – Notes from Jantar Mantar & Koodankulam: Vivek Vellanki
Guest Post by Vivek Vellanki
The death of the young girl brought incommensurable grief for the ‘Indian’ people. A national angst ensued with divergent voices seeking divergent ends: justice, death penalty, fast track courts, end to patriarchy, chemical castration, and a long list that cannot be spelt out here. There was a glimmer of hope that the discursiveness would ensue a quintessentially democratic process of debate, discussion, and deliberation amongst the people. The Indian state with its long-standing reputation wouldn’t allow for that to happen. It had to continue on its pet peeve of Breaking the Collective! The people’s movement in Koodankulam, the anti-corruption movement, the movement for seperate Telangana are some of the many instances that remind us of this pet avocation of the Indian state being pursued in recent times, almost, vocationally. However cynical it may sound, amidst the entire candle lighting and sloganeering, we failed to realise that the protest in Delhi was happening on the terrain that the government decided, in a manner that it wished for it to play out, and was party to the people it wanted to see there. I wish to argue that the closing down of the metro stations has a relation to the nature of the protests at Jantar Mantar. Furthermore it concurs with the tactics of chocking people’s movements logistically and stifling the collective by pathologizing the everyday life of masses. The tragedy of this lies in the fact that such actions of the state have become so recurrent that they have entered our common sense and they present themselves as normal and logical responses. Albeit they have been rationalized by invoking a specious reference to law, order, and safety, there is a need to unpack such a rationalization. My attempt is to extract these actions from that location of common sense and present them for public scrutiny. Through this essay, I would like to draw the connections between the democratic protests happening in locations across the country and state action in dealing with them. In doing so, I hope to bring to notice how the Indian state uses its machinery to purge protests of their democratic tenor and eventually, at least, attempts to break the collective.Each one of us would unequivocally agree that the rape of the young girl was, amongst other reasons, an incident that depicted the break down of the police and rights of the citizen in the country. It was an incident where the patriarchal nature of the Indian state and society seeped in its disparaging attitude towards women manifested itself in the most grotesque of physical acts. However, there is no need to mention that this was not the first of such incidents. The case of Soni Sori, Khairlanji murders, and others are only stark reminders that our history has been marred with such instances and equally blotted with the visible inks of our silence. I wish to highlight that this incident is one where the state and society has openly accepted its fault and shortcoming; the Indian state and society are – guilty as charged. The question that begs to be asked is, why then did the Delhi government decide to shut down the ten metro stations on the day of the protest? While the question might read as a simple one that doesn’t need much attention, I beg to differ.
The morning news on the 29th of December carried two prominent headlines, at least in the capital city of Delhi. First being that the victim had succumbed to the injuries and second that ten metro stations were being closed. Often, the reporters read these in the same breath. I was travelling, on that day, with two other friends, both students, to the site of the protest. Even before embarking on the journey, the thought of a dysfunctional metro started deterring us. However, the actual journey was more arduous. It involved negotiations with auto drivers, walks through intimidating lanes filled with policemen armed to be in a war zone, and spending a sizeable amount from our pockets. While it might not be much considering the urgency of the issue and the angst that it has generated, spending Rs.80 over a journey that should’ve cost Rs.32, it can be a deterrent for many. It is the amount and effort that can deter students, the lower middle class, and the working class. Nonetheless, I am sure that there were many there who were undeterred and expressed their solidarity, a fact that reinstates ones faith in the possibilities of the collective. However, what we might need to ask is why did the government deem it important to close down the metro stations?
The repeated unquestioned closure of the metro stations has led to a common sensical acceptance of such a decision as one that would ensure ‘safety’ and abate chaos. Satish Deshpande’s phrase ‘squinting at society’ haunts the back of my head and is a reminder that the apparent might have more to it. We can see it only if we are ready to look beyond the apparent and often we must. The closing of the metro stations needs to be viewed as an attempt by the Indian state to ensure that a large number of people are not mobilised to the site of the protest. The two specific messages entwined within this are: the state doesn’t want people to collectivise over an issue that affects their lives and it also merely wants a particular group of individuals to be present. This clearly explicates the interest of the state to ensure a protest that is carried out by a compliant people who determine the nature, form, and limits of that protest. And in doing so, they ensure that the protests are rendered as a symbolic appeal for justice negating the possibility of it snowballing into a collective movement that might possibly raise questions that transcend the immediate incident. The appeal for justice cannot be rooted in an isolated event, and by its very nature encompasses a broader memory. The tactical end here is the isolation of the incident from the collective social memory, which is achieved by isolating the subjects that embody it.
[ The heavily armoured police ‘guarded’ the protest site at Delhi on 29th December 2012 ]
The closing down of the metro stations had a significant impact on the nature of the protests. It brought with it a collective that was ‘cleansed’ of divergent voices and identities. I am quite certain that the protest was definitely limited from what could have been a democratic collective of people involved in a democratic process. The collectivisation of the people at Jantar Mantar laid the possibility of a democratic protest that could move beyond mere sloganeering and towards affecting public consciousness. Such a shift is not a simple moment of revelation achieved through an individual’s participation by lighting a candle or making a poster. While these acts have their own significance, shift in public consciousness is a process that ensues through debate, discussion, and deliberation. We wanted to be a part of the protest in hope of the same. We wished that there would be people sitting there and discussing the various issues that have surfaced through the searing angst faced by the young girl and her family. The deep-rooted patriarchal values of our society, the commodification of women, the pejorative portrayal and objectification of women in popular media, palpable masculinity as being normative, constitutional homophobia, and several others. This wasn’t to be the case. There was little discussion, let alone debate at the site. The few divergent voices were left standing on the sides and became mere spectators to the over powering voices of a homogenous group shouting, “we want justice, we want justice”, while another group walked in silence. The first managed to drown in its noise all other voices while the latter chose to drown its own voice in silent sorrow. The homogeneity of the people at the site of the protest was striking. One of the friends who I accompanied to the protest, Vikram Chukka, articulated well the problem with homogeneity, “It must be noted that there is a correlation between the class/caste/socio-political standing of publics assembling at Jantar Mantar and the ‘partial’ articulation of justice. The nature of urban middle class in India is one of hypocrisy and non-association. As Arundhati Roy frequently reminds us, the greatest secessionist movement in modern India is the secession of the middle classes into an outer space leaving the majority poor and marginalized behind. There is a ‘self-other’ binary that operates. The texture of middle class activism we see at India gate vindicates the point about whom these middle class publics consider the ‘self’ and hence the ‘legitimate’ subjects of state and thereby entitled to justice. For this reason, gender violence in Kashmir, Chhattisgarh and so forth do not find mention here.” The point here is that the homogeneity is not mere chance but is constructed through several actions of the state and civil society. One of the core tenets of the construction, I feel, was the closing down of the ten metro stations.
[ The police deployment left one wondering if it was a site for democratic protest or a war zone.]
The imagination of a collective embarking on a democratic process is not simply a utopian idea. The anti-nuclear protest in Idinthakarai is an example, when posited against the protests in Delhi, presents us with an alternative imagination of a collective. Such a collective is capable of transcending the particulars by asking questions that speak in a broader language of justice. The distinction between them is two fold. First, the constitution of the collective is starkly different and one which embodies the voices and identities of the brutally marginalised. This gives them the ability to call into question the basic contradictions and devolution of power, which perpetuates unquestioned exploitation, dehumanisation, and rape. Secondly, it also highlights the intolerance of the state towards such a collective and its democratic process. The unleashing of the state machinery – oppressive and symbolic – to break such a collective provides compelling insights in understanding the issue at hand.
Fortuitously I happened to, in the same week, visit Idinthakarai. I intended to reach the village of Idinthakarai on the 31st of December. The village of Idinthakarai is a small coastal village located 30kms away from Kanyakumari and 2 kms away from the KKNPP. The people from this village and neighbouring villages have been part of a historic struggle, lasting over 25 years, against the KKNPP. Their struggles found new vigour in August 2011 against the backdrop of the Fukushima disaster and a hot run that was conducted at KKNPP. Since then the village of Idinthakarai and the Samara pandal have formed the epicentre of the peaceful struggle led by the people. Over the last 15 months, the people have been involved in peaceful protests, hunger strikes, rallies, and publics meetings. Their pursuit being “risk-free electricity, a disease-free life, unpolluted natural resources, sustainable development and a peaceful future.” However, their protests have been denigrated by the Indian state as ‘foreign’ aided or as the raucous voice of the ‘ignorant’ and ‘illiterate’ lot The Indian state in its self-righteous belligerence unleashed the brutality of the police upon the people. The overt oppression has meant that over 18000 cases are pending on the people of Idinthakarai and neighbouring villages. Surprisingly, or not, even young children haven’t been spared from the entourage of sedition cases being dispersed like toffees.
I reached the village of Idinthakarai on 31st of Decemeber. Several people from across the country made their way to the village in solidarity of the protests. Activists from the Narmada Bachao Andolan, People’s United for Civil Liberties, Kerala Youth Solidarity, and other groups participated in a rally, public meeting, book release, and cultural programme. On New Years Eve, over 3000 people walked to the beach in Idinthakarai and pledged to fight against the atrocities being perpetuated across the country, and to do it as a collective that cut across caste, class, and gender lines. The break down of the self-other binary and a collective that included distinct disadvantaged groups facilitated a broader articulation for justice that was not merely rooted in ‘a’ incident.
However, the reality of everyday existence in this village turned, by the state, into an exiled land was to strike soon. On 3rd of January I wanted to make a trip to Koodankulam. I stood in the village of Idinthakarai for over an hour, waiting with other people from the village. Women, students, men, fisher folk waiting to go out and sell their catch, pregnant women wanting to make a trip to the hospital. All of us waited, some more and others less. The only means of leaving the village was an auto rickshaw that refused to take more than three people at a time fearing the RTO officials (Road Transport Organisation) and the police that was picketed right outside the village.
[ People waiting to travel to Koodankulam. ]
I intend to draw your attention back to the core issue at hand – Breaking the Collective! The parallel between the closing down of the ten metro stations and the people’s movement in Idinthakarai lies on the same plane. The state machinery – in these cases public transport – has been used to disrupt the collectivisation of the public while such an action is validated common sensically as being necessary and apt. The village has been cut off from other villages by the shut down of the public transport and bus service for the last four months. The bus service being shut down has meant that people from the neighbouring villages cannot visit Idinthakarai and Samara pandal as frequently as they used to. It means that an attack is launched to disintegrate the collective. The attempted disintegration of the collective is not merely manifest in the lathi charge of the police, nor is it only in the self imposed exile with the perpetual threat of an arrest, nor is it merely lodged in the tear gas shells, nor is it only in the several cases filed against the people. These are the overt means used by the state to break the collective and a democratic protest. While there is a need to question them, a more subtle and unquestioned attack continues on the democratic protest. The state is able to achieve this end by, not merely using oppressive means, but also by the wrecking of the normal everyday life; whether it is in New Delhi or Idinthakarai!
The attack on the collective has to be framed as a larger political question, one that fundamentally affects the struggle towards justice, equality, and freedom. As Vikram Chukka put it, “A democratic political system must in its essence facilitate the process of emancipation through public collectivization. It must make sure that people get a safe and free environment to discuss, protest, and in the process positively affect the public consciousness for the better. It is this way that empowerment is possible. This has been a basic tenet of modern democratic value. On the contrary, by trying to choke people’s movements and protests (even when the government concedes and concurs with the plausibility of cause and the urgency with which it presents itself, as in the case of Delhi rape incident) the state is only acting in the opposite direction. Far from facilitating such democratic movements for greater justice and freedom in the society, with its display of brute force in terms of police and through other symbolic means, the State is only causing terror. This impedes the democratic process.”
A departure is mandated in the perception of the collective as not merely a group involved in a protest but rather in a reflective process affecting the public consciousness. The people’s movement in Idinthakarai is a reminder of this. The collective at Idinthakarai are not merely involved in a protest against the nuclear plant in a fit of rage urged on by sloganeering. The collectivisation has provided the opportunity to understand the problems that face their material existence while simultaneously providing the means to address such an issue. For this reason, the treatment of democratic protests as pathological and anti-nation is a reason for us to be alarmed. We live in a democratic country where the collective public life is continuously being broken down by the democratic state itself. We are being pushed into the realms of highly individualised and an atomised existence. Our (middle class) self-righteous, homogenous cry for justice and freedom cannot be ‘ours’ alone. It has to be ushered in with other such voices that have been active and yet many others that want to be heard. It has to be through a democratic process of debate, discussion, and deliberation. The reclamation of the collective is imperative in our struggle for justice, equality, and freedom. I remember a quote I read in a friend’s house, “To think that I am alone would be gross injustice!”
[ Binayak Sen at Idinthakarai, early hours of 1st January 2013 ]
Three insipirational women, along with the several others in Idinthakarai, Selvi, Sundari, and Xavier Ammal received the prestigious Chingari award for their involvement in the people’s movement against nuclear energy. The Indian state presented them, for the same reason, with charges of sedition. Fortunately, a temporary relief ensued when they were granted bail on 14th Decemeber, 2012. However, they are required to present themselves in the Madurai police station everyday, 300kms away from their families in Idinthakarai. With the bus facility to Idinthakarai shut down, they cannot, yet, dream of returning to the village. Their everyday existence is made arduous. The women in Idinthakarai are the ‘deviants’ of a patriarchal society articulating and asserting their rights to life and livelihood. At the same time the angst and protests in Delhi provide a historical juncture with the possibility of a democratic collectivisation that can raise uneasy questions challenging social institutions and structures that perpetuate such incidents. However, justice and the struggle towards it are not rooted in the incident alone but in the collective memory that must be invoked through the collective by including the voices and identities from across the country. However, the attempt to break the collective – struggling for justice, equality, and freedom – continues. Can we see it and resist it?
Vivek Vellanki is a student of education and currently works at the Regional Resource Centre for Elementary Education, Delhi University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org