Delhi Demo Update 2By: Jai Sen on: Sat 08 of Apr, 2006 17:28 IST (1217 Reads)
Jantar Mantar - The Place Where You are Allowed to Scream
New Delhi, Wednesday, April 5, 2006
Jantar Mantar : The place where you are allowed to scream
Following my note yesterday on the Delhi demos, here is a second introductory note that attempts to communicate some idea of what the area that the two demonstrations are taking place in, looks and feels like; plus some reflections on what is going on, by stepping back and looking at it from a distance.
We at CACIM also hope to be uploading some photographs of the area and the demonstrations tomorrow and the day after, on www.cacim.net
The area – or, more accurately, the footpaths of the area - of New Delhi where the demonstrations are taking place is called ‘Jantar Mantar’. Right in the middle of the city – just down the road from Connaught Place, one of Delhi’s main shopping areas, and just off Parliament Street, the site of an increasing number of corporate offices and luxury hotels - it is so named after a collection of old astronomical monuments of this name in this area of the city. In recent years, this area has come to be ‘designated’ by the government as the part of the city where it, in its majesty, permits civil, political, and popular demonstrations to take place.
This is the first hint of a tragedy that prevails in Delhi, where even where you can scream – in the centre city - is now decided by the state (and using the term ‘scream’ as I did in my note yesterday, ‘The scream’). Over the past some years, the Indian state has closed down all the earlier major meeting areas in the city and converted (‘beautified’) them into parks (at Rajghat, outside M K Gandhi’s memorial site; behind the Red Fort; and at the so-called ‘Boat Club’ in India Gate Gardens, right in the centre of the city), and in doing so has reduced the area where demonstrations can take place to just these two footpaths. Literally. And it has to be said that by and large, and till date, movements (all movements, civil and political, and not only the two we are discussing here), and civil and political society in the capital in general, have all been unable to break out of this cage…. And even seem to be uninterested in doing so. The state’s decisions to restrict the space available for political expression that have been progressively made, seem to have just been accepted and internalised, almost without debate.
I acknowledge that there are many logistical advantages to the Jantar Mantar area : It is close to many government buildings, to parliament, to the seats of power. It is just off Parliament Street, which during the week is a heavily-used street – so people moving along there do, yes, get a glimpse of the demonstrations, if they look down the road. And most demonstrations want this exposure, want to be seen, and want to be able to quickly reach MPs and the like.
But these are advantages that those who lobby the seats of power want and need. Is all this worth the restriction and indignity that is implicitly there, and that is forced on people like those who have come to the city from the Narmada Valley and from Bhopal, whose lives are at the centre of all that is happening ?
But therefore, on any given day there are now at least two or three demonstrations, smaller and larger, going on in Jantar Mantar. Yesterday and today, there were at least five. It is convenient, if you happen to want to demonstration-hop, or just take in all the protest, but it is also a strange and unhappy situation.
Especially in this context – where there have also been 2-3 other protests also going on in the area, each day – it is all too easy to see the Narmada and the Bhopal dharnas as being ‘just two more’ demonstrations. Without in any way meaning to deny the significance of the other demonstrations that have taken place there however, it would be a big mistake to miss the significance of these two particular protests, and especially as they happen together.
So in my understanding, even as the Bhopal and Narmada demonstrations take place, claiming their rights and claiming the truth, there is also something deeply tragic that is taking place in Jantar Mantar. I am talking here not about how the movements have been treated but the manner in which the movements, and civil and political society in Delhi, more generally - have responded to this; the language of the body. What I say here, I say with the greatest respect and the deepest admiration for all those demonstrating in the Jantar Mantar area today. But I still believe that we – and especially all those in movement - all need to take a step back and to look at ourselves and to reflect; and to see if there are not other ways in which to do things, other places in the city where we can demonstrate and celebrate.
So, Jantar Mantar today : Take a step back, and look. What do you see ?
One movement, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (‘Save the Narmada Movement’), is spread out on the footpath on the south side of the street; the other, the Bhopal movement, is on the footpath on the north, just outside and up against the railing of the Jantar Mantar monument.
Each has its banners, and posters, and photo-displays, hanging on the railings of the properties behind them (the monument, and a church building in the other case), and on the railings separating the footpaths and the road.
Each movement is now living on its footpath. In the daytime, there are – especially for someone who has lived in Kolkata, as I have – familiar bundles of bedding and personal belongings huddled against the walls, along with the essentials of daily life on a footpath.
In the case of the NBA, the movement has spread a large tarpaulin right across the available footpath space, all the way from the boundary wall to the railing. The Bhopal demo has somewhat smaller ones, but also going from the wall to near the edge of the footpath. Pedestrians walking along the two footpaths have to get off the footpath and weave their way through the traffic. This, the state has forced on them, not the demonstrators, by forcing the demonstrators to use these restricted spaces.
There are huddles of people, some meeting and talking, some singing and dancing, some just talking. Some just watching. There are also huddles of police – men and women -, always there, sitting around, chatting, and watching; sometimes, like today, as the temperature is heating up, accompanied by police cars and vans.
In the Narmada case, which has already started a hunger strike, there are three bodies (now five – two more people have joined the original three), stretched out at right angles across the footpath, head up against the wall. With people around them, sitting fanning them, caring for them. As things stand, and unless there are developments on that side, from March 11 this will also become the scene on the Bhopal footpath too.
In the evenings, there are candlelight vigils on the footpaths, and more singing. From tomorrow, April 6, the Bhopal group is organising a series of programmes on the footpath : Films, street plays, poetry readings, music nights including a quawwali night, and debates.
In the first days of the demonstrations, and at certain times of the day, there were meetings of supporters’ groups; on Sunday April 2, the NBA called a public hearing at the site, when the whole footpath for 200 ft was occupied, and overflowed onto the street; and since then, and intensifying each day, the Narmada site has been filled with people. There is now a big – one paper has even used the term ‘massive’ - show of solidarity by people in Delhi for the movement. See http://www.narmada.org/nba-press-releases/april-2006/April02.html.
Last Sunday, just past the NBA demonstration site, was another demonstration, of a 100-hour relay hunger strike against the Burmese junta, and beyond that another, protesting the indefinite under trial imprisonment of political activists in Nepal. Yesterday, Tuesday, there was a major demonstration of people from the state of Manipur protesting human rights violations in the state (http://www.hindu.com/2006/04/05/stories/2006040502541500.htm), and today a smaller but very vigorous one, protesting the sealing that the municipal government is currently doing, of unauthorised commercial properties in residential areas.
If one could get a bird’s eye view of the scene, or even from the road, then one would see a tiny part of this vast city where – supposedly – all its social and political protest is taking place; where, caged into one and a half streets, people are milling around, trying – and competing with each other – to make themselves heard; in the course of this, competing – being forced to compete - with not only cars on the busy centre city roads but also with pedestrians; and along the edges of the road we would be able to make out huddles of people who have been thrown up against the walls of the road, like so much debris left behind after a flood roared through. If we did not know better, they would seem like the debris of history.
Coming back to a ground level view, the fact that sometimes two and even three demonstrations are going on at the same time, using loudspeakers in each case, only makes the atmosphere that much more cacophonic, and alienating, other than to the loyal supporters of each… which surely is the last thing the movements need.
This may not be a complete picture, but overall, what does it convey ? And how, if this is at all true, can we change this ?
For those of us who are immersed in what is happening, and see it this way, the picture is one of heroic defiance, and of resistance; but for many – for many passers-by, and for the city and large – I suspect it looks very different. It looks too much like people who have been caged, stripped of their dignity, and – worst - who have all too much accepted and internalised their condition, and who demonstrate and remonstrate and march only along the paths that have been defined for them…. Even protest has become commodified.
This has changed somewhat, and become more focussed and charged, in the course of the hunger strike on the Narmada footpath as the support has grown, and will also become so in the course of the programme of activities planned out over the next some days by the Bhopal movement (as above, and see also a separate message); but the essence remains. They, and we, have been dumped and caged by the state, and we have so far accepted this.
Even as people struggle, and even as those of us supportive of the movements struggle in solidarity with the people demonstrating out there, I believe that these are larger questions that the movements need to ask themselves and that we who act in solidarity also need to ask ourselves.
Jai Sen, CACIM, April 5 2006