Wednesday, September 24, 2014

To the barricades

(Published in Business Standard on December 29, 2012)

Once upon a time, I almost died. Well, I almost died twice, the second time being when my raft overturned in the freezing Zanskar river in Ladakh and I got caught underneath it—but the first time was at a Morisson concert in New York in the 1990s. Many more people than strictly necessary seemed to have shown up for the event, and just before the musician appeared on stage they turned off all the lights, and everyone got very excited and pressed forward in a great crush that almost powdered my sternum. Forcing my way out of that crowd is the closest I’ve ever come to hand-to-hand combat.

The episode has left me a little extra-wary of crowds, which is why you will never find me at the Kumbh mela, or at the Urs, or at a bookstore the day JK Rowling’s latest hits the shelves. So, when I watched thousands of protesters warring with the police last weekend on Raisina Hill, I was very glad to be doing so on television. And then, just as I decided to hang the fear and go, they shut down central Delhi—to protect, as the Home Minister explained, the tender feelings of President Putin, bear-wrestler, from the horrific sight of women on the roads, protesting. I’m paraphrasing, but only a bit.

So I went to two other protests, one at Jantar Mantar last Monday, and one starting in Nizamuddin on Thursday. Jantar Mantar was barricaded between two very large contingents of cops, a water cannon, and lots of buses parked there, presumably to transport unruly types to the clink. In between, knots of people were yelling against sexual violence—death penalty for rapists, abolition of the death penalty, solidarity for victims of sexual assault, sack the police commissioner, give us safer transport. There was also one tall, thin old guy with a placard that read ‘Why Bharat Ratna For Mohammed Rafi And Not Lata Mangeshkar’. I’m not sure whether he was cunningly exploiting the presence of five hundred television channels for his own noble ends, or just hadn’t got the memo.

At Nizamuddin there was a completely peaceful collection of perhaps five hundred people—students, women’s rights organisations, men, and a lot of dented-painted types including yours truly, though I haven’t been to a disco in far too long and don’t have children to show off (you know how they say that misogynists are born at home? OOPS #rashtrapatibhavan). They were trying to walk to India Gate, but between them and the target was the most hefty, fabulously organised contingent of police I’ve ever seen on the streets of Delhi. One newspaper reported 3,000 cops, which means six for every protester. It was very confusing, given that Delhi is said, by one estimate, to have a police density of one per 223 citizens. They had three tiers of barricades, had cordoned off surrounding roads, looked alternately nervous and bored, and spent their time videographing the event (probably not for their Facebook photo albums). It all make me look extra hard at a placard that read: You Can’t Stop Rape, But You Can Stop Protest.

Several people I know (all of them men) have dismissed the Delhi protests, on the grounds that they will die down having achieved nothing meaningful, and that any real change in India’s rape culture will happen through ground level work over generations. I totally agree. But I also believe—rightly or wrongly—that a little yelling in the streets can help the government to prioritise the work it does or facilitates on the ground; or at least to know where fifty per cent of the population’s priorities lie.

So get out there with a placard. Even if it says Save The Trees.

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