Saturday, March 18, 2023

Protest Too Much

There are so many who protest too much but not many who do it in a refreshing idiom. The current idiom is the ancient idiom. A shout from the housetops, an incendiary speech from behind the podium, an exhortation for severe action against alleged wrong-doers, a promise to wreak vengeance on accredited enemies of society, an obstruction of the ruling class's highways, an insuperable roadblock halting VVIP peregrinations--all these mores and methods of protest have been tried and tested for long. 

For participants in and leaders and witnesses of protest processions, those methods have become tepid and ineffective and, therefore, boring. To be effective and illustrious, protest forms must be violent and intimidating. Even inquilab  for peace and order are apt to turn warlike, showing what Desmond Morris calls contradictory signals, waging war for peace, provoking the police to swing their batons or opening fire. No procession of protest is worth its name if it does not leave behind a martyr or two and a dozen law-keepers and law-brekers wounded. And that prepares the field for another battle. That is a specious quality of processions of protest. They are, like god, self-generating and repetitive, happening in times of stress, age after age.   

When V S Naipaul wrote first about India, his ancestral homeland, he called it An Area of Darkness, arguably. It was followed by A Wounded Civilization, where India's cultural overhang was being put to test, and A Million Mutinies which were searing through its psyche. Every segment of society was grippped by an urge for protest.  Any leader worth his salt would not only rally a motley crowd behind him but introduce a new idiom to say his piece. How to make protest reasonably headline worthy was the concern of the leadership. 

But the age of processions and mammoth public meetings was long gone. In legislative bodies, walk out and boycott soon ceased to be fashionable. Antics of P C Thomas and Lonappan Nambadan come to mind. Thomas, ploughing a lonely political furrow, had brought theatre to the august Lok Sabha. Outside, when others were carrying on conventional warfare against the Mullapperiyar dam, he resorted to jalasamadhi, meditation on water, shallow, of course. Nambadan made his presence felt  in the Assembly by striking a matchstick and  burning a bill whose vernacular version was not available.  

Siege of Parliament became the order of the day. Kerala made its contribution to the protest movement in its own way. Jumping into the well of the House, whether in New Delhi or Thiruvananthapuram, became a reflexive act. Law-making bodies often turned into a forum for fisticuffs. There seemed to be an underpinning of violence and a glib assumption that physical militancy could be a viable answer to problems that defied solutions through discussion. What was   not amenable to persuasion was hoped to be achieved through physical resistance. That was the essence of animal behaviour. 

There is need for creative forms of protest. Blocking the way or burning up the constitution or the Manusmriti or the staging of shenanigans in support of some demand can be no more than foolhardy. Jesus was one man who showed a new form of protest, showing the other cheek when one cheek is hit. Hitting back was not his way of registering protest against injustice. More recently Gandhi showed the way to win freedom without firing a shot. He made a weapon out of peaceful resistance. Ironically, Jesus died on the cross, abandoned by almost all his followers   except three women. Gandhi was shot dead in retaliation for his unique peace mission. What may weigh with our apostles of protest is a Mahabharata dictum: Just because there isn't enough force to win, don't lapse into adharma.

1 comment:

Arun said...

Interesting way of putting it.

Protest by way of the filibuster captures the fancy of the media here occasionally. The senate - hidebound in tradition - could be prevented from taking a vote on a bill by the ‘simple’ act of a single senator refusing to yield the floor until the pre allotted time for debate expires. He (so far as I know - no she) can occupy the time of the senate by reading, without yielding, any text he pleases. I think there was a recent case where one obnoxious senator read through the collected works of Dr Seuss.

Senator Thurmond’s 24 hour long filibuster against the passage of the civil right’s law is probably the most famous of these.