The Woes of Proud ‘Andolanjeevis’

Contempt for the peaceful protestor in a country built on the foundation of satyagraha is nothing short of appalling. It is with great trepidation that I wonder why the word ‘protestor’ has become synonymous with ‘anti-national’ or ‘anti-social’, covering a wide gambit of abuse.

What then is a protestor to do – should they simply accept the terms of their oppressor?

If the answer that springs to mind is yes, then surely there are many privileges to acknowledge as the basis of it. In a country where a trader offers a farmer mere rupees for a kilogram of his produce, protesting is not a whim; it is a necessity. Countless hours of hard work in a field, loans and mouths to feed have gone unrecognised for decades.

Recently, many arguments have made their way to the editorial section of prominent newspapers, defending the right to peaceful assembly. India’s history and its most crucial moments have been built on the ability of its citizens to express dissent. Why then should the idea of agitation be on trial?

Demonising and holding protestors in contempt is an age-old political strategy but to have the legitimacy of a protest questioned by citizens themselves is a new development, one we must fear. In a world ruled by Twitter trolls and Facebook fakes, social media has become the biggest platform that brings the credibility of a protest to question. Conspiracy theories of ‘Khalistani’ separatists, ‘tukde-tukde gang’ and foreign funding have crushed the voices of those on the ground.

Farmer unions and leaders have lashed out at Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his comment calling them “andolanjeevis” in his speech at Rajya Sabha on February 8. Perhaps once the outrage melts, they’ll realise the words – which might have been intended as an insult – are anything but. Surely, the British would have expressed a similar sentiment for Mahatma Gandhi and countless other nationalist leaders at some point.

A fellow student journalist recently told me that she is ‘apolitical’ now because recent events have turned her against holding political positions. I acknowledge the crux of her argument that what is right for you may not be right for me, but how far can it justify the utter breakdown of the fundamentals that form our collective sensibilities? Perhaps, if the protesting farmers, anti-Citizenship Amendment protestors, the people of Kashmir, arrested ‘anti-nationals’ and other marginalised sections got an equal platform to express their side, it would be a fair assumption.

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However, the reality for this group has been suspended internet connections and dealing with an IT cell that peddle narratives a dime a dozen. Their sole reliance is on the support of the masses and journalists that are not afraid to speak truth to power.

Journalism is truly the first draft of history, but the characters in the tales journalists weave are real people, fighting for their rights and those of their communities. Bilkis dadi from Shaheen Bagh has found herself memorialised by Rana Ayyub as a global symbol of resistance and empowerment at a time when protests in India have become easy targets for propaganda.

Hopelessness and the want to give up plagues many among my generation, as they wonder what the point is and what they can possibly do. Most often, the answer is simple: amplify voices that speak the truth and stand for justice. Protecting the fundamental rights meant to protect us is the need of the hour. Be a proud activist and a rational critic. Celebrate the achievements of a government, but never be afraid to criticise it when criticism is warranted.

The life of an outspoken ‘andolanjeevi’ promises to be hard, but the rewards outweigh the discomforts – the reward of finding solidarity in an increasingly divided and isolated world. India has emerged from the ashes of a bloody communal divide, built on the twin principles of secularism and freedom of expression.

Lest we forget, India is a nation made up of common ‘andolanjeevis‘.

Manya Saini is a final year post-graduate journalism student at Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication. 

Featured image: PM Narendra Modi in Lok Sabha on February 8, 2021. Photo: PTI