Sunday, 24 September, 2017

Jantar Mantar: India's protest street

Story: Alexandre MARCHAND | 01st December 2016, 12:00 Hrs

New Delhi, India | AFP

At one end of a backstreet in downtown Delhi a group of women hold a vigil to demand rapists be executed, while at the other acolytes of a spiritual leader arrested for sexual assault demand his release.

Anyone seeking a glimpse of the bewildering range of issues animating voters in the world's largest democracy should stroll past parliament and head a few hundreds yards north to Jantar Mantar.

Here on any given day, everyone from retired generals to landless widows can be seen holding forth in a tree-lined avenue tucked behind some of the city's swankiest hotels and most famous landmarks.

Some protests attract crowds in their thousands while other causes are championed by lone campaigners who hand out leaflets to curious passersby.

A stone's throw from India's corridors of power and fenced off with barricades, Jantar Mantar carries echoes of Speaker's Corner in London or the Occupy movement's takeover of McPherson Square in Washington.

But as the smell of freshly-cooked dosas and other street food wafts down the road, mingling with the smoke of hand-rolled bidi cigarettes -- it has a uniquely Indian aroma.

The mishmash of malcontents includes some who turn up day after day for years and others who camp out overnight to air their grievances.

A veteran demanding reforms to army pensions poisoned himself to death in early November and in 2015, a farmer hanged himself from a tree in front of horrified onlookers.

Santosh Singh has been protesting here for four years to persuade authorities to return land that he says was effectively stolen by his own family by declaring him dead.

Singh says his family destroyed all his records and then told the authorities he had died because they wanted his land for themselves.

"The media is witness to the fact that I'm alive," Singh told AFP when asked what motivated him day after day.

- Show of strength -

Anjit Kumar, an official in the Aam Aadmi anti-corruption party who is a regular visitor in support of a string of causes, says Jantar Mantar is a good place to catch the eye of journalists milling around parliament.

"You can show your strength there," he said.

Civil protests have a rich history in India, with Mahatma Gandhi's campaigns of non-violence, such as the 1930 Salt March, playing a vital part in shaping opposition to British colonial rule.

In the early 1990s, protestors in Delhi used to be able to march up and down Rajpath, the thoroughfare which sweeps past the presidential palace and major government ministries that were built by the British.

But authorities then began imposing restrictions, eventually designating Jantar Mantar as one of the few places where protestors could gather.

Local historian Sohail Hashmi said it was shameful politicians had shunted their critics into a sidestreet.

"Those mass mobilisations on Rajpath were an opportunity for the people to communicate their anger directly to the government. Now it's no longer possible to do anything more than have a symbolic protest," said Hashmi.

"How can a government, an elected government, refuse to meet people who have brought them to power?"

While ministers and lawmakers rarely deign to visit, the ranks of outside broadcast vans attest to the media's appetite for the protestors' stories.

- Drum for Trump -

When Donald Trump won the US presidency, cameramen were on hand to capture a group of ultra-nationalist Hindus celebrate by banging drums.

Some campaigners are less interested in publicity but rather want to demonstrate commitment to a cause, whatever the personal sacrifice.

One group of women has been campaigning for nearly four years to demand the death penalty for anyone convicted of rape, including minors, since a deadly gang-rape on a bus in Delhi in December 2012.

Some initially quit their jobs but "life became very difficult to manage and they had to go back to work," said one of the protestors who comes in the evenings after a day in the office.

Further down the line is an equally passionate group whose demand is for the release of Asaram Bapu, a self-proclaimed Hindu godman or guru, who has been in custody since 2013 on charges of sexual assaulting a 16-year-old girl.

Several hundred of the 75-year-old Bapu's supporters clashed with police in May -- one of the rare occasions when Jantar Mantar's general culture of lively but peaceful protest degenerated into violence.

***

Jantar Mantar's popularity:

1. Location - It is in close proximity to the Parliament and thus gives a symbolic advantage. It has historical significance as well. This structure was completed in 1724. It was severely damaged during the first war of independence of 1857, but was later repaired. It has been a ground for small or large protests prior to the independence of India.

2. Track record - Jantar Mantar has been used as a site for the mass movement of Anna Hazare for the Jan Lokpal Bill. Many popular protests recently have been held here, owing to its popularity. If one hears that people are protesting at Jantar Mantar, it definitely attracts attention.

3. A clear winner - In Delhi, there aren't any public squares for protests. Hence, among the places available to accommodate large crowds, Jantar Mantar is a clear winner owing to better infrastructure, wide roads, etc.

4. A protestor's paradise - Protests are so common on Jantar Mantar that the streets heading towards it have become a marketplace for protesters. At Jantar Mantar, you can get snacks, sunglasses, toys, flags, caps, banners, Nehru jacket, etc.

5. Win-win situation - It is easier to manage large crowd at Jantar Mantar. So, it is better for those organising protests, those participating in it as well as for those responsible for law and order. Delhi Police had launched an advertisement in 2014, "Want to hold protest up to 5000 persons? Welcome to Jantar Mantar!".

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