The role of protests in a democracy
The 32-day long Jal Satyagraha, being carried out by 75 farmers in Khandwa District in Madhya Pradesh, was suspended on Tuesday. A unique form of non-violent resistance, farmers of Ghoghalgaon village stood in the water for 32 days, to protest against the submergence of their lands without the provision of adequate rehabilitation. However, they had to suspend their protest without any concessions from the government. Much can be written about the remarkable spirit of resistance of the protestors, and historians and chroniclers would hopefully bring out the same. For the student of democracy, however, what needs to be analysed is the response of the state to this non-violent protest. For it is in this response that one can see the fault-lines of electoral democracy in our country.
The response of the government was marked by three major characteristics: neglect, arrogance, and intimidation, each of which we shall examine in some detail. What is interesting, however, is that these responses are not unique to the Shivraj Singh Chouhan led government in Madhya Pradesh, but these are often stock responses by governments towards people’s protests. And herein lies the irony: that elected governments time and again, repeatedly choose to ignore and belittle the concerns of the very people whose voices they are supposed to represent, the very people who have brought them into power.
The primary and most significant response of the government was to ignore the protests; to put their head into the sand like an ostrich and to pretend that the protestors did not exist. The villagers of Ghoghalgaon entered the water to demand rehabilitation before their fields were submerged. They stood in the water for 32 days and yet the elected government chose not to enter into any dialogue with them. Repeated attempts to seek an appointment with the chief minister were unsuccessful. The Jal Satyagrahis <g data-gr-id="56">suo</g> motto suspended their protests after 32 days, as there was a serious deterioration in the health of the protestors. However, they were unable to get 30 minutes of time from an elected government.
How is it that a government which is supposed to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people’’ can choose to ignore the voices of the very same people? Why it that elected representatives are not accountable to the very people who elected them? The answer lies in the institutions of electoral democracy in our country, where the only form of people’s participation is when they cast their vote once in five years. It is the one moment where the common man is king. It is also the one moment when the political class needs to step out of their <g data-gr-id="63">Lutyen’s</g> bungalows and chauffeur-driven cars, into the heat and dust of the country and address the concerns of the people. But once elections are over, the power equations are promptly reversed for the next five years.
With no elections in sight, there is no longer any need to listen to the people or address their concerns. This fault line of our democracy needs to be addressed institutionally. There is a need to evolve mechanisms to ensure ongoing participation of the people and accountability of elected representatives.
In addition to neglect, the response of the State government reflected the hubris and arrogance of power. While refusing to engage in any dialogue with the protestors, the Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan called them “anti-development”; the state BJP chief and Member of Parliament from Khandwa, Nand Kumar Chauhan, chose to call them “<g data-gr-id="78">desh</g>-<g data-gr-id="79">drohi</g>” (traitors) and “<g data-gr-id="80">nautankibaaz</g>”. Both these leaders may not have known that they are but the successors of a long line of political leaders who chose to belittle the people and their concerns; from Marie Antoinette who asked the citizens of France to eat cake in 1789, to Congress leaders Kapil Sibal and Manish Tewari in 2011, who claimed Anna Hazare – the leader of a nationwide anti-corruption movement – was an embodiment of corruption from head-to-toe. Political leaders who choose to ignore protests in a democracy would do well to examine the fate of their predecessors who did the same.
Time and again the hubris of power has brought down governments. Time and again the inability to address concerns of the people leads to political earthquakes. And yet governments have not learnt their lessons. They still choose to ignore the voices of people. The Jal Satyagraha of Ghoghalgaon may have got suspended, but the protestors have announced to launch a state-wide farmers’ movement. Such a movement has the ability to spark the incendiary gunpowder of rural distress that exists in Madhya Pradesh, as in all other parts of the country. If a large farmers’ movement is mobilised in Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan – like many other rulers before him – might be left wondering whether it would have been better to concede the demands of a few protestors, rather than be answerable to the large masses of common people. And yet, beyond these protests, there is a need to institutionalise mechanisms for peoples’ voices to be heard; to ensure that neglect, hubris and intimidation of people’s voices is no longer an option; to ensure that our democracy is genuinely participative.
(<g data-gr-id="46">Atishi</g> Marlena is a social activist and policy researcher, who has been with the Aam Aadmi Party for the past two years)