Dec 05, 2023
Dec 05, 2023
Between Hamlet’s days and ours, most words have remained unaffected. Some had their import changed. What a word meant to the Prince of Denmark was, in rare cases, the opposite of what it told us. An instance is “protest”, which his mother saw as an expression of excessive concern in her famous saying “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” For us it is almost the other way round, protest as objection, opposition. No one may protest against that formulation. If one dares, we will dismiss his protestations.
Protest is our pastime and profession. There is nothing against which someone somewhere is not carrying on protest. It is indeed the age of protest. In spite of our protracted experiments with protest, regrettably, no refreshing idiom has been perfected. In portals of parliament and parlours of public offices, market corners and temple compounds, wherever amused wayfarers may stop by for a minute of investigation, protest shows are arranged. The problem is that the old order does not change and the new one does not come. Protest too much, but as before.
The current idiom of protest 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 open 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 lawbreakers 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, sambhavami yuge yuge.
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 gripped 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 shows of protest reasonably headline-worthy has been the constant concern of our leadership.
The age of processions and mammoth public meetings is long gone. In legislative bodies, walk out and boycott have ceased to be fashionable. The redoubtable Raj Narain, India’s quintessential opposition canon, drew all eyes to his mien, his colourful hair band and walking stick. He could lead a protest or address a news conference from a mat on the floor on which he lay clad in no more than an invisible loin cloth. Often two devoted boys would give him a thorough massage. It was an act of striking serendipity when the irrepressible protester defeated Indira Gandhi in Raebareli.
Antics of P C Thomas and Lonappan Nambadan come to mind. Thomas, ploughing a lonely political furrow, brought theatre to the 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 Kerala assembly by striking a matchstick and burning a bill whose vernacular version was not available.
Siege of parliament is the order of the day as an exhibition of political anger. Speeches are not enough. Slogans are obtuse. There are many ways to disrupt the proceedings: jump into the well, blast the ceiling with slogans at an impossible pitch, other innovative dramatics, not excluding fisticuffs with house guards or members. Protest against some government measures and sundry allegations often set fire to the familiar harangues in various legislative bodies.
This time round, in the Kerala assembly, it was a Congress-sponsored struggle, inspiring a sense of de javu, The Maxrist-led opposition had sworn to deny entry into the house to the finance minister, K M Mani, to present the annual budget. The protesters flexed their muscles, physically, and pulled down the rostrum and pushed away the speaker’s chair. What they then did in impotent rage is effectively mimicked now. Like pundits say, destination is one though roads are many. In point of fact, there is no destination, there are only slippery, senseless roads.
Fisticuffs are more popular among protesters than fasts. In physically aggressive politics, there is an underpinning of an undeclared belief that what may not be achieved through cerebral exercise can be achieved with muscle power. This is perhaps the conclusion that can be drawn from our chequered experiments with different styles of protest.
An incendiary style is widely favored. Burn down structures not owned by one. Depending on the intensity and inclination of protests, objects chosen to be burnt as well as the venue of the show will change. A copy of the constitution or the Manusmriti may be good burning material. There was a Patna report of Tulsidas’s Ram-Charit-Manas being burnt as part of a protest plan. Legislatures or public places named after an old man who made a drastic difference to our protest manual are tempting venues. Hitting back one’s tormentor was not that old man’s style of protest. With willpower, he showed, empires could be crumbled. Two thousand years ago, someone else showed that change could be effected by turning the other cheek when one was hit on one cheek. But Gandhi’s and Jesus’s ways are not our ways. And our protest society shot one to death and crucified the other with not a male disciple to watch the wanton punishment.
The burden of this note is, it would seem, that protest is a pandemic. In parliamentary terms, it is a bipolar condition, affecting treasury benches and opposition benches alternately. What a party does today from the right side it may denounce tomorrow from the left side. On matters of basic facts of social life, problems and prognostications, there may be little difference between one and the other. It is like the cliched tweedledum and tweedledee.
Differences are in niceties, largely subserving sectarian interests, power cliques forcing demonstration of protest in the name of the aam aadmi. The cliques divide themselves into two, one in power and the other seeking it, perpetuating a perception of duality which is neither useful nor necessary for the people whose cause is invoked as a matter of reflex action.
The compulsions of power are inexorable. What one protests against while in opposition may, when in power, become an article of policy and faith. Essential views, such as commitment to people’s welfare and probity in public life, are evenly shared. There is not one party or partyman who does not swear by democracy. They may run down each other, protest or protest against protest but that is more a stratagem for survival than a visceral dispute over life’s needs or truths.
They, government and opposition, espouse the same values and sustain the same friendships even when they shift sides and seats. Consider just one politico-industrial friendship. Ambani was anathema to one political conglomerate when power was out of its grip. Catapulted to authority, its criterion for camaraderie changed. Who knows who will be for Adani and who against in the coming days! The unembellished truth is that they, government and opposition, are not mutually exclusive.
But they like the duality. They like to be seen protesting against each other, maintaining their supposedly distinctive identity. The ugly and unnecessary duality in political life has been created not in a spirit of creative togetherness but to validate divergence and protest in its varied forms. Not only is protest becoming a reflex action but it turns law-making bodies into forums for fisticuffs. There are so many who protest too much like the Shakespearean character but not many who do it in a refreshing idiom.
There is a 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.
A K Antony, whose public life began with a protest against bus fare hike and rose to chief ministership, once talked about needless and pathological protest. There is really no serious conflict, no jeopardization of basic mass interests, that calls for a chronic protest. There is no room or need for confrontation. Convergence, consensus, must be the cultural norm, dispensing with any felt need for protest, peaceful or sanguinary. It was but an Antonian theory to be enunciated, not a concerted action to be accomplished.
Protest that promotes dualism is uncreative. Commonality of interests will indeed preclude the notional need for protest and rule out any legitimacy for a bi-cameral scheme of politics. Just as protest is largely an unproductive engagement for protesters, division of public life into two segments of leaders, one in power and the other seeking it, is unhelpful. Such schism, split view of life and reality, is agonizing. The worst agony is to see the one as the two or the many. Resolution of this conflict is ecstasy. Which is why we must make a case for political advaita.
More by : K Govindan Kutty