Tuesday, October 07, 2014

"Non-violent" protests

Recently, Jadavpur University has been in the news. Details (which may be biased) are here.

I will refrain from commenting upon the incident or the inquiry committee's actions or findings.

The interesting part, for the purpose of this article is this:
On the evening of September 16, after the meeting of Executive Councils was finished, students gheraoed some university officials, including Vice-Chancellor Abhijit Chakrabarti, in their offices. Following several attempts to communicate and reach an understanding between the officials and the students, the situation reached an impasse, and the students continued their demonstration into the night. The Vice-Chancellor summoned police for protection. (emphasis mine)
The police broke up the gherao, which obviously necessitated some force and entailed dragging the students away:
Criticisms of the police brutality included that police used baton charge on a peaceful demonstration... (emphasis mine)

In India, "non-violent" protests usually include the following:
  • Dharna (a sit-down), which usually means blocking traffic on the road or on the railway tracks.
  • Gherao (an engulfing of a person with a chain of people so that he/she cannot leave).
  • Bandh (shut down of business establishments, and taxis etc.)
  • A fast unto death.
It is my contention that the above are all violent acts, and if there is a response involving force, the initiators are being disingenuous and hypocritical in considering themselves peaceful and the response violent.

Of course, the response has to be a measured one, just enough to dismantle the protest, and excessive force is obviously a grave crime.

A Dharna on the road or on the railway tracks aims at disrupting traffic and thereby gaining the attention of the authorities. There may be ambulances in the traffic, there may be someone who is rushing to an important meeting or a court hearing, and so on. But the protesters involved in the dharna consider their grievance to supersede all other concerns. They will not allow others to reach their destinations, howsoever important they might be.

Gheraos aim at the physical restriction of another's movement. I consider it indubitably as an act of force. The person who wants to leave is thereby prevented, by force. The power to detain an adult is only granted to the state in modern times. One hopes the state uses this power extremely judiciously. But if it does not, to allow a mob to hold anyone hostage is an invitation to the law of the jungle. Gherao is similar to detaining somebody, and is therefore a crime in most civil societies.

The argument that police in a corrupt state responds to crimes selectively is a valid one, and requires serious consideration and intervention, but that does not therefore mean that the mobs should start dispensing street justice.

A Bandh is usually "called" by a group or a political party. A business which wants to remain open is forcibly shut down by the goons of that group. By no stretch of imagination is it a non-violent form of protest.

A "fast unto death" is fine ... in the privacy of one's home. Gandhi famously called his fasts as acts of "penance". But even he did not just indulge in those penances silently or in private.

Because that defeats the purpose, so to speak. The aim of a hunger-strike is to make a spectacle of it. All such fasts are announced with much fanfare, happen at fairgrounds or other prominent places, and are extensively covered by media. The intention is to, bluntly speaking, threaten suicide with each passing day carrying a heightened risk.

In all civilized societies, to threaten somebody else is a crime. To threaten others, who care about oneself, of self-harm is a way of putting emotional pressure. Everybody understands that. It (the expression of such a threat) may be an act of desperation, or an act of depression, but the aim is to provoke a response of cave-in or of sympathy.

To threaten the state, or a public authority, of self-harm, is only slightly different. One threatens the state with violence in case the state allows the fast unto death to reach its logical conclusion. The fast itself is just a means to the threat-point. The real threat is the public response to the death of the fasting person.

A fast by an oppressed person (say the father of a murdered son, or a raped woman) can be a desperate measure when all appeals to reason or to due process have failed, and when one sees no other way of getting the public attention. But there should be no confusion that this is an act of violence.

I consider that most so-called non-violent protests violate others' well-being, liberty and peace.

When I was in college, I witnessed a "non-violent" protest in the parking lot of a government building during which the protesters pasted small black stickers on the windshields of all parked vehicles. It was merely an annoyance to the owner of the automobile, but I refused to consider that protest non-violent. It was a violation, even if in a small measure, of another person's property.

There are indeed forms of non-violent protests. But they might be less effective than a gherao.

Some examples:
  • Holding a placard with a message in front of a building.  
  • Distributing flyers.
  • Wearing black bands.
  • Passive civil disobedience to a law (refusing to pay taxes or to honor a summons from a court, for example).  And then to peacefully accept the consequences.
  • Expressing oneself in an "opt-in" manner, i.e. where you do not force others to participate: writing or speaking in media, writing a book, making a film, etc.  (Causing a commotion by using a loudspeaker in an otherwise silent area denies others the option to not be part of the protest.  What if there are ill people or little children in an area?)
Since these genuinely non-violent protests might not be very effective, it is possible that the protesters might eventually decide to use force. And perhaps they should. And they should then call themselves fighters. There is no shame in using force. On the contrary, a warrior who is willing to fight and die for justice is a hero.

A protest against injustice must have integrity. A "non-violent" protest which is actually violent fails that test.

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