The OROP protestors have just been kicked out of Jantar-Mantar in Delhi. This was in compliance of the NGT order banning Jantar-Mantar as the site for public protests. While this act of the police cannot be faulted, we need to analyze another aspect of the same episode.
Why is it that all non-violent protests are treated so shabbily, while the violent ones get the ears of the government so easily perked up?
Just a few months back, PM Modi inaugurated the Sardar Sarovar dam on his birthday. This dam will cause 40,000 families of the Narmada basin to be displaced from their homes without proper rehabilitation and compensation. These families and their supporters have been protesting against this injustice for last 60 years, but non-violently. However, the Indian government never takes cognizance of non-violent protests. Their guiding principle is simple. If the protestors are weaker than the government, disregard them. If they have some nuisance value or capability to hurt the government, placate them. To start with, the government suddenly develops respect for them and starts being nice. Short of acceding to their main demands, they capitulate. If even that does not work, they accept the main demands too. In effect, the bully starts winning.
Such a policy – disregard the weak; be nice to the strong – sends a dangerous signal to society in general and other protestors in specific. They tend to get practical by discarding the non-violent ways and adopting the ones that seem to have potential to get them some positive results. With long experience of handling insurgency in Nagaland, Manipur, J&K, I have seen this validated first-hand.
Army actions in J&K, Nagaland and Manipur are testimony to this. Whenever people take up arms, armed forces open up their nice side to the local population. It is not that the army stops military action where required, but they definitely start being nice to the citizens of the area. Have you notices that it is not in every state of India that the army has opened up schools, career guidance centers, canteen facilities and several village support schemes but only in J&K, Nagaland and Manipur? Scare resources of the army are liberally used to keep the local population happy. Suddenly, senior officers develop interest in keeping the local influential persons happy. In a way, insurgency starts paying, even if it does not get you the final solution. As for the final solution too, violence ensures that the government starts talking to the insurgent leaders with a degree of respect, almost as an equal. In Nagaland, the government of this mighty nation had several rounds of very civilized talks with the Naga insurgents, with tea and more on the house. Finally, the Indian state, having one of the largest armed forces in the world, entered into a peace treaty with the armed Naga group. Yes, Sir, it had a proper treaty with a bunch of protestors, only because they flourished guns. The same Indian state will not even talk to thousands of protestors of the Narmada Bachao Andolan or to a group of armed forces veterans staging protest at Jan Mantar. Why? Simply because they do not wave guns. The Indian President, C-in-C of India’s armed forces, refused to even meet a group of veterans who had gone to her to return their medals, along with a letter written with their blood as ink. Of course, the veterans were non-violent. One more example. It is not for every group of protestors that the Indian Home minister says that he will visit them 50 times if need be, but only for the violence ridden J&K.
I once spoke to a respected Gaon Burha (village elder) in Nagaland. Over drinks, he told me that the villagers keep requesting the UGs (Under-Grounds) to keep the insurgency going so that the government keeps pumping in the goodies in the state. The UGs are told to keep firing occasional shots in the hills, but not raise the level of insurgency so much that the army comes down heavily on them. The trick, they say, is to calibrate the level the insurgency so that the army remains sweet.
But, then, how does one explain that India did win its independence by purely non-violent protests? There are many reasons. Comparing that large movement to the small ones that people are able to generate in their cities and villages would not be correct. There is a huge difference of scale. When people are able to generate non-violent protests of mass scale even now, they do bear results. The movements for justice for Nirbhaya and the Lokayukta movement, did get the government to move, though these protests were infinitely smaller in scale to the independence movement. However, they indeed were mass movements, led by respected people, held in the capital of India under heavy media glare, so they rattled the government. The essence of moving the government is not violence alone, but the overall nuisance value of the movement. The Jat agitation had immense nuisance value, hence it succeeded. Also, we must realize that the independence movement was faced by the British government, while the local ones now are being faced by the Indian government. Ironically, the British government (not the East India Company) is perceived by many old timers even today to be more just than successive Indian governments post independence. Members of the then ICS (Indian Civil Services) had a far better reputation for justice than members of IAS (Indian Administrative Service) of today.
In the same vein, it must be noted that the non violent protests of the NBA (Narmada Bachao Andolan) did not completely fail. Indeed, they did work on decision makers of other nationalities, though not on the Indian ones. NBA formally called for all work on Narmada Valley Development projects to be stopped in 1988. Within two years, the struggle had burgeoned and had support from other non-violent resistance movements globally. The Japanese arm of the Friends of the Earth mounted a campaign in Japan that forced the Japanese government to withdraw its 27000 billion Yen loan to the project. Pressure started mounting on the World Bank too. In June 1991, the World Bank appointed Bradford Morse as Chairman of an independent review. A year later, after travelling to every site of the dam and meeting every official dealing with it, the now famous Morse report was published. In the core recommendation, it says, ‘We think the Sardar Sarovar projects, as they stand, are flawed—-.As a result, we think that the wisest course would be for the bank to step back from the project’. In March 1993, the World Bank withdrew.
However, the movement had no effect on the Indian government. During the inauguration ceremony on his birthday, 17 Sep, PM Modi proudly announced, ‘Many blocked it but we did it’.
Indian decision makers must realize that by ignoring non-violent protests, they are only forcing the protestors to adopt violent means. People always first seek redressal and justice by legal means. When it is not available and they sense that avenues of justice are drying up, they change tactics. They then start acceding to the hot-heads among them. This is what starts an insurgency. Very soon, other interested parties jump in the fray and then there is no turning back. However, it could very well have been prevented from taking root in the first place.
If only there was justice for the oppressed while their protests were still non-violent, there would not be any violent protests for long. Is that not something to aspire for?