From freedom struggles to revolutions to women’s suffrage movements, most world-changing events were sparked off from localised protests by a set of indignant people. Today, in the age of electronic communication and Twitter warriors, a gherao, dharna, rail rokho and candlelight vigil have not lost their importance. It’s democracy at a very basic level — allowing people to let authorities know that they are displeased over something.
As the national capital, Delhi has for long played host to various protests. The Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement in 2011, the Nirbhaya movement in 2012, and the Shaheen Bagh protests against the CAA in 2019 are just a few recent examples.
In what human rights experts point out is a worrisome trend, the ‘protest real estate’ in Delhi is rapidly shrinking. The city could earlier bear the burden of an entire nation’s outrage. Dilli chalo movements to draw the attention of the Centre to various issues — even regional — were rather commonplace.
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Today, though, holding a demonstration in Delhi is no easy task. Some of the public places that were earlier routine ‘protest spots’ — such as Ramlila Maidan, India Gate and Jantar Mantar — are no longer easily accessible for protesters. A government not too inclined to allow protests, and a public less patient around the inconveniences caused, are substantially adding to the shrinkage.
Direction of farm protest
The ongoing farmers’ protest on the Delhi border, more than a year old now, has brought the issue to the forefront. Last year, as Parliament cleared three controversial agriculture laws, farmers — mostly from Punjab and Haryana — began to protest against them.
The demonstration moved to Delhi’s borders, such as Kundli, Dhansa, Singhu, Bahadurgarh and Faridabad. Initially, it did not raise too many hackles. Afterall, no in-city peak-hour traffic was being held up. It was when movement into and out of the city started suffering that it drew the attention of people and the administration.
Despite pressure from a multitude of sources — from political and police action, to accusation of spreading COVID, to being part of an international conspiracy — the farmers have prevailed. But the consequences suggest that down the line, one more such protest on highways and state borders may not be feasible.
Border protests on the way out?
For one thing, what began as a peaceful protest has subsequently seen much violence. Participants have died at the protest site due to various causes. On Republic Day, January 26, 2021, protesting farmers allegedly defied police barricades to storm the Red Fort complex on tractors. As clashes broke out, a protester died and over 80 police officers were injured.
Recently, the Supreme Court came down heavily on the farmers, saying they could not block roads indefinitely and ‘choke’ and ‘strangulate’ the city. “You (farmers) may have a right to agitate in any manner but roads should not be blocked like this. People have the right to go on roads but it cannot be blocked,” said the judge.
This suggests that in the future, highways as protests sites may be ruled out for the capital city. The police and government are certain to quell a protest at an earlier stage, and the court is unlikely to be sympathetic to the protesters.
Jantar Mantar, Ramlila Maidan, other ‘in-city’ spots
If the highways are tough, protesting within the city is tougher still. In July, when a section of farmers sought permission to hold a demonstration at Jantar Mantar, close to the Parliament Complex, the clearance came with a bunch of caveats. They were restricted to a small section of Jantar Mantar. There was a limit on the number of participants, and they were told to show their Aadhaar cards when asked.
The farmers ended their protest at the site in August. “We are not going to seek any further permission for the protest at Jantar Mantar because the government is just not concerned,” said a farmer union leader.
Similarly, a women-led protest that began in December 2019 at Shaheen Bagh against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) came in for heavy criticism for the supposed inconvenience caused to city residents. The protesters blocked a major road at Shaheen Bagh and held a sit-in demonstration at a barricaded and tented venue.
Numerous petitions were filed to stop the blockade. Almost a year later, in October 2020, the Supreme Court said an ‘indefinite’ occupation of public space for expressing dissent was not acceptable.
The Ramlila Maidan, which witnessed key demonstrations against the Emergency of 1975, as well as Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption agitation, is again increasingly out of bounds for protesters. The frequent imposition of Section 144 of Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) — which prohibits the assembly of four or more people in an area — makes it nigh impossible for a demonstration to be held in the city. The COVID restrictions only add to the barriers.
Making room for Central Vista
Critics of the government’s ambitious Central Vista Redevelopment Project point to several of its downsides — the loss of several heritage buildings, the removal of greenery, and the huge economic drain. Another equally worrying but less talked about issue is the further shrinkage of public space — and protest venues — that the project is bound to cause.
The project envisions, among other things, revamping a 3 km stretch of Rajpath between India Gate and Rashtrapati Bhavan. The roads leading up to India Gate have witnessed countless protests and marches, but these are likely to become scarce once the new Central Vista is in place.
The area, after all, will be housing all the Union ministries apart from the residences of the President and the Prime Minister. The tight security that this would entail is unlikely to allow protesting masses in the vicinity.