What is the Right Way to Protest?

The entire world was shocked on seeing the pictures of rioters climbing on Capitol Hill the past week. The world’s second largest democracy witnessed a dark day in its history, as pro-Trump supporters mobbed the US Capitol Building forcing the Congress members to suspend the session and evacuate the building. The mob of pro-Trump supporters was demanding re-elections to overturn the defeat of incumbent president Donald Trump in the 2020 Presidential elections. The protest took five lives (four rioters and a police officer) and was condemned by political leaders all over the world. President Trump was condemned by his own party men for his speech before the incident, and has been impeached by the US Congress as Senate trial awaits for his removal. This article isn’t about this specific incident nor about its protestors. Rather, it looks into ways of protest, guidelines to be followed, and what responsibility the political leaders have when a protest is planned.

The Capitol Hill protest is not the only recent one that turned violent; there is a never ending list. It is surprising to see the number of protests that started out peacefully but became violent later on, either due to the cruelly treated by police or due to being hijacked by certain groups with political or religious agendas. The most recent example, from India is the anti-CAA protest which started on 4th December 2019 and had ended on 14 March 2020 due to the spread of COVID-19 pandemic, and the nationwide lockdown following it. Almost three-month long protest demanding the government to take back the proposed bill turned out to be violent in most of the states. Mumbai was one of the few metro cities where no violence was reported. The scenario was much worse in states like Uttar Pradesh and Delhi where protests turned into riots and rumors were spread by both pro and anti-CAA groups with political interests to promote violence and stampede. These situations even led to closure of Delhi Metro`s stations time and again and blocking of highways and roads. But what was started as a peaceful movement was converted into a Hindu-Islamic religious encounter in the national capital. On 23 February 2020, North-East Delhi witnessed mass massacre, stone pelting, property destruction and mass mobilization in the name of religion. 53 people were killed and several were massively injured. Houses, shops, and public properties were destroyed. The situation went out of control and a curfew was announced by the authorities. The board exams of North East Delhi were suspended in view of safety of students. Similar riots were reported from different parts of country like West Bengal and Hyderabad.

But the question is do these protestors have the right to damage public property and cause a tense situation for the locals? Some people argue that they will not be heard if they do not gain attention by such rebellious actions. Blocking a highway will cause distress to public, but the protestors support such action saying it would force the authorities to hear their demands and will also make sure that the government take quick actions to meet their demands. The Supreme Court of India in one of its recent judgments stated that public places like roads and streets cannot be occupied endlessly for any reason. While there is a place to express disagreement in democracy, it should not hinder with the rights of citizens, ‘A balance need to be maintained’. Blocking roads and streets not only increases the traffic but it also cost lives of those who get stuck in ambulances and not able to make it to hospital on time.

The ongoing farmers protest in North-West India has certainly maintained this balance to a large extent in terms of being no violent so far. The three farm acts were passed by the Indian government in September 2020 and since then they has been opposed by farmers from various parts of the country, but the opposition to the acts was more prominent in Punjab, Haryana and Delhi. A Gurudwara near the agitation spot in Delhi, has been offering food to both the protestors and the police since the beginning of protest. Farmers at the Singhu border have installed eight CCTV cameras to keep a watch on the protest site, in order to keep a check on people joining in with other motives. But everything was not completely peaceful and constitutional. On 24 September 2020, farmers initiated a “Rail Roko” movement, under which train services to and from Punjab were affected. The campaign was extended till October but on 23 October, some unions decided to call off this campaign, as supplies of goods including fertilizers in the state were starting to run short. There have been few cases of minute violence in some states, but as compared to the large number of protestors, farmer`s agitation can be considered well within the lines.

Even the Black Lives Matter movement, which had an estimated of 15 million to 26 million protestors all across the globe, had almost 90% of their protests in a peaceful manner. Initially, all the protests started with violence and property destruction but became peaceful during the later stages. According to Fox News about a dozen citizens got killed in US and many police officers were harmed during the initial stages. So ironically, lives were being lost the very moment people were claiming that ‘All Lives Matter’.

But apart from all this, isn’t it true too that why would the government bother to listen to protestors who are protesting at an appropriate unoccupied space? The basic (implicit) argument of the protestors is that if the agitation is not causing any hindrance in normal lives of citizens or is not disrupting the traffic around, neither the media nor the local authorities will take any notice of it and all the efforts of the agitators will go in vain. While there is a classic saying that the pen is mightier than the sword, there is another classic saying which says that don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, and if a knife is not recommended in a gunfight, a pen is even less advisable.

So the question which arises again is that are these methods a vital part of protest? Can the lives lost in there agitations be referred as collateral damage? Can a peaceful protest achieve the same results as a violent one? The answer is yes! There are certainly enough evidences in the past- the 1913 Suffrage Parade, the Salt March and the Estonians Singing Revolution are some notable examples. Peaceful protests are more successful because they build a wider alliance. If people are attacked, property is destroyed, and the freedom of other citizens to go about their lives is interrupted due to these violent protests, there is a need for social support for the people affected by the protests and violence. It also generates concerns in those who feel they might be targeted by similar protestors in the future. So, while the protesters might be rioting because they feel they have important needs that are not being met and are trying to achieve them by violence, third parties might come to view the damage caused by the protest as being more important or harmful. The net outcome of the violence is that third parties side against the protesters, rather than with them. No organization or party can praise violence in any form (at least not publicly). In order for a movement to gain enormous support and inspire lasting change, peace and agreement are crucial. While violence will certainly make them reach their goals the quickest, it may not promise a sustainable victory.

Summing it up, maybe it is very difficult to draw a clear line as to what type of protest is better suited for an agitation. While the non-violent ones are morally more appropriate, they give results at a much slower rate than the violent ones. While peaceful protests bring awareness about an issue, violent protests bring urgent attention and show strong disapproval on the issue. The Civil Rights Movement of US headed by Martin Luther King Jr. had started as a non-violent movement but turned violent in some places. Opposing the racial discrimination in United States, Luther was largely influenced by the non-violence policy of Mahatma Gandhi against the British colonists in India and thus Luther too focused on peaceful protests. The violence that was reported in some cities in US during the Movement may have been unplanned as Martin Luther King emphasized peace and non-violence. Thus, leaders who spearhead an agitation or a movement play a critical role in how the protests can remain non-violent even if the goals and objectives of the movement are delayed due to such means.

-Priyanshi Mishra (Freelancer)

Picture Credits: Reuters / abcnews.go.com

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