Learning to Protest
Thirty five years old Irom Sharmila of Manipur , India , has been on a fast-unto-death, for the past seven years, demanding the removal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958. With her piercing eyes, lips stretched tight in pain, nose covered by a swatch of medical tape, dependent on the yellow plastic nose pipe that provides her the liquids that keep her alive, Sharmila may have lost her physical strength, but not her determination. “This is the least I can do. It is my bounden duty to protest”, she says in a voice barely above a whisper. One of the longest peaceful political protests ever recorded, Sharmila continues her one person struggle , even when she knows that the risk to her life is considerably higher than the chances of her success.
Just across the border, Pakistan suffers from far more serious predicaments. Its one hundred and sixty million people have been relegated to the status of bonded labor. Their many future generations must slave to pay back the 40 billion dollar foreign debt that was collected on behalf of the ordinary citizens of Pakistan. The people of Pakistan are now ruled by a serving commando who simultaneously heads a political party and also contests elections while still retaining his uniform. No one protests even at the dichotomy of the law that will punish a “theley wala” for the slightest misconduct, but will pardon the criminals and thieves who looted billions of dollars to build palaces in foreign lands.
The people of Pakistan excel in the art of suffering. Affliction and adversity are seen as divine compensation for local misdeeds or simply a part of the Lord’s higher order per-ordained strategy. To challenge , protest or question are clearly not a part of our temperament or tradition. The educated middle classes, loaded with cynicism, disillusionment and apathy, unwantingly become a part of the very problem they grumble so much about. Protests are considered futile and better left to political parties, NGOs or volunteer organizations. Discussions often come around to a familiar foregone conclusion – “There is nothing we can do that will make a change. In any case what can we do?”
How do ordinary citizens raise their voice, make a contribution or lodge a peaceful protest on issues ranging from a complaint about the special VIP check-in counters at the airports, a protest against a serving military general fighting elections for a political post, or dissuading the government from taking fraudulent foreign loans. How do citizens stop these unlawful activities? Recent movements by the lawyers forum, the women’s groups and the journalists have shown that citizens when operating under organized platforms can cause a much greater impact. Therefore the first option that the citizens could choose is to organize and raise their voice through platforms such as doctors, engineers, architects, teachers, retired military personnel, businessmen, traders, writers and such other professional groups. Public action litigation by individuals and groups is another powerful but much under-utilized method of taking up public causes. Inviting courts’ attention for suo-moto notice on important issues is another option open to all citizens. Finally, how do citizens not belonging to any formal group find a space for their voice or actions? While every citizen can not emulate Irom Sharmila, there are umpteen modes of protest that are an everyday possibility. Citizens can refuse to participate in events organized by corrupt officials and politicians. They can make formal complaints to organizations against specific wrongdoings. They can resign from their government posts as a mark of protest. They can form like-minded groups and make collective representations. They can write issue based articles for the press. They can boycott products and activities that degrade environments. They can use websites, and emails to form and organize protest groups. Surely, it is time to explore these and other such options. Even a harmless silent protest of wearing a black band can begin to create a contagious movement. Imagine the impact of a few million persons wearing black bands every day to protest on a specific issue. Clearly a forerunner for larger civil protest movements.
Dawn Oct 2007