In continuing with the tradition of protest during the colonial times, independent India found its space right there at the majestic, authoritative structure of Lutyens Delhi. The most obvious choice was Rajpath, the road connecting the President House to India Gate. Rajpath symbolises the power and authority of the state. Protest on the streets of Rajpath meant providing an ideological opposition and to remind governments that under the new constitution masses are bestowed with great power and governments are just ruling on behalf of them.
The shifting of the protest site from Rajpath to Jantar Mantar made it amply clear that the provision of government-provided protest sites is an outcome of the state’s crude undemocratic nature. Allowed as a site for protest from 1993 onwards (two years after India opted for liberalisation), it was physically closer to the Parliament (not so close though), and a big place to allow for larger numbers. Two narrow main entry and exit points made managing/controlling the crowd easy for the police. Protest is only allowed within the given premises and the argument behind is not to disturb the normal course of life neither of the public nor the government.
The very objective of protests is to disturb the so-called “prescribed/normal” socio-cultural-political and change it. Sanctioning a protest site restricts this attribute of protest and exhibits the government’s intrinsic undemocratic nature, which doesn’t allow for the transgression of space. Transgression of space is to be considered as a transgression of the authority of the government and ultimately the state.
Under the pretext of strengthening democracy, the Indian government provided a space to register the dissent of the masses but it never made it strong; on the contrary, it weakened it. It is argued that it may be the intention of the government to do so. As a result, “politics of space” became an important dimension of Indian politics.
That was what happened in the capital city of India, Delhi. However, other cities in India also witnessed and keep witnessing protests of all nature, especially the capital cities of their states. Only when their voices are unheard of in their own states, protestors turn to Delhi and Central Government to express dissent.
States have also followed the Centre in terms of restricting protests to certain spaces. What happens when protests are relegated to certain spaces? Are they successful? Are the voices heard? Does it result in immediate action? What does it do to the protestors? What do they do as a result?
In 1997, Bombay High Court decided that protests in the city should be confined to a designated space – Azad Maidan. Before that, protest marches began near Churchgate railway station and ended at Mantralaya, the seat of government. Protests were staged in the 4-6 pm slot, to capture the attention of every office goer returning home. A Marathi slogan on a poster reading, “Why are you watching? Join Us!”, invited the onlooker to join.
This interaction between the public and protestors was the life-blood of these protests. They knew that the roads would be blocked and they would have to wait for some time on the road, but that is how democracy functions. The city also had many other sites of protests – Mumbai University, Gateway of India, Mantralaya, Kala Ghoda, Hutatma Chowk, and some arterial roads. The nature and cause of the protests underlined the choice of space.
Azad Maidan is a very big ground of about 25 acres. It is so big that it takes some time to visually comprehend where the protests are happening. After the protests are visually mapped, it takes time to reach the site on foot. As a venue for 10-20 meetings in one day and overlapping sounds of speeches, it is not difficult to imagine the efficacy of these protests.
In the past years, the space for protests on the Maidan has also shrunk with Mumbai Metro work in progress. This ground has more than 12 cricket pitches, too. When Azad Maidan became a prominent site of resistance during the anti CAA protests, the entire ground was taken over. But this time, there emerged a range of other protest sites too, which will be discussed later in the chapter.
Freedom Park is the official site for staging protests in Bengaluru. Formerly the Central Jail, it acquired significance during the Emergency when several opposition leaders were jailed here. Today the space has a Jail Museum, Sculpture Court, People Courtyard, Water Fountain, Book Museum, Amphitheatre and a dedicated space for protests – recreation, entertainment, and activism all rolled in one. The Town Hall, another popular site for protests, doesn’t allow for people to come in large numbers, because it is very close to a heavy traffic-laden road.
In Jaipur, Statue Circle, along with Central Park, was a very efficient site of protest as it faced the Vidhan Sabha straight in the eye on the road. Lawns around the Circle engaged people in large numbers. In fact, Statue Circle gave India the laws for Right to Information and the Employment Guarantee Scheme, two very important tools of democracy. Today it is only known for its cold coffee and beautiful lawns on both sides of the road. And the state government keeps iterating its location as a recreational space.
However, in recent years, the common man has not even been allowed to sit around these spaces by the police. You may buy your coffee from your car and leave! Parking is not allowed except for a very little number of vehicles. Of course, Statue Circle was one of the many venues for anti CAA protests that emerged in Jaipur.
The popular site for protests in Lucknow was in front of the Vidhan Sabha (the legislative assembly) of Uttar Pradesh. A certain ground in front of Lucknow University, far away from the power centre and certainly beyond the media and public eye, was designated by the government for its protests. Needless to say, there emerged other protest sites in the city.
Chennai’s Marina was a very active space of protest till the 1970s. Later venues shifted to T Nagar, Valluvar Kottam, and others. The government designated a large space near the Munro statue on Anna Salai, which doesn’t attract protestors though. When protests in favour of Jallikattu emerged in 2018, it was only natural that Marina became the space of dissent due to its associations with earlier protests. But after these protests, the state government prohibited protests at Marina Beach, which was later upheld by the Madras High Court.
An exception to official spaces of protests is Kolkata. Protests can happen on any street in Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, a state ruled for about 40 years by a communist government, as laughably discussed amongst common people. There are many protest sites in Kolkata, but the Brigade Ground is used by political parties primarily (Mamata Banerjee, the current Chief Minister of West Bengal, rose to power by addressing rallies here and still strongly opposes the central right-wing government from the same venue). Needless to say, there is no designated space for protest in this city.
Since most of the designated spaces are chosen by the government, they are constantly watched by the enforcement agency – the police. Permission for every protest has to be sought in the concerned police station. Certain numbers of police personnel are always deployed at these designated places. First Aid Kit, Ambulance, Fire Brigade Services, find space along with water cannons, lathis, protective gear, and other means of curbing protest.
Many simultaneous protests in the same (official) venue also deride the point of protest. The cacophony of sounds from the loudspeaker does not allow the protestor to focus and understand a single or many issues. Also, masses can be seen slipping from one protest to another, showing a lack of dedication to any cause. While protestors bond with each other over a range of issues, such sites also overload the audience with too much information and they get immediately put off. These ’ritualistic’ conditions ensure that the TRP hungry media does not cover the protests seriously.
Access points to these spaces of resistance ensure that interests don’t arise in protests. Even though these spaces are connected with local trains, roads, metro stations, the immediate road or gate is placed or monitored strategically to not allow masses to enter or exit in large numbers and acts as a spatial deterrent of sorts. Jantar Mantar has two streets as entry points and Azad Maidan also has two entrance gates. Gates and narrow streets, juxtaposed against gardens, grounds and lawns, trickle down the number of protestors entering the designated official protest sites. It is intended that the protest site should be far from the direct public view.
Proximity to protests on the roads and streets engage the common man and help them develop a perspective on politics, as they witness and hear the plights of the affected. Even as onlookers, they contribute to the numbers and maximise the impact of the protests. One has to remember the anti-corruption protests at Jantar Mantar led by Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal demanding Lokpal Bill. Even though Jantar Mantar was the chief site, it became successful only because there were many parallel protests for the same cause across Delhi and other cities of the country.
There is also a very huge list of protest events that have not been allowed by the police, under the pretext of maintaining law and order and crushing any possible dissent. This also pushes the citizens to go to courts. But it is a waste of time, resources and money for all stakeholders.
Yes, it is true that not all protests indeed occupy the national imagination. They don’t have to, maybe. But the anti CAA protests caught the attention of people, in almost every city of India. The Muslim minorities were the first to rise in protest against the insidious bill, as their identities and citizenship were threatened. No wonder then the first protests came up in Muslim neighbourhoods. Other citizens joined in too. It is here that the designated spaces of protest and newer sporadic spaces emerged.
Jantar Mantar, Azad Maidan, Freedom Park, and other “official” spaces were definitely spaces of protests. After a very long time in the history of Independent India, people poured in such large numbers to protest against an unjust law. But these spaces were not in the limelight. Other sites, inspired by Shaheen Bagh, became the sites of resistance in the country.
Bilaal Bagh, near Tannery Road in Bengaluru, like Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, had a shamiana (cloth tent) erected in the middle of the road. Businesses continued in nearby shops, even though traffic was not allowed, unlike Shaheen Bagh where all shops were shut down – while the protests were on. A wall of resistance, replete with posters and slogans, adorned the shamiana. A library was also built and made functional.
The Clock Tower in the old part of Lucknow was used as a recreational public space since the time it was constructed. It came as a surprise that this particular space became a site of resistance. It is now a politically dynamic space, liked by a few, disliked by others. A year later the Clock Tower has been converted into a police cantonment area so that protests cannot be allowed. But people will obviously find other places/spaces to protest.
Spaces, like people, have features and when historical events get attached to the place, they become alive along with their citizens standing for their constitutional rights. Jaipur found its sit-in protests at MI Road, though it wasn’t as extravagant or elaborate as other spaces. Protest marches were a regular feature around Gandhi Circle.
The 12-feet Morland Road behind Arabia Hotel in Nagpada was Mumbai’s Shaheen Bagh. Its name, Mumbai Bagh, very beautifully, connected protestors’ identity that was inherently connected with their city. The Uzhavar Sandhai ground, next to the Uyakondan River in Tiruchirapalli, Tamil Nadu, was a fruit and vegetable market. A shamiana was erected on this ground and protests continued like in other cities. People also organised a protest march to the Collector’s Office, two kilometers away.
These spaces are some of the innumerable protests that continued in India. An open ground, a colonial square, a small neighbourhood, an arterial road, or a street – none of these spaces is as closed as designated protest spaces. They did not have any association or history with protests; some of them were not even public spaces in the technical sense of the word. They were decided upon organically and spontaneously and other elements (tent, stage, chairs, sound system, etc.) were arranged by the communities themselves.
When the government did not pay heed to them, they became sit-ins. At any time in 24 hours, participants voluntarily sat in protests. Now food and logistics also came into play. Many communities came to cook and feed the protestors. People supported the protestors from cities and far away villages, in whatever capacities they could. The act of eating together was not about satiating hunger, but bonding as fellow citizens to stand with each other – a lesson the country had long forgotten.
Unlike designated spaces where none of this has to be thought of, every little detail in these spaces was ideated upon and executed by the protestors. The biggest advantage of these spaces was accessibility. They were in great proximity to the neighbourhood and at walking distance. That helped the womenfolk to be involved every day. They could finish their household chores, college studies, or office work and come to the site and participate in the protests. The evenings were therefore very vibrant with a bigger number of participants. Women sat in quiet resistance and their children also learnt big lessons in democracy and resilience.
These sites engaged in innovative and educational activities – volunteers taught painting, drawing, music, and dance to all those interested. Many protest sites also built a library for themselves to read and learn about the constitutional values and other important things about the country. Many artists came to these sites to perform for the protestors and express solidarity.
The large numbers of people who stood for the abolition of the CAA law reminded everyone of the independence movement of India. India didn’t achieve its freedom from merely protesting in urban centres of Bombay or Delhi or Calcutta. It did so when every village and town participated in the freedom struggle. This time, too, protests in every city became a mass consciousness, like during the independence movement that brought people together for common political action.
Locations carry meanings and those meanings become the meaning of the movement itself. The anti CAA protests have been named after Shaheen Bagh, a space that denotes freedom of expression. A point that requires mention here is that usually protests don’t get named by the site that they take place in, say after Jantar Mantar, Azad Maidan or Town Hall. They are usually named after people who organise these protests – farmers’ protests, workers’ protests, women’s movement, etc.
But naming an event/protest is also about claiming identity. In this case, the name “Shaheen Bagh” does not belong to a particular religion, gender, or caste, it denotes a space that does not discriminate against anyone, treats everyone equally, and propagates the ideal of a true citizen and nation.
When people occupy public spaces, they reclaim those spaces that were already theirs; albeit in a different way. When a different socio-economic order is employed in these spaces, they allow people to act in defiance against the state. This is a very liberating feeling. The notion of confrontation is subverted now! By locating the movement in a concrete space, they create a new community and confront the authorities, thereby amplifying the symbolism of freedom and democracy. Sanctioned spaces of dissent don’t possess these features; they function like mute spectators and as neutral containers of activity.
Excerpted with permission from Cities and Protests: Perspectives in Spatial Criticism, edited by Mamta Mantri, Cambridge Scholars Publishing.