On January 19, Sharjeel Imam, a school topper, IIT-Bombay alumnus, former software engineer and well-travelled JNU doctoral student in history, was arrested for sedition from his hometown in Bihar’s Jehanabad. In a speech at Aligarh Muslim University that went viral on the internet, he had suggested that if at least five lakh Muslims mobilise and organise a “chakka jam” or road blockade, they could cut off Assam and the North East from the rest of India India. His speech was brash, but the strategy of calling for a blockade was neither surprising nor outrageous.

Social movements all over the world rely on what is called “invasive disruption” – blocking streets, prominent buildings and public spaces in order to disrupt institutions in whose functioning the protestors have no regular role. This stands in contrast to the strategy workers use when they go on strike: in that case, they refuse to perform the routine role they play in the functioning of the factory.

Because workers are essential to a factory’s functioning, if workers choose to stop work, it would have direct implications for the employers and their profit margins. This dependency has often forced management to engage with, and possibly give in to, workers’ demands.

No structural leverage

But the invasive disruption of chakka jams are used when people lack that sort of structural leverage over the system to directly pressure the target. The poor, informal workers, marginal farmers and Muslims, all fit into this category.

The lack of leverage of India’s Muslims is obvious from the National Sample Survey Office 2011-’12 report, which shows that Muslims have the lowest worker population ratio or the number of employed persons per 1,000. In rural areas, this stands at 33.7% and in urban areas at 34.2%.

The labour force participation rate, which represents the number of people in the labour force employed or unemployed, was also lowest among Muslims, averaging at 53.2% for men and a dismal 13.4%. In line with this pattern, the highest proportion of households with casual labour as their major source of income were also found to be Muslim. In rural areas, 370 of every 1,000 Muslim households depend on casual labour, irregular, or temporary work for a living.

Muslims form 13.8% of the Indian population. Thirty one per cent of the community is poor, just behind Dalits and Adivasis at 35%. The Muslim community is too poor and small a number to matter for the smooth running of the state.

This means that Muslims don’t have much structural leverage to act and to be heard. Many would blame this on the Muslim community itself, for keeping their women at home and not educating their children. While Muslims have the lowest literacy levels of any community in India, economists Irfan Ahmad Sofi and Santosh Mehrotra find this to be driven by their low income levels, rather than any cultural traits. Most Muslim families cannot afford to send their children to school and, contrary to popular belief, the Sachar Committee Report in 2006 showed that only 3% of Indian Muslims chose to send them to madrasas.

In fact, the Sachar Committee showed that the participation of salaried Muslims in the public and private sector was also low, comparable again, to Dalits and Adivasis, and their average salary was lower than that of other workers. The committee reported banks marking several Muslim areas as negative geographical zones with the result that Muslims received half as many bank loans in comparison to other minority communities and one third in comparison to all others.

The Centre for Equity studies in its 2016 India Exclusion Report found landlessness among Muslims to be rampant – at 52.6%. It was 57.3% for Dalits. Researcher Bordia Das found this lack of land ownership to be the main reason for the low participation of Muslim women in the labour market. Purdah was not the problem, she found, concurrent with Naila Kabeer’s findings on women in work in Bangladesh. Women work irrespective of the purdah, finding ways to subvert if they have land and employment options.

The women of Shaheen Bagh understand this absence of a structural leverage. Credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Lessons for mobilisation

The women of Shaheen Bagh, understanding this absence of structural leverage, made strategic use of the political opportunity that opened up in Delhi during elections. They managed to disrupt the normal functioning of the city, occupying a street and through this, making people take notice.

Shaheen Bagh stands in contrast to the street occupation by women in the Muslim stronghold of Frazer town in Bengaluru in January, which lasted only 48 hours. Women and students who took part in the occupation later complained that the police had put immense pressure on the local mosque, outside which the protest had occurred, asking them to shut it down. Besides, the protest went almost unnoticed since it occurred inside a neighbourhood that has many Muslims. The protestors had neither disrupted state functioning nor had the same political opportunity of impending elections available to the Shaheen Bagh protesters in Delhi.

Sharjeel Imam had the same idea. If Muslims needed to be heard, one of the only chances they had, he suggested, was through invasive disruption. A friend of his, Fatima, was reported confirming this in The Print. “Since day one, Sharjeel has talked about how our protests can get the attention of the government and the civil society,” she said. “The government doesn’t care about us, especially Muslims, so his call to ‘chakka jam’ [road blockades] was merely an attempt to make the government listen to us.”

While arriving at the conclusion that blockades can be effective is understandable, the downside is that these tactics have a very limited life. Road blockades can rally support and gain attention but are most likely to be met with repression. Shaheen Bagh is already under threat as the Delhi elections draw near.

Taking the cause forward

The only way out is for movements to find allies with structural leverage who can then take the cause forward, as was the case with the Arab Spring in Egypt. An analysis of protests in Alexandria showed that workers in the port town, having the ability to cause an economic blockade, were integral in supporting the Tahir square protesters in Cairo and in bringing down the regime. What is also worth noting is that forming and working with workers and collectives in the long run was beneficial, even when issues change.

Movements from around the world have also shown that wisdom lies in recognising people beyond the protestors’ identity, who share similar conditions. Sociologist Rina Agarwala in her work on informal labour in India has shown that unlike earlier arrangements, where negotiations would take place directly between workers and management, with the state being a mediator, most workers today being informal, casual or in a state of unemployment, have moved their struggle to direct claim-making over the state.

They do that by using the concept of citizenship. “…Informal workers are organising along class lines and using their power as voting citizens to expand their rights and make social welfare claims on the state”, focusing on education and child welfare, among other areas, Agarwala noted.

Any such collective demands on the state requires numbers. And if the game is in finding numbers, people like the women of Shaheen Bagh need to build class alliances to demand rights from the state as citizens. The problem is, if the state remains firm in implementing the Citizenship Amendment Act, many Muslims could be stripped of their citizenship and disenfranchised. What India will see is only more chakka jams.

Juhi Tyagi is an Assistant Professor in the School of Development at Azim Premji University. She works on the political economy of social movements.