In light of the sustained farmers’ agitation at Delhi against three new agricultural laws, Prime Minister Narendra Modi coined two new terms to describe the protesters: he said they were andolan jeevis (people who thrived on protest) who were under the sway of FDI – not Foreign Direct Investment, as the acronym is commonly understood, but Foreign Destructive Ideology.

In 2020 alone, the country witnessed several significant protests: they included agitations against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act and proposed National Register of Citizens; against violence at the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus; to demand the revival of the the BSNL public sector telecom undertaking; three labour codes; to express outrage at the gangrape of a Dalit girl in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras.

A broad range of Indians participated in these protests: members of opposition political parties, student organisations, employee associations, trade unions, worker’s rights groups, environmental activists, human rights advocates and journalists.

The government has refused to submit to the protesters’ demands. On the contrary, it has been reluctant to budge even an inch and is leaning towards the kind of foolhardy valour that the statesman like Chanakya warned against in the Arthashastra.

Four methods

In his treatise, Chanakya advises a ruler to anticipate the discontentment among his subjects and take appropriate steps to prevent it from becoming more intense. He lists the probable reasons for their unhappiness as if the ruler did what ought not to be done or failed to do what ought to be done; if the ruler ignored the good of the people; if the ruler did not punish those who ought to be punished but punished those who did not deserve to be; if the ruler caused harm to the leaders of the people and insulted those worthy of honour.

Chanakya propounded a standard set of four methods to deal with situations of potential or actual conflict arising between the ruler and the ruled: sama (conciliation), dana (placating with gifts), bheda (sowing dissension) and danda (use of force).

He recommended that a ruler should adopt conciliation, which is the most appropriate, convenient and effective method of pacifying unhappy citizens especially vulnerable, marginalised and weak subjects residing in the villages.

Delhi Police officers detain a demonstrator during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act near Jamia Millia Islamia University last February. Credit: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Several centuries later, Social Contract theorist John Locke noted that while subjects gave up their basic rights of life, liberty and property to the monarch, they nevertheless retained with themselves the right to resist monarchical tyranny. To that extent, Locke emphasised the need of the citizens to question their monarch if the rule of law was ignored, if citizens’ rights were violated and if the representatives of the people were prevented from assembling peacefully. The likelihood of a potential protest by unhappy citizens helps keep the monarch in check as well as discourage him from becoming tyrannical.

When the man who would later become India’s first prime minister evaluated Mohandas Gandhi’s contribution to the freedom struggle, Jawaharlal Nehru noted that the Mahatma had introduced a unique method of questioning authority that was the very antithesis of the “quietism” that characterised the Indian mind – the calm acceptance of things as they are without attempts to resist or change them.

Filled with dynamic energy and equipped with the knowledge of India’s culture and traditions, Gandhi not only drove himself but also drove the Indian masses into fruitful action, Nehru wrote in The Discovery of India. According to him, a “peaceful and courteous” method to bring about social change was the only right way – and if rightly pursued, an infallible one.

Gandhi’s gospel of protest action was: “Get off the backs of these peasants and workers, all of you who live by their exploitation; get rid of the system that produces this poverty and misery.” The essence of his teaching was “fearlessness and truth, and action allied to these always keeping the welfare of the masses in view”. If Gandhi were still alive, it’s clear that he would be branded as the foremost “andolan jeevi”.

Gandhi’s litmus test

Gandhi gave the concept of political freedom new form and content. First, he introduced a litmus test for all government action by questioning how far the laws and policies benefit the people and whether the means adopted to achieve the objectives are righteous and moral. Second, he made protest as a legitimate exercise of political freedom easily available to the Indian people, accessible by all, and accommodative of the circumstances and vulnerabilities of all strata of society – especially, the weaker sections.

Unfortunately, today political freedom seems to mean only one thing to Indians: to carry out the wishes of the paternalistic state and to avoid questioning any of its interests. Subject to that proviso, political freedom can flourish unchecked.

Quoting the ancient King Janaka and Hindu Vedic sage Yagnavalkya, Gandhi observed that the greatest gift for an individual or a nation was not mere military strength or physical courage but the absence of fear from the minds of its citizens. The prevailing sentiment under a government should not be that of fear – pervasive, oppressing, strangling fear; fear of the army, the police, cyber vigilantes; fear of laws meant to suppress and imprison; fear of unemployment and starvation.

Overcoming their individual fears and adopting the Gandhian method of protest, Indians today are questioning the very foundations of the ruling dispensation, which are fear, majoritarianism, the cooperation – willing or unwilling – of the masses, and certain classes whose vested interests are secured by the rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The question they ask is: how can the ruling dispensation forget that during Ram Rajya, Ram, the king of Ayodhya on whose example India is supposedly being governed, proclaimed loud and clear before his subjects: “If I ever make an unjust or inappropriate policy, then stop me without any hesitation or fear.”

Prerna Dhoop is a human rights lawyer and Vandana Dhoop is an independent research consultant.