Lok Sabha elections 2019: We need sites of protest as part of a healthy democracy

Among the several significant aspect of cities is that they are spaces wherein citizens can express their feelings— anger, hope and despair— they are sites of protest. They are, of course, not planned as sites of protest, but they have been claimed for and have witnessed some historic protests; think Tahrir Square in Egypt, the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia, Occupy Wall Street, the women’s march in Washington DC, and, closer home, the Nirbhaya protests at India Gate.

Cities are democratic spaces wherein diverse people and diverse ideas mingle and, therefore, protest and demonstrations are built into their DNA. Further, government power centres are located in cities and they are most often the target of protests; thus, capital cities often face a larger share of protests.

Democracy requires that people must be allowed to state their grievances with the government and other institutions of power. Unless protests become violent, hurt people and damage property, there is no reason for governments and institutions to fear protest in a democracy. City spaces must be claimed for protest. Last week, Delhi, as well as several cities in India, witnessed protests against the alleged lack of due process in the case of sexual allegations against the Chief Justice of India. But many of the protests were not allowed to take place and the protesters, despite being peaceful, were hauled off to police stations.

The space for democratic protest is shrinking—in Delhi, for example, till the 1990s, protests used to take place in the Boat Club area as well as India Gate and other places. Today, there is only a small patch of space in Jantar Mantar where people are allowed to protest or hold demonstrations. Citizens have been pushed into one corner of the city and we must question why peaceful protests are feared in a democracy.

In Gurugram, we have seen protests by residents on several issues, including the planned road through the Aravalli Biodiversity Park, women’s safety, air pollution and other social issues. There have been protests on MG Road, at Galleria, Khushboo Chowk, inside the Aravalli Biodiversity Park, among other places. Public spaces are required for public protests.

We have just witnessed a season of campaigning for the Lok Sabha elections take place completely on the streets as well as iconic public spaces like the Ramlila Maidan in Delhi, Azad Maidan in Mumbai, Kolkata’s Brigade Parade ground and other such places in cities across the country. A few years ago, the Ramlila grounds were the venue of the nationwide anticorruption protests in Delhi.

The space for protests can also be designed and planned out in several cities—for example, in Myanmar, the capital was moved out from Yangon to Naypyidaw, which is mainly occupied by government functionaries and the military. When protests rocked cities around the country, the capital was spared, as it was too far from where people lived. Tiananmen Square in Beijing is another example that was used to hold protests by people, but was overtaken by tanks and remains best suited for demonstrating weapons and has never again been used for protests.

As the largest democracy in the world, we must nurture spaces of democratic protests where we, as citizens, can share our hopes, anger, dreams as well as disappointments in a collective way and demand accountability from institutions.

First Published:
May 16, 2019 10:05 IST

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