Democracy and the right to protest

In 1971, at a student rally in the US, I was part of an anti-war demonstration against the US’ involvement in Vietnam. An enraged group of some 20,000 people, with placards of “No War” and “Get out of Vietnam”, we shouted slogans against the US government and heckled the occupants of the White House. I carried a “Nepalm Pentagon” sign amongst many other foreign students who also opposed the war. As a resident in the US, I had every right to raise my voice, even though I was ineligible for the draft or to vote. Freedom to protest was not confined to American citizens.
India, however, denies democratic rights not just to foreigners in the country but also to its own nationals. While Indian NGOs are regularly targeted for harassment by the Indian government, Sonnteg Reiner Hermann, a German on a tourist visa in India, was recently deported by the home ministry for participating in the anti-nuclear protest in Tamil Nadu. Defending his deportation decision, home minister P. Chidambaram said, “There was information to show that Hermann had links with the anti-Koodankulam stir”, and that “was not consistent with a person who had come here on a tourist visa”.
Is a tourist visa only for viewing monuments and shopping? If so, could Mr Hermann have been jailed for not visiting the Taj Mahal, or not buying trinkets? Should tourist itineraries be approved by the home ministry before a visa is issued? Should then foreigners on a work visa even be allowed to visit monuments?
Within the law, unless there are clear signs of promoting anti-national and seditious activities, a tourist is understandably free to participate in any activity in the country, except employment.
Protest is a singularly democratic method for any government to soften its shrill and dogmatic line, and is tolerated in most democracies around the world. The cross-border protest against Dow Chemicals’ sponsorship of London Olympics is a case in point. Should Britain, like India, outlaw these demonstrations and deport demonstrators for embarrassing one of its top sponsors, and that too for an incident that Britain has nothing to do with.
It is well known that the nuclear debate in Europe and the propagation of new power plants by some countries there garnered massive opposition from Greenpeace and local parties, enough to alter the thinking of some governments. The protesters were an international coalition whose remarkable anti-nuke cause was without boundaries. As a result of their efforts, almost 40 per cent of Germany’s energy needs are today met by alternate sources.
In India, the problem lies inherently in an archaic nationalism. A couple of years ago, a tired Sania Mirza after a gruelling match, inadvertently stretched her feet to relax, towards the Indian flag. Before she could retract, unknown to her, a cameraman had snapped a picture of her “unpatriotic” gesture and published it in a newspaper. At a rural school in Uttar Pradesh, a young girl who didn’t know the lyrics of Vande Mataram was punished by the teacher. More recently, the heavy hand of the Indian government stretched beyond the borders of Ukraine, refusing visas to young women tourists believed — erroneously — to be prostitutes. So outrageous was the presumption that Femen, a politically savvy protest group of young topless women, raised a stink at the Indian embassy, stomping on the Indian flag and demanding an apology. Instead of resolving this situation diplomatically, the embassy officials were so enraged at the desecration of the flag that they filed criminal charges against the women with the local police. The reaction from the topless women was even more telling. Many among them asked openly, “Is India a democratic country? If so, why can’t it tolerate protest?”
The answer to their first question is a resounding “maybe”. Antiquated norms in India are the result of having accepted and wholeheartedly embraced old colonial ideals as our own, and an unwillingness to remove moral policing from the judiciary and politics. As society changed, rules and legal codes continued to change in England. But India has remained steadfast in its adherence to old foreign ideas in bureaucracy, civic regulation and other matters of governance. Moreover, social and caste forces today not only make generations unsure of each other but also create new barriers of misunderstanding. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the broader definitions of individual freedoms — the freedom to speak freely, make sexual choices freely, use the flag or any other national symbol in personal expression, travel across borders, exchange ideas across the Internet, buy products online.
Much of this was not even possible in the 20th century. The state’s maintenance of personal, professional and national boundaries at the time was taken for granted. Today, of course, changes in technologies, social mores and instant communications have, for all intents and proposes, altered that. In a world so closely connected, the state’s imposition of its antiquated models calls for a fresh mandate. The hokey and trivial patriotism that had plagued an unconfident India of the 20th century will, hopefully, be dumped. Burning a flag or protesting across international borders can no longer be treated as a crime. The government’s recognition of a new reality will only bridge the growing divide between the state and the citizen. And protest is a crucial measure of the differences remaining between the two. Without it, we might as well vote for Hugo Chavez or Vladimir Putin. Or, for that matter, Manmohan Singh.

Gautam Bhatia, architect, artist and writer, has built extensively in India and the US

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