Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Protest at Shastri Bhavan, or A Comedy in three parts.

It is a welcome sight to see in Delhi, that the powers that be still care enough about the people so as to provide them with entertainment on the streets. I was myself witness to one of these “happenings” today at the FTII student's protest against Gajendra Chauhan's position at the institute. It was for all practical purposes, a wholesome piece of family entertainment, with drama, pathos, comedy and a successful resolution for your narrator. It was even in three acts. Here is the comedy of The Protest at Shastri Bhavan.

            It is 1:30 pm at Shastri Bhavan opposite the press club, and the protesters are trickling in, in groups of  ones and twos. Some hold placards, some come with bottles of water, and one hirsute fellow is holding a drum. Some are drinking chai and smoking cigarettes, taking care of nerves. I am off to the side, smoking a cigarette, wearing corduroy pants and a panama hat. Observing and looking good  at the same time comes naturally.
            It is sweltering as only the sandstone jungle of the central secretariat in the high noon sun can be. People are talking amongst themselves and making introductions, while the CRP wallas sit  in the shade, armed with clear plastic lathis, looking at the protesters-to-be with beady eyes. As time goes on, the amount of protesters builds up and soon there are around 60 odd folk armed with placards, while a drummer holds his drum on the ready.

            There are journalists around interviewing the folk, asking them about their opinions on everything under the planet, and coming back to the topic of Modi and FTII. The scene is set for a protest to begin. Camera crews are on the ready, and the CRP Jawaans start limbering up. Lathi-charges are always fun when you are on the delivering side, and you don't want to pull a muscle.
In one collective movement, the group moves to the entry of Shastri Bhavan and stands on the ready, throats are being massaged, drums tightened, placards adjusted.

            And then It begins. Strangely silent. I move forward, and realise that the It is actually a photoshoot, because the TV crews are giving the press photographers some time to do their work. Professional courtesies go a long way in the business of making news. When a suitable amount of of photos with the protesters looking justly miffed, angry,  and protesting are taken in rapid succession, then the TV crews move in.

            The chants start from one side, with the usual “hamari maangein poori karo” starting it off. The protesters build up a momentum and the chanting becomes faster. Out from the back come members of the youth parties, and they start chanting on the other side.


            Suddenly a wave develops with sides alternating chants and outdoing each other on volume. Newer and newer chants of “Halla Bol” are screamed, and more and more complex lines are yelled. The rest try to keep up. It seems that the various groups are trying to gauge the other groups in the protest and their volume.
            For the convenience of the general public, the separate groups are colour coded. The comrades are wearing red kurtas and jeans, holding drums with the hammer and sickle spray painted on them. The youth party members are wearing t-shirts and jeans. The JNU students are in a motley array of ethnic and western clothing, united in the disparity of style. The FTII alumni are gaudy and multicoloured, distinguished by their aviators and other accouterments of sun protection. The colour coding shows that while the FTII wallahs are shouting for the FTII rights, the comrades and the youth party members are shouting against the party in power.  
            The drummer suddenly hits the groove with the party wallah chant leader, and the chants turn into songs rather then screams. The crowd moves in making it a circle, and in the middle are the TV crews furiously taking interviews upon interviews with the people on the front line of the protest. The chants change, from ones demanding the rights of FTII students to chants against Modi and Arun Jaitley, loudly inviting him out to meet the protesters. One side drowns out the other, and the other side tries to come back with renewed vigor. The protest has turned into a sauve qui peut and agendas are pouring forth faster then the drummers and the TV reporters can keep up.
            Suddenly, out of nowhere an empty Delhi Transport bus emerges. It has been but 20 minutes since the protest started. There is a line of CRP jawaans on the gate blocking entry. More CRP Jawaans come from the side, and suddenly the more aware members of the protesters realise that their goose is cooked. I see the cops moving in, and I nonchalantly start moving back and stand to the side. I have never been to jail and have no intention of being taken into custody today.
            Suddenly CRP wallahs rush from my side, and the older members of the protesters start making everyone sit down. Hands are linked and the Delhi police steps in, pulling people up and into the bus. It starts off slow, with people fighting and screaming, but soon more people join into the fray. People are being pulled by their clothes, kicked, and dragged kicking and screaming. The ones inside the bus are poking their entire torsos out of the windows and chanting and beating on their spray painted drums. Flags are waving everywhere as the crowd sitting slowly dwindles, more and more are forced into the bus.
            There is a rotund fellow with his handlebar mustache askew, who is gripping to a pole on the pavement with all his might. Three Delhi police constables physically pry him off the pole and carry him horizontal to the bus, and for a instant he seems he is crowd surfing. The effect is ruined because he and everyone in the bus are cussing out loud at the cops.
            People are now jumping on the bus on their own volition. It seems the entire party is on the bus and the protest just got a moving platform to parade around the area. Some people are screaming obscenities against Delhi police, some are smiling for the cameras, some are chanting for FTII rights, and there is a fellow still banging on the drum.
            The bus peels away and the chants from the bus fade into the distance, and an unnatural quiet surrounds the area.


            I am standing on the side, stunned, my cigarette hanging dumbly from my lips, and I see a small group of the senior protesters on the side. Grey haired and dressed well, they saw the whole protest happen, and their presence was tacit support. They are one member short, the rotund fellow with the askew mustache is already on his way to the police station.
            They accost an inspector of the Delhi police and start telling him off. He responds by saying that section 144 was put in action, and the protesters needed permission and were violent. A matronly old lady with steel gray hair starts chastising him. “The protesters were anything but violent. This is a miscarriage of justice”. He keeps on repeating that they needed permission, and from behind me a fellow wryly admits that the permission granting authorities were the ones against whom the protest was. Neither the older protesters not the cops are making any headway, just repeating the same thing over and over. “The protesters did nothing wrong” “we are just doing our job. You have a problem, talk to the boss.”

            I knew the mistake the protesters had made. If only they had dressed up like Mahabharat characters and  used Molotov cocktails, then the entire police brutality would have been worth it. What is the point of being hauled in for a simple protest? If you have to go, go in style. As I am musing on more entertaining strategies for protest and institutional critique, another bus pulls in, this one empty too. A police constable grabs my arm and tells me to start walking. While I tell him that I was standing and just smoking a cigarette, he turns around, and catches another fellow around my age by his scruff. We both are ceremoniously dumped into the bus. I call the cop a crypto-fascist, but he does not register.

            At this time I realise that this is not a time for wry observations and distant cynicism, so I call a friend to come and get me, and post bail if needed. The folk in the back are loudly discussing what is going to happen and what has been going on. As I settle down into my surprisingly comfortable chair, comes the cavalry. Out from the market in front of the press club comes a group of 5 people with red stars on their flag, a big banner proclaiming support and a drum. Their chants are new, and fill the silence of the area.

            Without missing a beat, the policemen turn around and push them into the bus. They gladly step in, and poke their torsos out of the windows and gaily fly their flags high, singing songs and calling for “Inqlaab”. The bus starts moving and gets to the Parliament Street Police Station. The CRP starts moving out the protesters, and I am the last to move.

            As I near the driver, he stops me, and asks me what was wrong. I tell him I was smoking and got picked up. He tells me to stay quiet and sit down behind him as he turns on the engine. A couple of cops come in and ask me to get off, but the driver protests my innocence. He is convinced I am on the straight and narrow because of my pants and the hat.

            The CRP cops outside, 5 of them, with vicious smiles on their face tell me to come out. I protest  that I was just smoking. They tell me I can smoke inside, they will even provide chai. While I am tempted to take them up on their offer, I am aware that police chai generally leaves a welt or two on the backside.

            I have no choice, I start walking towards the station.

            There is no one around me, but I am walking towards the inner gate of the police station. If the fashion is to court arrest, who am I to stop? When in Rome... I turn to the gate and see the protesters in a courtyard. There is a tree with ample shade, and they are in a circle, chanting, flags flying high. They are letting lose with the chants, sparing no one. While the radical bonhomie and protesting in unity and comradely good fellowship is a charming thought, I decide that I would do better not in the hands of the police. Self preservation wins out. With a smart about turn, learned through years of marching in school, I turn around and start walking out of the station. A cop stops me, and before he can say anything, I pull out a notepad, and ask him how many did they get. Over a hundred, he replies. With a nod and a tip of the hat, I walk out, free. It has been less then an hour since the protest started.

            I get back home, and take a bath, because it was hotter then the hinges of hell in the bus and in the protest. Call  Kislay, one of the leaders of the protest. As of 6 pm, they are still in the police station, detained for breaking a law they didn't know about, by law enforcement doing their job with perverse gusto, ordered around and dissatisfied by a government hell bent on enforcing only what it thinks is right, and crushing down dissent with an iron foot.

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