THE SPARK OF PROTEST
By Sanjay Pinto

“They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” This mexican proverb is a reflection of the champagne bottle theory – when you try to suppress an emotion, it pops up with greater force. The ‘power of one’, amplified by a common sentiment can  easily spark street activism, with the potential to grow into a crusade and ultimately, a movement. An idea that formed the basic premise of  Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Tipping Point’. What sustains such movements are not money or muscle power but conviction. The political biriyani-booze template of crowd sourcing was no match for  the force multiplier effect of the social media. That’s how viral trumped political forces on the sands of the Marina. The epicentre of #JallikattuProtests was big enough, historic enough for North Vindhya centric tv channels to cut to 24×7 saturation live coverage with hashtags of Tamil terms. The analogies of the Arab Spring added fuel to the raging fire.

A raw nerve was touched. The ban on jallikattu was perceived as an affront to Tamil pride. What else would explain why there were no protests of this magnitude against the NEET entrance test? Or demonetisation? Or TASMAC shops? Or Sri Lanka? Or capitation fees? Why didn’t it become an election issue in May last year?

Ideology can cave in or become an amoeba word in the face of a mass uprising. This was spectacular. Because it broke political barriers. Almost all the parties were forced to be on the same page. Even the national parties. While the constituencies of the BJP viewed the ban on jallikattu as an attack on their rituals and customs, the minorities saw it as another manifestation of policing beliefs. Because it defied age, gender, class and caste. Because although it had no leaders but only volunteers, it was incredibly organised and disciplined, except for the ending, evident from the images of the protesters helping with traffic regulation and clearing garbage on the beach. Because it became politically correct for public figures to bat for culture. I’m not referring to film stars alone but also the spectacle of  a legal eagle asked to stand down and withdraw from the fresh legal challenge to the bill following an outcry from the State unit of his party. Coincidentally, I had locked horns with him on live television with legal arguments in support of a regulated jallikattu just a few days earlier.

With an ordinance promulgated, followed by a Bill unanimously passed in the Tamil Nadu assembly, the protesters had every reason for celebration. Instead, sections of them were probably misguided into choosing protraction. The role of miscreants cannot be brushed aside. The endgame was clearly not as expected. The clamour for a permanent solution was misplaced as following the Constitution Bench decision in the Coelho case, even laws placed in the ninth Schedule of the Constitution are subject to judicial review. If organisations like PETA can mount legal challenges, don’t tell me our youngsters cannot fight back by impleading in the cases? The move to rope in a retired High Court judge to explain the legal position could have been made a day earlier. A few decades ago, I remember a joke doing the rounds about a question an IPS aspirant was asked at the UPSC interview. “How will you disperse a crowd?” Pat came the repartee. “I’ll pass the hat around!” Jokes aside, the soul stirring speeches of two young DCPs –  Mylapore’s V. Balakrishnan in Chennai and Mayil Vaganan in Trichy helped to pacify the restive crowd.

Violence perpetrated by anyone must be condemned. Policemen or women setting fire to vehicles cannot be condoned. However, action cannot be taken without adhering to the principles of natural justice. An impartial enquiry must be completed at the earliest and punishment meted out if guilt is proved. It does not take too long to forensically examine video footage. The actions of black sheep must not be allowed to tar the exemplary work done by good cops. Public memory is proverbially short.It was the same cops who looked after the protesters untill the last day, some of whom even joined the protest and made speeches wearing their uniform. It was the same cops who ensured that former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’ss funeral passed off peacefully, without a single incident of violence. It was the same cops who went beyond the call of duty in the aftermath of cyclone Vardah. And these events were back to back, leaving hardly any time for recuperation.

People attend a protest demanding to reverse a Supreme Court ban on the traditional bull-taming contests, known as Jallikattu, at the Marina beach in Chennai, January 19, 2017.

The miscreants who blocked roads and indulged in stone pelting must also not be spared. But merely booking cases and making arrests will be a band aid solution. The reasons for the pent up anger and resentment must be studied. The same fishermen had helped the police and the public during the floods in December, 2015. Officers like DCP Balakrishnan are best suited to administer a healing touch.

There is also something fundamentally wrong with the way we protest. And handle protests. A protest is to create public opinion, highlight a cause and win sympathy and support. You don’t do this through road blocks and by causing hardship to the public whose support you seek. The Japanese protest not by downing shutters but by working extra. However, the catch is that while machines in factories would run, the workers in the footwear industry, would make, for instance, only the right or left shoes! We need more innovative forms of  making our voice heard. It’s one thing to reiterate the court order that the Marina Beach is out of bounds for protests and rallies. But what are the other venues that can accommodate a protest of a sizeable magnitude? Are such places available within city limits? We do need to dovetail two probably conflicting requirements – maximum visibility and minimum inconvenience in our democratic set up that should make room for dissent. Otherwise, the predictable turn of events will keep unfolding – protesters vs cops, violence, finger pointing, demands for CBI probes, a One man Commission of Enquiry. The antidote to avoid getting back to square one could lie in a public square!

(Sanjay Pinto is a Lawyer at the Madras High Court, Columnist, TV Political Commentator, Author, Public Speaking Mentor & Former Resident Editor of NDTV 24×7)