With the NGT asking protesters to move out of Jantar Mantar, Aniruddha Ghosal tells the story of the tree-lined boulevard that for 24 years lent a space to anyone who wielded a placard and a cause — from a man fighting to prove he is alive to the 2011 Lokpal agitation that scripted a new political narrative.
Last Thursday, Manohar Lal stopped hoping. His nearly 40-year battle for justice had ended, he had given up, he explained. Evicted from Jantar Mantar, the solo protester headed home to Dewas near Indore in Madhya Pradesh. Before leaving, he had dumped a few photocopies of pamphlets into a garbage bin at Jantar Mantar. “It would have weighed me down,” he says.
The 60-year-old’s protest began in 1978, when the small shoe factory he ran in Dewas was “attacked” by the management of a larger conglomerate. Extortion and violence allegedly followed, forcing him to give up the factory. A long legal battle saw him selling off almost everything he owned and he even ended up in jail. After he came out, in 2016, he headed to Jantar Mantar. “When I came here, I realised that my experience was neither uncommon nor the worst. It was the most humbling experience to realise that there were so many people like me. It made me feel less alone. All of us wanted justice, wanted to be heard.”
On October 30, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned protests at Jantar Mantar, in the heart of New Delhi, after some residents of the area argued that they had to put up with noise pollution and unhygienic surroundings. The NGT found merit in their plea and asked authorities to shift the protesters to an alternative site — Ramlila Maidan, about 4 km away. The tribunal cited three grounds while issuing these directions — there is no executive order that demarcates Jantar Mantar as a ‘protest site’, that it’s marked as a ‘residential area’ in the Delhi Master Plan and finally, that the agitations caused noise pollution.
And so, on October 30, dissent lost a 24-year-old address. The proposed alternative, the 15-acre Ramlila Maidan, run by the North Delhi Municipal Corporation, usually lets out the ground for a fee — to one party at a time for Rs 50,000 a day — for big political rallies, religious functions and even weddings.
Jantar Mantar, on the other hand, was the capital’s Hyde Park, where all you needed was a cause, a placard and a voice. That is how some of the protests, big and small, came to be held on the lane abutting the 18th-century observatory — from 36-year-old Santosh Murat Singh, who has been fighting to be proved alive after being declared dead 12 years ago, to the 2011 Lokpal agitation led by Anna Hazare that shook the establishment of the day. The physical proximity of the site to Parliament — less than 2 km away — was crucial to its relevance. Some see a larger symbolism in the NGT ruling — that the establishment, by moving the protesters further away from the seat of power, was muffling the voice of protest.
Four days after the NGT order, the Jantar Mantar road, now cleared of debris and dissent, seems larger and quieter. Still barricaded on both sides, it is only at lunch time that the roadside eateries, with the usual fare of dosas, idlis and chole bhature, see some queues. But these are orderly; dissent, if any, is restricted to the lack of seasoning.
The story of Jantar Mantar as a protest site began in 1993. There was no ordinance, no official declaration, yet the tree-lined boulevard that connects Tolstoy Road to the Ashoka Road roundabout came to be the only place in New Delhi where Section 144 — the 19th-Century British-era law that prohibits the assembly of more than five people — was not imposed. That year, the capital got its new dissent square — Jantar Mantar.
Until then, at a time when Delhi was still to expand its boundaries southwards and eastwards, it was the Boat Club, with its view of Janpath, Rajpath and Parliament, that was the iconic space for resistance. But with the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid movement gripping the country, the Congress-led government, already rattled by an earlier agitation in 1988, imposed a ban on gatherings at the Boat Club.
The 1988 agitation had been led by western UP farm leader Mahendra Singh Tikait. With five lakh farmers and their cows, Tikait had reportedly paralysed Delhi. After initially camping at Raj Ghat, they had moved to Boat Club and finally taken over the lawns of India Gate in their bullock carts, camping there for weeks.
A police officer posted at that time at the Parliament Street police station said, “The entire movement was a nightmare for us. Imagine Delhi, the way it used to be — quiet, far fewer cars… New Delhi especially was pristine. Suddenly, there were cows and farmers everywhere.”
Tikait’s organisation, the Bharatiya Kisan Union, was born from the spectacular success of that Boat Club rally, which had forced the Rajiv Gandhi government to accept his 35-point charter of demands.
But after that, it became apparent to successive governments that the protest venue had to be controlled. Jantar Mantar seemed ideal at the time. Though it was close to Parliament, it was not large enough to hold a big crowd. Besides, the topography of Jantar Mantar, with its two main entry and exit points, was easier to manage.
Initially a trickle and eventually a torrent, protesters began moving into Jantar Mantar. Having travelled hundreds of kilometres from home, Jantar Mantar was their home for as long as they had the spirit to fight. They came, hoping their stories would be heard -— from a farmer reeling under debts after successive droughts, to women who had been raped, but had not found justice. Each of these stories shared a similar sentiment: “We want to be heard, we matter.”
At Jantar Mantar, democracy and dissent shared a complicated relationship. While some protests fizzled out, others led to momentous shifts in political realities.
On April 5, 2011, Anna Hazare, then a relatively unknown social activist from Maharashtra, began a hunger strike at Jantar Mantar to root out corruption and to demand a Lokpal Bill. The movement snowballed, with prominent activists such as Prashant Bhushan and Arvind Kejriwal joining in, finally leading to the birth of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
Journalist-turned-AAP leader Ashutosh says, “Boat Club was wide and vibrant, very different from Jantar Mantar. There was a lot of space. From one end you could see Rajpath and from the other, you could see Janpath. Jantar Mantar, on the other hand, is a much more closed space. But the proximity to Parliament, the seat of power, is much more symbolic at Jantar Mantar than at Boat Club. For years, Jantar Mantar was an essential training ground for young journalists — to see how democracy works and the ways in which it doesn’t.”
Senior BJP leader Vijay Jolly, who began his political career as a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and served as president of the Delhi University Students Union from 1980-81, says that just as protests sites changed, so did the nature of protests. “Today, with the advent of TV debates, political battles are no longer fought on the streets or college campuses. Instead, lung power is exerted on television debates. Now with WhatsApp and other social media tools, it is easy to get people to turn up for causes,” he says, pointing out that parties such as the AAP mobilised their crowds at Jantar Mantar through some smart use of social media.
Looking back to the times when he was younger and angrier, Jolly says, “Back in 1977, I was able to protest at Patel Chowk and that is something that’s impossible now for very important reasons. But in a democracy, protest is one’s inherent right. A protest, by its very definition, is going to inconvenience some. But if you have to pay Rs 1 lakh at Ramlila Maidan to protest, it is just not right.”
Few know more about the political power that Jantar Mantar potentially possessed than the Congress. Their defeat in Delhi in 2013 was linked to the 2011 anti-corruption protests and the December 16 protests that began from Jantar Mantar and spilled onto the streets of India Gate. But the party’s Ajay Maken says, “Jantar Mantar is close to Parliament and that was important — one could say you’re demonstrating outside Parliament. Now that has changed and that is simply undemocratic. Secondly, if NGT has raised the issue of noise pollution, won’t it be an issue with Ramlila Maidan so close to GB Pant Hospital and LNJP hospital. And finally, the move is elitist… you’re not allowing common people to protest in Lutyens Delhi, keeping it free of the din of protests.” Maken has been at the centre of several protests in Delhi, first as DUSU president in 1985 and then as the president of Delhi Transport Corporation Trade Union.
Conservation architect Anisha Shekhar Mukherji, who has authored Jantar Mantar: Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh’s Observatory in Delhi, says the decision to move out the protest site was reflective of the “fragmentation” of the city, reminiscent of how the British designed Imperial Delhi.
“Originally, the Jantar Mantar area was outside the city of Shahjahanabad (today’s Old Delhi). In 1857, the area had served as a refuge for the inhabitants of Shahjahanabad, who had been turned out of the old city by the British. But when Lutyens was designing the new city, he actively ignored existing spaces and inhabitants — the new capital wasn’t for common people. The same attitude continues today,” she says, adding that the protests on the street outside were never an impediment to the historical structure. “The only time in recent years that protesters entered the observatory was during a farmer rally in 2009,” she says.
Historian, activist and filmmaker Sohail Hashmi talks of how the space for protest shrunk even within Jantar Mantar. “Back in 1993, we could hold protests at the triangular park between the monument and the road. I have participated in and organised several such protests. But they had to beautify the park, so they shifted the protesters to the road. Then they put up barricades, so the space shrank further,” he says, adding, “In the capital city of the world’s largest democracy, this was the last remaining site to air dissent. Such spaces exist in the heart of London, New York and Washington DC, but here, you close it down? For what? Because some rich people think that it’s too noisy?”
Not everyone agrees that the move to stop protests at Jantar Mantar is “undemocratic”. Back in 1993, when Jantar Mantar was designated the protest street, Ashish Sood was a fledgling politician and a former DUSU president. Now a BJP councillor with the South Delhi Municipal Corporation, he recalls how the shift from Boat Club had triggered a similar debate.
“Earlier, protests would take place at a chowk on Akbar Road, then they moved to the Boat Club, and finally, they came to Jantar Mantar. When VP Singh was PM, I rode my scooter right up to his 7 Race Course Road residence to protest, at a time when the party was taking up the issue of Ram Janmabhoomi. Later, when I protested against the Bofors scam, I marched all the way from Jantar Mantar to Parliament. Now all that is unthinkable. But the population of Delhi then was a mere 25 lakh. Today, Delhi is growing at an incredible pace, and traffic and pollution are major concerns. The question that one needs to ask is whether protesting for one’s rights can infringe on the rights of others,” he says, adding, “If the cause has substance, if it has the power to move people, the venue is irrelevant.”
Historian Narayani Gupta agrees, “It’s one thing to get nostalgic about Jantar Mantar, but one also has to be pragmatic and find a practical solution for a space to protest. The park outside Feroz Shah Kotla, for instance, can work.”
At least one person has already made plans for a protest. Tikait’s son, Rakesh Tikait, wants to hold a farmers’ rally in Delhi at the end of November. The issues are almost identical as those his father raised in 1988. “The lives of farmers have not improved… Sugarcane prices need to be raised. In Uttarakhand, the BJP is in power, but farmers’ loans, payment of sugar mill arrears and declaration of the minimum support price are still big issues. We will hold a massive rally, but with Jantar Mantar closed, I will come next week and figure out where we can protest.”
Asked what he would do if the government doesn’t give him a place to protest, he says, “I will speak to the commissioner of police. They have to give us space. If they don’t, they are basically saying that it is okay if farmers die.”
For now, the Ramlila grounds, though hardly ever empty, rarely looks angry. On Wednesday morning, there are a few cars parked outside the ground, a few inside. Students from the nearby Zakir Hussain College use the ground as a short-cut to walk to the campus from Ajmeri Gate.
Jivan Das, a farmer from Odisha who was protesting at Jantar Mantar, has come to inspect the new address for dissent in Delhi. He isn’t impressed. “There is nothing to eat here. Nothing to drink. There are no trees… no shade. It’s dusty and far louder than Jantar Mantar ever was. Who will come to listen to a lonely protester? No one.”
It’s at night, however, that Ramlila Maidan looks a world apart from Jantar Mantar. Long after the office crowd, stray journalists and Metro commuters had thinned out, Jantar Mantar Road would take on another form — gas-stoves get lit and the aroma of different regional cuisines fill the air, while some of the protesters would head to nearby Gurdwara Bangla Sahib for langar. Later, blankets of varying degrees of wear and tear would appear and dissent would take a temporary break, only to come alive the next morning.
The Ramlila Maidan, in contrast, is deserted at night. There are few lights inside and the road outside is lifeless. For now, dissent is yet to find its new address.
Azad Maidan is Mumbai’s address for dissent. Part of the ground is where Mumbai’s budding cricketers practise their craft. The Special Branch, the intelligence wing of the Mumbai Police, and an outpost of the Azad Maidan Police station, mark the entrance to the ground. They act as a channel between protesters and the government
For years the city’s version of Jantar Mantar was the Dharna Chowk at the Indira Park, located close to the state secretariat and Assembly. In May this year, however, the Telangana government’s decision to bar protests at Indira Park and move the designated site to a spot on the outskirts of the city sparked clashes between Opposition parties and residents of colonies near the park. Six people were injured in the clashes
The Rally Ground in Chandigarh has been the hub of protests since 2010, when a rally at the earlier earmarked site, Matka Chowk, turned violent. In Jalandhar, the proximity of the protest hub, the Desh Bhagat Yaadgaar Hall, to the deputy commissioner’s office (500 metres away), where protests culminate, ensures the city is never shut down by protesters
The city has no legal space for protests as the Gauhati High Court has banned protests on the banks of the Dighalipukhuri, the traditional venue for dissent. While the court ordered the government to identify an alternative site, authorities have so far failed to do so
The space near the Valluvarkottam campus and a part of the road outside Chepauk stadium are usually allowed for protests, though only under strict police guidelines. But the city has no venue for sustained protests. In January, a gathering at Marina Beach of a dozen students, who were protesting against the Jallikattu ban, had emerged as a mass movement
With the shift of the secretariat from Writers’ Building to Nabanna, protests at the Benoy-Badal-Dinesh Bagh, formerly the Dalhousie Square, have stopped. But protests at Esplanade or Dharmatala, in the heart of the city, continue till date, including the TMC’s annual Martyrs’ Day celebrations