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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The Watch That Keeps Rebellion

What’s kept a million mutinies ticking in New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar and how NGT’s ban on protests will affect them.

Written by Siddhant Kalra |
Updated: October 22, 2017 12:20:43 am
jantar mantar, jm road, jantar mantar protest ban, ngt order, national green tribunal, all-India kisan rally, Pradhan Mantri Samrat Bharat Yojana, jantar mantar road, jantar mantar protest site, delhi protest site, indian express Jantar Mantar has a history beyond its contemporary function as a protest site. (Express Photo by Praveen Khanna)

The placard around his neck says: “Dead Man Alive.” He laments, “It’s said on JM Road that everyone here is mad. Even if we aren’t, the world looks at us that way.” Santosh Kumar, 37, from Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, had been declared officially dead sometime in early 2003 by his relatives — they were unwilling to accept his marriage to a Dalit girl. They got his name removed from land records and performed his last rites in his village. Ever since, on paper, Kumar is a dead man. When he isn’t protesting at Jantar Mantar, of course, demanding that all his rights as living person be given back to him.

There is a slew of more “conventional” causes championed at Jantar Mantar. Every form of political leaning and even individual aspiration is represented on this 200-metre stretch of barricaded road. There’s just one common motivation, says Prakash, a 28-year-old who left his marketing job to join the Tamil farmers’ protests. “Do we want attention? Of course! But not of the media. We want policymakers to hear us and do what they promise.”

Anywhere between 15-50 protests occupy the pavements of Jantar Mantar Road at any given time of the year. Some are just starting their days of protest. Some have been at it for years, even decades. The October 3 NGT order banning protests at Jantar Mantar is likely to change all of that.

Jantar Mantar has a history beyond its contemporary function as a protest site. It is one of five such structures built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II of Jaipur in the early 18th century. Inspired by contemporary Islamic astronomy, these astronomical observatories were meant to monitor celestial bodies in space and keep time on earth. As modern instruments replaced traditional ones, Jantar Mantar exited the realm of cutting-edge science and became a part of India’s architectural heritage. In the 1980s, it became an observatory once more — not of planets this time, but of India’s young democratic spirit.

Historically, Delhi had a bustling culture of protests ever since it became the capital around 100 years ago. Demonstrations against British rule were common, as Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha swept across the nation. Azad Park, Feroz Shah Kotla, Jama Masjid and Yamuna Bank were some of the many public spaces used by protesters in those days.
The centre of political power, along with the centre of protests, shifted to New Delhi after Independence. Being a stone’s throw away from the Parliament, Patel Chowk and Sansad Marg became the favoured sites. “In those days, it was customary to protest in front of the Parliament”, says Sohail Hashmi, activist and historian. “Thousands would gather in front of the concerned ministry and, sometimes, Members of Parliament would step out to hear them.”

Protests at the Parliament were banned after the 1966 anti-cow slaughter protest descended into violence. A massive crowd attempted and failed to break into the Parliament after Indira Gandhi denied their demands for a ban on cow slaughter. “The city was engulfed in riots. The mob looted Connaught Place, burnt the AIR gates and many died in police firing”, recollects Hashmi.

After the 1966 incident, protests were moved first to Tilak Marg and then to Boat Club near India Gate. Most protests in the ’70s and ’80s happened at the Boat Club or Ramlila Maidan. In 1975, Jayaprakash Narayan attracted a crowd of over 1,00,000 people at Ramlila Maidan, when he recited lines from Ramdhari Singh Dinkar’s famous poem Singhasan khali karo, ki janata aati hai, in response to Indira Gandhi’s imposition of Emergency.

The period also witnessed the peak of student protests in Delhi. While JP had gathered a massive crowd at Ramlila Maidan, Hashmi was one of the student activists who had organised a protest at Boat Club. “During Emergency, we [college students] had organised a protest, with more than 50,000 people at Boat Club. Soon after, an all-India kisan rally was organised, for which over 100,000 people turned up! The Boat Club area had virtually turned into a mini-town. The routes of the procession were from the Ring Road to Boat Club, either via Rajghat or Ramlila Grounds.”

In 1988, Bhartiya Kisan Sangh leader Mahendra Singh Tikait gathered a crowd of over 5,00,000 farmer-protesters on the India Gate lawns with bullock carts and lathis. They laid siege to Rajpath and the India Gate lawns were covered in cattle dung. The Rajiv Gandhi government gave in and granted the farmers’ demands. However, protests were pushed further away from the Parliament once more, first to Burari and Lal Qila, and, finally to Jantar Mantar.

“There used to be a bus stand here in the ’80s and early ’90s. Commuters were my regular customers. Protests started here in the early ’90s. I even participated in the protests for Uttarakhand state in the ’90s since I am from there,” says Jeev Anand Joshi, a chaiwala, who has been on the Jantar Mantar Road since 1984. “After the protests began, buses stopped passing by this road. But my sales go up when big protests take place.”

Governments have mostly chosen to shift the designated protest site progressively further away from the political centre, and towards the periphery. Ironically, the sentiment which brings protesters to Jantar Mantar is that of having been pushed to the peripheries of the nation-state. Having tried all other channels of redressal, dharnas emerge as the last resort. The NGT’s order to move protests to Ramlila Maidan (six km from Parliament, while Jantar Mantar is less than three km) is seen by protestors as a repeat of this trend.

The move has evoked more resentment from every camp. A more amicable approach, according to many, is to make the process of agitation more organised for them, as well as the government.

From the ’90s onwards, many landmark agitations took place on Jantar Mantar Road including kisan protests, Jan Lokpal Andolan, and the Nirbhaya protests. “The first big protest I saw here was the Free Tibet protests in 2010. There was no space to stand. The next year, Anna Hazare’s protest attracted an even bigger crowd,” says Vijay Kumar, another tea vendor. The recent NGT order seeking a ban on dharnas at Jantar Mantar has, naturally, worried not just the majority of the protesting groups, but the chaiwalas too. “When business isn’t good, it gets difficult to even afford the NDMC rent for this shop. If the protests stop, some of the shops will have to move too,” says Vijay.

Responses to the NGT order 

Machinder Nath Suryavanshi — Joota Maar Andolan; 11 years
“If a poor man protests, it is pollution but if a rich man pollutes, it is not? What kind of justice is this? Aren’t the poor and helpless also citizens of this country?”

Santosh Kumar — Dead Man Alive; five years
“What’s an NGT Order for a dead man? If I can’t avail the benefits of being officially alive, why should I have to bear the cost of it?”

Hriday Sant Samrat Baba Ratan Lal Sahu Hindustani — Pradhan Mantri Samrat Bharat Yojana; two years
“I won’t move from here. I’m here for the betterment of society, not for personal gain. Simply hear me out and I will move! Even my address is on this road now. I won’t be able to receive letters if I move from here.”

Shyam Lal Bharti — MNREGA; one year
“I don’t think noise pollution is a problem here. Loudspeaker levels can be controlled by Delhi Police if they are a problem. There is no need to ban protests altogether.”

Prakash — National South India Rivers Interlinking Famers Association and All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee; three months
“Shouldn’t the NGT be more concerned about agriculture in this country? Shouldn’t they support rural populations and condemn urban pollution? ”

Siddhant Kalra is an independent writer and researcher

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