In his book India After Gandhi, historian Ramachandra Guha illustrates the landscape of Rajpath in the New Delhi of the 1970s. He describes the lawns of Rajpath as a “village of tents” — tents belonging to people who would come to New Delhi from various parts of the country to protest about their issues. The lawns were hardly ever empty. As Guha notes, the lawns were vacated in the early Nineties because the government considered a display of protest at the central location in the country as defamatory in front of the world. Following this displacement, Jantar Mantar became the gathering spot for protestors and Rajpath was sanitised of the complaints of India’s citizens.
It is important to note the significance of this extinct landscape of Delhi. Rajpath, the central space for the nation, was also a space for dissent. The tents at the lawns of Rajpath were representative of the people’s equal claim over India’s capital and the government’s acceptance of its critical citizens. Citizens occupied the most visible place in the country — not for short sit-ins, but elaborate demonstrations at the venue of our national parades.
Displaced from the lawns, we saw several protests at the Ramlila Maidan and Jantar Mantar. Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement found its place at the Maidan. They pitched shamianas and created a high platform for performances. Baba Ramdev occupied the ground in 2011 with elaborate tents. Jantar Mantar was the seat for the One Rank One Pension movement by the retired army veterans and for activists raising the issue of Delhi’s air pollution in 2016. In October 2017, ironically, the National Green Tribunal ordered all protests to be stopped at Jantar Mantar as the charade was “too noisy” for the peaceful green region.
The displacement has been pushed further away. As the protesting farmers started marching towards the capital in November, the government stopped them at the borders of Delhi. Water cannons were used, farmers were beaten by the police, shelled with tear gas, and trenches were dug on the roads to prevent protesting citizens from entering the capital of the country and having their voices heard. Quite metaphorical of the neglect that Indian urbanity has exercised towards its rural regions. The farmers, consequently, sat at the border and now sleep under their trucks, inside tractor trolleys, and on the roads. Not in tents pitched along Rajpath, or under shamianas at the Ramlila Maidan.
The Shaheen Bagh movement, interestingly, was a significant deviation from this trend. The protestors sat where they lived — the Muslim ghettos of Okhla. The infrastructure required to sustain protests was generated in the same ghettos and visibility was availed by sitting at the main spinal road of the neighbourhood. The protestors, disillusioned by the government, did not acknowledge the citadel of Indian politics to protest, the politicians were asked to come to Shaheen Bagh. The subaltern of contemporary India, protesting the CAA and NRC, claimed its own segregated pocket of the metropolis as the site of dissent and visibility. The power structures of politics and media came to Okhla, the subaltern did not go to Lutyen’s Delhi.
Several arguments are peddled in order to generate public consent for the displacement of protests away from the city. Infrastructure — the physical aspect of the city — is the foremost. The violent prelude to Delhi riots of 2020, as reflected in Kapil Mishra’s speech in February, demonised Shaheen Bagh for obstructing traffic. The “ultimatum” given to the police was to “get the roads cleared” lest the pro-CAA crowd take to the streets. Convenience to the public and transport was privileged over people exercising their constitutional right to protest. Protest was perceived as a disruption of public life, not the continuation of the (critical) publicness, an element of chaos, not peaceful association, an act of destruction, not one of constructive dialogue. We see a similar pattern with the ongoing farmers’ protests. The farmer sitting at the border is “blocking the highway”. If he enters the city, he will disrupt urban life. And therefore, must be kept out.
A city, however, contains layers that define urbanity. There is the infrastructure — roads, power lines, and buildings in their physicality. There is the political construct — laws, citizen politics, addresses, and municipal wards. There is the socio-economic construct — workplaces, places of gathering, religious institutions and markets. Many such layers come together to create a city and to ignore all but the infrastructure is to deny right to the city, and to diminish and destroy the constructs that make us city dwellers. Today, we see urbanity of dissent pitched against the infrastructural city.
The fundamentals of urbanity are, in fact, the opposite. Cities have been harbingers of civilisation. The urban is the place of liberation. It features institutions that are supposed to impart ideas of enlightenment. The politics of the nation is embedded in the city. It promises opportunities precisely because it is premised on breaking the networks that oppress a person due to their identity of birth — it promises social mobility. It promises visibility, and most importantly, cities are places of free expression.
It is, therefore, indispensable that the various layers of the city interact. From the barricades of French revolution to the Arab Spring at Tahrir Square, central spaces of the city have been the sites of protest. It is not for nothing that the expression for revolution is “taking to the streets” because by allotting a designated place to protest, the state dictates visibility — it calibrates the degree of being noticed and thereby has the power to vanish the cause from the nation’s eyes and consciousness.
Between the lawns of Rajpath and the barricaded borders of Delhi today, we see the city becoming increasingly hostile to dissent. The state wants to keep the protestors out and the general public accepts the rhetoric of disruption with ease. A city must incorporate disagreement, acknowledge the politics of urban life, and most importantly, a democracy must lend its ears to criticism. We must foster and exercise urbanity of dissent.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 14, 2020 under the title ‘Dissent and the City’. Zuberi is an academic and writer based in Ahmedabad. He writes about politics, culture, architecture and city studies.