Perhaps one of the most unusual spaces a young person growing up in Delhi in the 1990s takes for granted, is Jantar Mantar. Most of us knew little about this dissent square in Lutyens’ Delhi as adolescents, but once we were undergrads at a requisite Delhi University North Campus college, the street gained relevance and reverence. Jantar Mantar was our answer to everything because protest was our answer to everything.
And then on Monday, it all changed. Jantar Mantar was emptied out, protesters sent away, pavements got potted plants and barring one poster on dissent at a chai stall, the street resembled nothing like “our” Jantar Mantar once used to. For a start, there was no one protesting here, not those who had made this street their home over several years or those much itinerant, out-of-towners occupying Delhi for a day or so.
Not even at the proposed site — the barren and dusty Ramlila Maidan. The National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) order on October 5 directed the, corporation and the police to rid the street of protesters citing “noise pollution” as the prime reason. “Down, Down, Down, Down” no longer reverberated in the air at Jantar Mantar. As for Ramlila Maidan, the large ground that occupies the battle lines between New Delhi and Old, and much better known for the city’s largest Ram Lila celebrations every year, there remains little clarity about its newest job description. We still don’t know if Jantar Mantar can move to Ram Lila. We don’t know what the consequences are for that potential move. We are a lost audience. All we know is that we have forever lost our claim to our permanently protesting public space. So I returned to Jantar Mantar the day protesters were evicted from there, as if returning to the scene of a crime in an Agatha Christie novel. Near the barricades lurked a few long-time protesters, wondering where to head with their placards and meagre belongings. “Joota Maar Baba”, a Jantar Mantar veteran who had lived on the pavement for more than a decade, was gone. The dead man proving he is alive, who had made the street his home in 2012, had also disappeared. As had the teacher from Madhya Pradesh who wanted prime minister Modi to make the flute a part of curriculum for students till class 12.
Of course, the fact that we have lost a place to protest should be the centre of all conversations right now. But the truth is that we have also lost all those people we would never have otherwise known, their stories of peculiar troubles and triumphs, the tales of their affair with the city, the memoirs of the footpath as well as the narratives of their lives that became so closely intertwined with that of Delhi.
It was at Jantar Mantar that I watched Maya Krishna Rao perform her powerful “walk” in response to the December 2012 rape; heard Imphal-based protest musician Akhu sing about oppression; and saw two men kiss each other passionately and without fear.
I watched rainbow colours unfurl as the LGBTQ community walked till Jantar Mantar, I saw Tamil Nadu farmers protest with skulls, I saw families of victims of mob lynching wipe tears off their face here, and I walked with my colleagues to protest against the killing of journalists in the country.
I also, to my absolute amusement, once saw a model dressed like a bird with blood splattered on her, pose around a tree to make a point at Jantar Mantar. I caught a glimpse of police women taking selfies, I also saw the force use lathi on protesters at Jantar Mantar. I spotted my favourite authors there, I spoke to inspiring activists. There were days of cynicism, there were days of absolute faith in walking till Jantar Mantar. But there was never a moment I imagined the street to be empty.
When I spoke to a long-time protester now being forced to move on about his “next move”, he said, “Facebook and Twitter — that’s where I will be till I find another Jantar Mantar”. With social media infiltrating our lives, mobilisation has become easier. The ‘Not In My Name’ protest started with a hashtag, as did ‘India Against Corruption’. Jessica Lal began with a text message, so did the Nirbhaya case agitation. Online mobilisation is the present.
But where do we finally meet once step one is over? Where do we mobilise offline? Jantar Mantar is no longer the option, nor is Ramlila Maidan — no shade, no gurudwara next door like Bangla Sahib which never turns away a hungry person, no toilets, no drinking water facility.
Where do we go?
With the NGT ordering we leave our beloved Jantar Mantar behind, we — you and I — are just left with memories, photographs and the monument. We must be content with that.