It’s 11am on a hot, humid day and Jantar Mantar has come alive with the cacophony of competing voices on loudspeakers — voices of protesters laced with anger and agony. Dulari, dressed in an orange sari, the pallu pulled over her head, is resting against the wall with a group of women. The middle-aged woman, who hails from a village in Satna, Madhya Pradesh, cannot figure out what she is doing there.
“When are we going to the Red Fort?” she asks her husband sitting next to her. “Let’s first submit our memorandum and then we will move from here,” says her husband. “All the women are here to see Delhi and must immediately leave for Red Fort,” a visibly irritated Dulari tells her husband, drawing nods of agreement from other women.
Like Dulari and her friends, not every ‘demonstrator’ at Jantar Mantar has protest on the top of his or her mind. The country’s most famous protest arena is, in fact, a melting pot of people, ideas, ideologies and causes — some worthy and some not-so-worthy. For many, it is a laboratory for innovative experiments in social and political engineering.
Everyday Jantar Mantar, has about half a dozen scheduled protests (dharnas with police permission) and many more unscheduled protests. On the day we spent at Jantar Mantar, there were 15 different groups were sitting on dharnas with an array of demands — some are sitting in the open, other under tents with elaborate arrangements -- bottled water, fan and spotless cushions on the floor. The ongoing OROP agitation is, of course, organised with military precision.
One of the most interesting protests of the day is the one by Movement Against Reservation (MAR). There are Jats, Jatavs, Brahmins, Gujjars — all crammed inside the tent delivering passionate speeches, demanding abolition of caste-based reservation. The MAR protest at Jantar Mantar presents a rare picture of social harmony.
Shant Prakash Jatav, national president of the movement, says support for his movement transcends caste and religious barriers. “The reservation should be need-based, not caste-based, which means that it should be extended only to people who live in underdeveloped areas that have no good educational facilities. The fact is only 1% of people belonging to SC and ST communities have benefited from reservation; besides, a lot of Dalit youths no longer want to be seen as exploited and oppressed. Political reservation is being used by certain political families to fight elections from reserved seats,” says Shant Prakash.
As we take leave of Shant Kumar, we meet one Shiv Sharma who, accompanied by two young men, is going from one protest to another, his hands full of pamphlets and memorandums collected from various protesting groups. Sharma claims to be a social worker who has been coming to Jantar Mantar for the past two weeks for research. “If you want to understand social-economic problems facing India, you need not undertake a country-wide padyatra. Just spend a few days here at Jantar Mantar. Basically, I am here to find the right social cause to take up,” he says.
It turns out, Jantar Mantar is not just a scene of social education; it is also place for political recruitment. A woman from Punjab has been staging a dharna for the past three years against an IPS officer who she said raped her.
When we meet her, she has been trying to fend off a man asking her to join his soon-to-be launched political party. After the man leaves, the woman, dressed in blue T-shirt, tells us: “A lot of political parties keep approaching me here to join them but I am not here to become a politician. My only objective is to ensure that an FIR is registered against the man who raped me. I cannot go to my village until that happens,” she says, showing us hundreds of letters she has written to the President, the Prime Minister, various ministers of the Punjab government and leaders of political parties.
While she has got replies to many of these letters, what she has not got is ‘justice’, she says, her eyes welling up. All the letters are sent to her address at Jantar Mantar. She lives with two trunks—one stuffed with letters and the other with her clothes, a bed, a couple of buckets of water and a headless effigy of the man she has accused of raping her. Giving her company are her relatives, including her maternal uncle.
Her three-year protest exposes the limitations of Jantar Mantar as a site to seek redemption or ‘justice’.
Then, there are many protesters at Jantar Mantar who have been sitting on dharnas for much longer than her.
Take Rama Indra Kumar, 63, for example, who has been protesting for the past 19 years. Kumar has reserved his place by pasting a picture of himself on a wall and a brief on his dharma. His demands -- abolition of capitalism and fulfillment of all demands of the poor and the oppressed.
Impossible, irrational, impractical demands one may feel but Kumar, who claims to be an MA, M Phil and Phd, says he will fight to the finish. “I am prepared to die at Jantar Mantar,” says Kumar, who like other protesters faced a severe police crackdown on August 14. “They took away all my bags and other belongings. But I have survived many such crackdowns,” he says.
Not far away from Kumar is the ‘camp office-cum-residence’ of Machindranath Suryawanshi, 64, who has been waging a battle against corruption using a unique methodology – Akhil Bhartiya Juta Maro Andolan - for the past nine years. “I started the movement against corruption much before Arvind Kejriwal got into it. I will not rest till this evil is rooted out,” says Suryawanshi, who is better known as Juta Mar Baba.
Behind him on the wall is a huge poster of Suryavanshi menacingly brandishing a shoe. Suddenly, he gets up to join a protest rally by students of the Delhi College of Art. But he is back in five minutes.
“They are art students fighting against the college management. I thought I could help them but art is not my cup of tea,” says Suryawanshi. He claims people come to him with complaints against authorities from all parts of the country. “I write to these corrupt officials on their behalf, warning them that if they do not solve their problems we will come and throw our shoes at them. In most cases, the problem gets resolved before we can use our shoes,” says Suryawanshi.
Helping these permanent protesters is another set of ‘social activists’ who ensure that the likes of Suryawanshi get the basic essentials at Jantar Mantar. One of them is Vinod Kumar, who describes Suryawanshi as the most selfless man he has ever met. While most permanent protesters depend on Gurdwara Bangla Sahib for food, Vinod Kumar comes to Jantar Mantar in his white Santro thrice a week with commodities of daily use. He says he provides some pocket money too.
“I try to ensure all these protesters are never short of commodities of daily use. There are many like me who come here every day to serve these people,” says Kumar, who heads the ‘Jiyo Aur Jeeno Do Trust.’
It’s about 6pm, Jantar Mantar is quieter. Most protesters have left the venue, except for a large group of students from Manipur who are finishing the protest against the violence in their state with a prayer. Soon, the prayer is over and the students—hundreds of them—leave the venue. And so do the CRPF personnel, who get into a DTC bus.
At 9pm, Jantar Mantar is free of day protesters. The woman from Punjab has changed into salwar kameez, Indra Kumar has spread a newspaper on the footpath to sleep. Across the road, another group, which has been sitting on dharna for over a year to get justice for rape victims of Bhagana, a village in Haryana, is cooking dinner.
“We sleep one by one because a few months back, someone stole two of our bags. We get up at five and take a bath with water provided by an NDMC tanker. Life is tough here, but we are not going anywhere until we get justice,” says Satish Kajla.
For Kajla, a Dalit, Jantar Mantar has been a life-changing experience, literally. “I wish to tell you that now I am Abdul Kalam. Last month, I converted to Islam here at Jantar Mantar,” he says.