Which is the more palatable method of protest – that which eschews violence and a law and order crisis or one that propagates these?
Frankly, I kind of feel silly even asking. Yet, the greater brouhaha, in the past week or so, has been over sundry writers returning their Sahitya Akademi awards than over the Shiv Sena’s ugly attempt at disrupting the release of Pakistan’s former foreign minister Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri’s book in Mumbai.
The right to protest is fundamental to democracy, of course, and the Sena can’t be denied this. But neither can the writers, though the infrequency of their protests and the methods deployed perhaps make it seem unusual.
Writers, artistes, sportspersons (yes them too, as I will highlight a little later) can’t rouse cadres into street support. They have to exploit whatever recourse is at their disposal to gain the attention or raise the consciousness of people about issues. Usually, this is through symbolic means.
One of the most telling examples comes from sport. In the 1968 Mexico Olympics, US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who won the gold and bronze medals respectively in the 200 meter race, bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists on the podium when the American national anthem was being played.
This was euphemistically termed the Black Power salute, which Smith and Carlos decried calling it a human rights salute highlighting the fact that they had worn the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges to protest against the plight of blacks in America.
Incidentally, silver medallist Peter Norman from Australia had also worn the OPHR badge to express solidarity with Smith and Carlos and in protest against his country’s White Australia Policy.
One can pick out several examples from the world of arts too. Marlon Brando, for instance, spurned the Oscar award he received for The Godfather in 1973 because of the way American Indians were being treated.
Arguments have been raised against those returning their Sahitya awards and about the reasons and the timing of their decisions. Why could they not do this during the Emergency or the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Delhi, or riots in Bhagalpur, Godhra, among others?
But this is convenient obfuscation. The logic in such argument becomes self-defeating if the horrors of the past are made benchmarks. Should things become as bad as they had earlier for remedial action to be taken today?
The fact is, the NDA coming into power was a culmination of the residual anger of people not just against corruption, but also the other misdemeanours committed by previous regimes over the years.
To use a sports analogy again, Jesse Owens did not protest on the Olympic podium in Berlin in 1936 though the plight of black Americans was dire even then. Muhammad Ali, who won a gold in boxing in the 1960 Olympics (as Cassius Clay) threw his medal away and went to jail because he refused to fight in Vietnam six or seven years later.
Interestingly, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, the great middle distance runners, participated in the 1980 Moscow Olympics though there had been a general boycott of the games by Great Britain. The National Olympic Association left it to its affiliates to participate or not. Those in athletics and other disciplines did, others didn’t.
History suggests there is a tipping point that precipitates into protest. The point is the liberty to protest is a sign of vigour and good health of a democracy, not a shortcoming, as long as it does not wantonly violate law and order. It should be encouraged and differing opinions respected.
A smart, socially and politically sensitive government would not be fazed by criticism or protests and would rather use these to spot signals of possible public disenchantment early and move swiftly into damage control.
An insensible one will busy itself with protests about the protests.