Hashtags replace placards as dharnas go online
Innovating and adapting, they now organise e- dharnas, e- strikes, e- memorandums and e- rallies—many of them on Zoom, their “Zantar Mantar.”Updated: Jul 09, 2020 05:49 IST
Being the national capital and seat of power, Delhi attracts all manner of dissenters from across India to places like Jantar Mantar and Ramlila Maidan, the country’s most famous protest venues. Through the year, the venues are alive with a cacophony of competing voices making themselves heard on megaphones.
This year has been different. The coronavirus disease pandemic, ensuing lockdown and restrictions on public gatherings have confined the protestors indoors, leaving Jantar Mantar and Ramlila Maidan desolate. The demonstrators haven’t been silenced, though -- they have moved online with their placards and other paraphernalia of protests.
Innovating and adapting, they now organise e- dharnas, e- strikes, e- memorandums and e- rallies—many of them on Zoom, their “Zantar Mantar.” So, you have traders seeking duty waivers from the government, staff protesting against employers for non- payment of salaries and students demanding scrapping of Delhi University’s online exams – all live on Zoom, Facebook and Instagram -- from their homes, placards in hand.
Many take pictures or record videos of their at-home protests and post them on various social media platforms. And this trend of virtual protests, which started in April, is only picking up pace, what with the continuing curbs on large public congregations.
Even activists opposed to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, have continued their protests online. They organised a three-day All India Online Protest Conference, in which students, artists, social and political leaders participated in a slew of curated events in mid-June.
One event was billed “Artivism,” an online gathering of artists raising their voice against the CAA. Another was called “Shaheen Bagh Zinda Hai “(Shaheen Bagh is alive), named after the venue of a long-running protest against the law, in which women leaders from across the country spoke about how to take forward their campaign.
“A lot of people were asking about the future of the anti-CAA movement, the idea behind the event was to send out the message that we may have been forced off the streets by the pandemic, but our democratic and peaceful model of protest is alive. We will be back on the streets once the coronavirus crisis is over,” said Aysha Renna, who represented Shaheen Bagh at the All India Online Protest Conference.
“Corona is speeding up the shrinking of democratic spaces all over the world, and pro-democracy voices must find new ways of expressing themselves,” says Fawaz Shaheen, a Delhi-based lawyer and one of the organisers of the online event.
Students at the vanguard
The most vocal and vociferous participants in these virtual protests have been students, who are organising online meetings, mass e- mail campaigns, and Twitter Storms ---with hashtags such as PromoteStudentsNotCorona; DUAgaisntOnlineExams; ScrapOBE, #EducationWithoutExclusion --- against DU’s decision to hold final-year exams and to demand an alternative evaluation scheme.
On Monday, their two-month-long virtual campaign received a jolt when the ministry of home affairs (MHA) permitted universities to hold final-year examinations by September-end. Delhi University submitted to the Delhi high court on Wednesday that it had postponed the open book exams (OBE) for final-year students until next month.
“We will continue our fight. The pandemic has greatly affected the mobilisation of people for protests. During our ongoing protests against DU authorities against online exams, we also protested in small numbers in front of the VC’s (vice chancellor’s) office with placards and then amplified these physical protests online. We have adopted a hybrid model of offline and online protests,” said Sumit Kataria, president of Students’ Federation of India (SFI), Delhi, a left-wing student organisation. “We firmly believe that given the worsening Covid-19 situation in Delhi and mental state of the students, it is wrong to hold exams.”
Anil Sethumadhvan, a final year student of Ramjas College in Delhi who often participated in students’ and farmers’ marches before the pandemic, is currently part of a core group of students spearheading virtual protests against Delhi University authorities.
He has not yet lost faith in digital protests. “Online tools, though not a replacement for physical protests, can be very effective. Look at the role they played in fuelling the recent Black Lives Matter movement across the world, ” said Sethumadhvan.
Migrant crisis the trigger
Online campaigns have to be well- planned and require sustained effort to have any meaningful impact on the social and political processes, experts said.
“The idea of online assembly has got a major boost during the ongoing Covid crisis, with civil society and activists adopting it like never before. But sustained efforts and dedicated campaigners are required to ensure these expressions of dissent are channelised into institutional change,” said Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a Delhi-based digital rights advocacy organisation.
Veteran activists said that what really fuelled online activism during the coronavirus crisis was the plight of migrants workers walking and cycling hundreds of kilometres to their homes in the hinterlands after losing their livelihoods in the cities during the lockdown enforced on March 25.
“All activism remained suspended during the initial days of the lockdown, but the migrant crisis prompted activists across the country to go digital,” said Rajendra Ravi, an environment activist and a national convener of the National Alliance of People’s Movements, a coalition of people’s organisations across the country.
“While online protests are important, they are as not participatory and democratic as physical protests because of low- digital literacy and lack of access to technology. You can tag a minister or any authority for that matter during a Twitter campaign, but he can easily ignore (you); it will be difficult for him to ignore a protest outside his office,” said Ravi.
He also cautioned about virtual protests giving rise to armchair activists. “People may feel that by creating a few compelling social media posts, they have made their contribution. I believe that digital activism can play only a limited role in our country’s socio-political and economic context.”
Shaheen agreed. “ We organised an online protest conference as we had no other way of expressing our dissent, but I think online protests are pushing dissenting voices into isolated echo-chambers; you end up talking to people who think like you. There is not much opportunity to persuade new people to join your cause,” he said, “Besides, there is the worrying issue of surveillance by authorities.”
Gupta of Internet Freedom Foundation has a different take: “I think Jantar Mantar and other spaces of protest across India will renew and replenish after this pandemic is over with a new generation of tech-savvy activists,” he said.