Silence or Protest?

Martin Luther King:” Our lives begin to end the day when we become silent about things that matter.” A true symbol for democracy is people of the land having the right to protest and express their dissent over the policy, decision, and the governance. Especially in a democratic country like India which is huge in its population, diverse in its culture the probability of satisfaction of the orders, law and policies implemented is high as the demands and problems of the people vary from region to region, culture to culture, religion to religion.

The unequal distribution of wealth and resources are also one of the main reasons for illiteracy, poverty, and unemployment. Welfare of the citizen, protection of their basic human and fundamental right, to cater to their need is the main goal of the government and this comes with an implied right to protest. But is this right guaranteed by the constitution and extent up to which it can be exercised lawfully is the question.

Firstly, let us draw a line that will help in distinguishing between a protest and a riot. “Protest is an expression or a declaration of objection, disapproval or dissent often in opposition to something a person is powerless to prevent or avoid.” Protest is often against any governmental policies or any form of injustice. People with common take on any idea, policy, or decision take to a public space to show their dissent and disapproval. Whereas, the key element in riot is the use of non-violent form of methods or tools to show their sign of anger, agitation over any topic against their interest. Thus, riot is defined as anything which, “involves or a credible threat of violence.”

Right to protest, a fundamental right?

The primary question that has to be answered is if right to protest is a fundamental right and if there is any provision that explicitly implies this in the Constitution of India. The right to protest is derived from the right to speech and expression that is guaranteed under article 19(1)(a), (b) and(c). The articles provide for right to form association, assembly and that to freedom of speech and expression.

The citizens have the right to express their opinion against the government but to carry on this right without use of any weapons. Policies are implemented by the government for the interest of the citizens and when they fall short of the promises or deliver any unjust decision then the citizens can take to protest. There are types of protest depending up on the efficacy of the issue and the participation, like strikes, signing of protest, conducting rallies, public gatherings. But the idea of protest can be traced back to the pre-independence period when it was used as a tool to express their disagreements, and unjust decisions which was widening the gap between India and its freedom. The right to protest is a fundamental right unless it protects the sovereignty and integrity of the nation.

Protest during the pre-democratic era:

The concept of protest has not gained importance or raised conversation in the recent times but has had played an important since pre-colonial period, subsequently shaping the current political and social situation.

Quit India Movement, a turning point of India’s relation with protest which was an agitation movement as after the drafting of the Cripps committee India was only given dominion status and not total self-rule. A mass agitation including leaders were suppressed by use of violence such as lathi charges, fines imposed and leaders were arrested on the charges of sedition.

  • Gandhi-protest:

The struggle for independence was not just a political action but it was to know the meaning and role of truth in everyday life. Mahatma Gandhi having had played an integral part in freeing India on the guiding principles of truth and non-violence.

In adherence to these principles, he undertook the hunger strike, a reaction to the unjust laws and the famous civil disobedience movement, to protest against the unjust acts of the British by non-adherence to the laws imposed by the British which included the salt tax.

In the view of Gandhi, preparators of violence are the cause for social disintegration. Ahimsa which is the Sanskrit translation for non-violence and it includes not just physical but also passive violence in the society. If the good is not long lasting then it will not create any good. He considers it to be the answer of mass destruction and claims it to be btter than any brute force for instilling peace for the mankind. Satyagraha was according to him the way of resisting truth but in a non-violent manner.1

 Use of violence in any form of protest was unpardonable sin said Gandhi, in his work Hind Swaraj where he commented on the independence movement and wrote that scaling up the use of weapons and arms is to Europeanize the struggle and it will result in Indians becoming colonizers themselves. The protestors must not just avoid violence or refrain from it but also it is their primary responsibility to prevent any form of violence. 2

  • Gandhi’s ideology with that of other leaders during the freedom struggle:

There were two opposing wings: the one which adopted peaceful protest and negotiations and the other which included the use of violence against British for withdrawal from the country. Amidst the series of non-violent protest and the spread of Gandhi and his ideologies, there was another side to the coin which was the use of violence which arose after the revolt of 1857 or the first war of Independence.

The revolt was described by the colonizers as “rebellion”, “mutiny” and “insurgency.” After the decision was made to partition Bengal in the year 1905, a series of non-violent protest were conducted but the growth of revolutionaries had different consequences in the independence movement. These revolutionaries resorted to bomb attacks and assassination of targeted people. In the midst of these was a global increase in the reading of the newspaper named “Ghadar.” 3

In the year 1915, the revolutionaries belonging to the Gadhar party that was led by Behari Bose, who made an attempt to assassinate the viceroy at that time. These revolutionaries had convinced the army to violence and mutiny. The Rowlatt act of 1919, was a legislation that allowed that a suspected could be convicted without trials and thus leading to mass outrage by the Indians which caused the imperials to open fire on the troops killing few hundreds, which sparked anger among the nationalist.

One such prominent leader was Balgangadhar Tilak, who believed that even if by force, Indians should oppose them if the policies are decomposing the customs and practices of the Indian culture. Inspiration was drawn from the Russian revolution which deepened after the incident that took place in Amritsar in 1919, which instilled in nationalist the fact that the British troops can be fought through force and through peaceful negotiations. The incident in Amritsar gave India the bravest freedom fighter, Bhagat Singh, who believed in violence and embraced it in the name of freedom from the British. Later went on to join the Hindustan Republican Association, a small group that followed methods of communist and anarchists, which indulged in learning to make bombs and made their own set of targets and demands.

Revolutionary Terrorism, was the term used by the British to address these militant revolutionaries as they believed use of armed struggle will help them gain power, wanting to bring about a change in the system. An add on to all this was the organized soldiers into the popularly known Indian National Army, led by Bose which gave rise to the slogan, “Give me blood, and I will give you freedom.”1

Hence, apart from the ideas of Gandhi which impacted the freedom struggle to a great extent, there were ideologies of such leaders and revolutionaries which shaped the struggle in a different way. That portrayed to the Britishers that with it was possible to create fear in the minds of the authorities that protest, rebellion, upspring even as big as the first war of independence could happen and it showed the mass participation of people. And at the end of the day, they chose to negotiate peacefully in accordance to the Gandhian principles than to control and suppress the mass protest and rebellion by the nationalist.

Protest- post colonial era:

  • Use of the Gandhian principle in the contemporary time:

 Is “no ill will ever” result in greater good ideology influenced by Gandhi possible to be implemented in the contemporary time? The intention behind protest against the unjust laws and decision of the government must include the motive to convert the opponents against the cause which will be the first step towards promoting the ideas of Gandhi in the contemporary time where there is lack of consensus between the “wants and demands of the people” and the catering of those by the government in the decision and policy making. The idea of non-violent protest cannot be precisely and exactly followed but it is necessary to have awareness as to community message these protests give out in the name of political victories or even social for that matter. This can be understood only by drawing a comparison study between these principles and use of it in the current time, like that of the war between Ukraine and Russia or the protest against the war that is happening in Afghanistan.

Over the last few decades, after independence there have been a series of protest that have had an impact on the socio, economic and political spheres in the country. But post-independence violent form of protest has reduced and have paved more way for protest in a non-violent way. The forms, methods and impact of protest has changed over time. Thus, to answer that there has to be an understanding of the nature and form of protest in the contemporary time.

  • The Narmada Bacaho Aandolan:

Protest all around the global have different methods that they follow and the Narmada Bachao Aandalon adopted methods such as making an appeal to the Judiciary, inclusion of public rallies and spreading the reason behind the protest through boat rallies and also trying to mobilize international support system. The protest also saw the revival of Gandhi’s Satyagraha, like carrying out the rallies in rising water.  The translation for Aandalon means protest in Hindi. This protest was launched to show their disappointment due to the construction of the two of the largest Dam that was proposed by then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Wherein more than 200 villages were to be submerged which raised them to question their relocation and rehabilitation. The displacement had both social and wildlife loss as its cost.

In addition to lack of information about the rehabilitation, the people of the villages were not allowed participation in the decision-making process. This resulted in an organized five-day protest at V.P. Singh’s residence at Delhi, in 1990, convincing for a reconsideration of the dam project. More than few thousands of men and women launched the Struggle march which happened over a 100 km. It also included hunger strike and sit-in till death strikes but the result was not in the favor of the villages and the construction was completed in 2006 but in spite of the failure to achieve its objective it was set right for it made a significant change in the development projects of the country and questioned the very base of the public welfare from these projects. As the argument of the protestors was that interest of one community cannot be given by sacrificing the benefit of others and the efficacy of public development projects were questioned. One section of the people has to suffer loss of their livelihood and at the cost of their land traded benefits to other section that was unsustainable.1

This protest showcased the application of the use of Gandhian principle of non-violence and it aimed to guarantee human rights for protection. But not questioning the unjust rights that were taken away from the people the people which belonged to the poor and marginalized people, doesn’t that mean that it is in some way violence to the country only because of the principle of Non-violence.

  • Farmer’s protest:

 A protest of the recent time which changed the social and political scenario of India. The reason for the protest was the three contending farm laws which were argumentative to the rights of the farmer as they were frightened that those farms laws will abolish Minimum

Support price that was guaranteed to them by the government and this make them merciful to the big corporations. The protest started off with a roadblock, but initially they were blocked entry into Haryana and the police stopped and blocked the protestors from entering by use of tear gas and canons. The protestors rejected the peaceful negotiations and carried on the protest. Any further discourse with the farmer representatives of the protest and the government did not end up having a satisfactory conclusion.

The form of protest was violent as involved use of tractors used to remove the barricades, blockages on roads using their farm tractors, internets were blocked and sticks were held in the hands of the protestors to attack. The resultant incident showed the agitation of farmers which showed their want to repeal the laws which the government according to the claims of the farmers was made to satisfy the greed of the big corporation and felt they would it override their interest. The protest took a dangerous turn because of the inducement of violence and destruction, which was against the promise of the leaders. This was also a turning point in the nature of protest as it changed from an organized protest to one where the farmers were accused for showcasing the use of muscles.

Six months into the protest, the farmers observed “black day” by burning posters and banners of the government. They assured to carry on the protest until the farm laws are repeated and reiterated it through media. The farmers protest came in with huge worldwide support but the forms of protest were questioned. In addition to the existing challenges of the famers protest, the worldwide pandemic was a bigger challenge that was faced by the government to answer to the needs of the protestors. Hence, the use of violence hadn’t resulted in any benefits for the farmers but only the non-violent, steady and continuous protest for the government to comply with the government was a potential reason for the government to give into a year of the protest.1

There have been various protest happening worldwide which has had extensive reach and impact. Like the Black Lives Matter, a protest against the racial discrimination and in this case by the police force of U.S.A. The response to the protest was commendable which was made by the then President Donald Trump and other agencies. This resulted in multiplicity of reach of the protest nationwide. Thus, peaceful activism will result in increased diversity of participation in the protest. Media had a significant role of collective efforts and motivations that are identity based of a blacked man which provided for participation of protestors from different race, caste, only based on similar interest.  The series of protest in the USA reiterated that protest result in social change. 2


To quote David Henry Thoreau, “Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. the obedient must be salves.” The citizens and the people must not be silent, it will merely strengthen the authority and make them uphold power. Silence when there is a need for being spoken is an act of cowardice. Therefore, right to protest and contend against the decisions of the government will mark the true meaning of democracy but position as to its nature will be a matter of issue.

Author: Vahini Parameswaran

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