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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 19

Politics of Protest in the Global Context

Sunday 27 April 2008, by Dev N Pathak


Instances of assent and dissent to the relay of the Olympic torch, along with the protests in the European streets and one in India, reminds us once again that protest is one of the effective arsenals ‘we the people’ have at our disposal to articulate the tacit as well as repressed. In the wider gamut of discourse, organised as well as otherwise, protest acquires dubious distinctions. It is not so simple as some Members of Parliament walking out in protest, or in an organised manner bringing the proceedings of the House to an unceremonious halt, or architecting a degeneration into a pandemonium disregardful of an overt blot on the nation. It is the politics of by and large those ‘people’ who do not belong to the echelons of decision-makers that find expression in the form of protests. Especially if ‘we’ have to let the obliterated part of a discourse surface, ‘we’ may need to be hoarse and blunt, and that too irrespective of our Left-Centre-Right affiliations. In other words, politics of protest might appear as a paradigmatic alternative to the mainstream protocol of politics. While the former has elements of emotion and values laced with issue, the latter thrives on rational choice and calculation along an ideological fulcrum. This was also called, quite aptly, ‘weapon of the weak’ in the academic writings in the aftermath of Second World War.

Be it the decline by Baichung Bhutia on the ground of religious allegiance to the Dalai Lama and Tibet, or by Kiran Bedi as a reaction to ‘running in a cage’, or Aamir Khan’s consent to run the torch in support of Tibet only, each is more than a mere individual choice. Each has collective implications; each voices an insightful protest rather than just an isolated fragment of opinion. Piece them together with the voices of protest in France and we figure out a resounding discourse suggestive of ‘fight for dignity of human beings in the global world’. In the case of Tibet, it lies with the Chinese recognition of the status of Tibetans-in-exile as well as the fact that religion is not the opium of masses as far as Tibetans are concerned. This indeed encapsulates larger political meanings in the context of international politics, which is albeit not the interest of this article. The thrust here is to make sense of the dis-ability of the state to concur with the meaning of people’s politics through protest.

AS it is with any state, China does not heed any significance to this protest other than regarding it a politically motivated act of sabotage. Why is it that the actual meaning underneath a protest is seldom understood? A theoretical answer comes from a Marxist sociologist, Karl Mannheim, who would say that the status quo is invariably blinded by half-truth, which it considers its spine. The other side exists only as a passive receiver, as if it were the automated audience in an enclosed auditorium watching a comedy show. For the person at the helm of affairs, any protest is a mere utopian drive that ends up maligning the projected image of the nation. Yet another answer in the similar vein comes from the literary icon, Nikolai Gogol, who would tell us in his celebrated novella The Overcoat that the ‘person in consequence’ (authority) loves to have only a one-way dialogue where the former decrees without qualms. Any utterance of difference loathes the man in the hot-chair.

Ironically, the state seeking for a ban on protest for a smooth passage for the Olympic torch is not worried about the torch perse. The worry is that protests disclose the hitherto suppressed truth about the seeker of the ban. No wonder the junta in Myanmar unleashes the maximum brutality on the protesters. In a covert manner, the state in a democracy seeks the judicial intervention to curtail the scope of protest (needless to point to the example/s from India and elsewhere). When China expresses anxiety pertaining to protest, it actually fears the global response to the hushed-up crimes it has been party to. It is true that in a global world wherein we mouth platitudes on the uplift, dignity and equality of humans we are allies of violators of human rights. The protest blows off the veneer of politico-economic progress, the veil of ill-conceived morality and highhanded authority.

Another bout of irony, the ban is sought from the Left corners of the global world, China or Kolkata, that championed protest and public-mobilisation (the generic sense of the revolution) as the primary methodology for change. From Karl Marx to Castro and Chavez, we find an illustrative tradition of protest and revolution. Thus, what prevents China from understanding the meaning of this protest is certainly irrational fear of secession and nefarious political interests.

The protest is actually a last-ditch effort of the repressed, and an occasioned one, to put across the widely felt cause of Tibet. As it were, the instances of worldwide protests offer the Chinese ‘person in consequence’ a chance to positively participate in the discourse that protests generate. For more than just tokenism, this could be an opportunity to bring about a Chinese political renaissance in sync with the amazingly rich Chinese civilisation.

The author is a Research Scholar, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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