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  • Ekta Kumar

Growing nature of protests - Farmers Agitation

It is natural to complain. It helps express our pain, disappointment or resentment with a particular situation. It is also an attempt, sometimes even a plea to change or improve it. As individuals, we may or may not be heard, such is life! But when we do it together, collectively, it is hard to ignore.

Mass movement can be a powerful tool. History is full of examples of protests that changed the course of law, society and the political landscape, in different corners of the world, in different points of time.

Back in the old days, organising a demonstration was a slow, laborious, and logistically-intensive process, of bringing together like-minded people to fight for a cause. Imagine signing up to join Gandhiji on the Dandi March, witnessing the fall of the Berlin wall, or walking along with Martin Luther King. The modern era has changed that. More than 4 billion people, that is half the planet has access to the internet. Technology makes it easy to disagree. And we are seeing the outcome.

In 2019, there were protests on every continent. 114 countries were grappling with volatility for various reasons. From the tens of thousands of protestors in Hongkong, to Occupy Wall Street, The Women’s March, Greta Thunberg and climate activists, the ‘yellow vests’ in Paris, protests against a draconian criminal law in Indonesia, against Boris Johnson, against Trump…Russia, Lima, Haiti, Egypt, Lebanon and so on. It is hard to miss the growing trend of global unrest.

Millions of frustrated citizens are taking to the street to push for change. The sheer scale, scope, size and frequency of these protests over the past two three years has been phenomenal. Although Covid did dampen the surge of mass demonstrations in 2020, but not for long. It was only a brief interruption. In India, thousands of angry farmers blocking the national capital is a visible reminder that the trend of mass protests is here to stay.

It has been an eventful week. Delhi is barricaded, the police are out in full force, thousands of farmers are camping around the border, and despite the back and forth between the two sides, the stalemate continues. It is not just India, governments across the world seem unprepared to deal with sudden surge of citizen expectations, as well as their chosen mode of expression.

Mass mobilisation can take place swiftly, without warning and quickly escalate, catching the authorities unaware. Delayed responses, followed by limited, reluctant concessions, and a clampdown by security forces is the usual pattern of reaction. It doesn’t work. Governments need to be more proactive, and think of effective measures to address the ‘new normal’ of protests.

It is not simple, as these tend to be leaderless movements. The absence of an organised structure makes it difficult to sustain engagement, or negotiate a strategy for resolution. The lack of conventional leadership calls for a different approach, as it is not an organised opposition.

Political engagement through social media is also reshaping the agenda. Information and opinions spread fast, building political consciousness, fuelling activism and increasing interactivity. With increasing number of people participating, in the long term, protests can undermine the legitimacy of governments. This can have geo-political consequences, as it sends a signal to the world outside of the changing relation between the government and its citizens.

Protest is an expression of anger. Authorities must recognise the growing trend and respond with care and immediacy. Irrespective of success or failure, protests unleash a certain energy that does not dissipate. It cannot be ignored. In some cases, even after being crushed by authoritarian governments, the reverberations continue to resonate through time and borders. Think of Tiananmen Square, Arab Spring, Catalonia, or the extraordinary rebellion in Hongkong.

The paradigm is shifting. Protest is a signal – that says we are unhappy, and we won’t accept it. We must be heard. It needs a radical departure from conventional thinking, in order to find innovative ways to talk, collaborate and resolve the issues.

There will be increasing instances of public fury that will spill over onto the streets. It must be acknowledged. Responding to the growing disconnect in an effective manner is a huge challenge for governments, not just today when it comes to dealing with the farmers, but in the future too.

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