Sunday, March 13, 2011

Marching on Chandigarh

The insistence on holding protests at Matka Chowk can be explained by the fact that the activists are adamant that their voice is not meant for the dead at the cremation site but for the government, for the citizenry and for the media. They don't come to wake up the dead. They want to wake up the motionless apathetic rulers.

Nischay Pal

In their march to constantly shrink and eliminate any democratic spaces  for raising the people's voice, our democratically elected governments and administrations continuously try to push the boundaries.
The onslaught does not come only in the form of raising the heights of dams and drowning villages in reservoir waters, or beating people to pulp to get land for dream projects a la Nano at Nandigram. Such fights are being imposed on people in every state, town, village.
In Chandigarh, home to three governments besides being capital of Punjab and Haryana, farmers of neither state can come to protest that their legitimate, long pending demands were not even being considered properly.
But asking the farmers not to protest would have earned the Chandigarh administration the tag of being undemocratic. In these times of media-spinning and well-articulated attacks, the Chandigarh Administration has found a way to stiffle democratic voice of the farmers but this time with the help of the citizenry.
In the largely well educated and middle/upper middle class Chandigarh, it has hinged its entire line of argumentation about how the march of farmers through the heart of the city will spoil the beauty of the capital region, inconvenience the local population and creates traffic snarls, stoppages and blockade, lasting hours.
Chandigarh's media, whose bias is only too well known, has not much independent thought. (And we are only referring to the institutional stance, not that of reporters/journalists whose idea and views on the subject are much more progressive and diverse.) Most newspapers have taken the editorial line that the farmers and other interest groups must gather for any protests at the Sector 25 site earmarked by the administration for the purpose.
The Sector 25 site is next to a crematorium, completely removed from the daily life of the city, away from the eyes of the people. It is easier for farmers to gather there, raise slogans, and then disperse, without anyone noticing them. And the very purpose of protests is to pressurise the government through public exposure.
One would have thought that the point of public protest is that such a gathering or protest will expose before the people how the government has been wronging its own citizens. If such an exposure is to take place in an isolated place, next only to where the dead are burnt, which sensible human being expects the government to even listen, forget about being shamed?
Matka Chowk belongs as much to residents of Chandigarh as to every citizen of this country.
In a front page report in its city edition, the Hindustan Times said under the provocative and accusatory title 'They ran amok, now they're back', that the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) workers had "ransacked the city last year" and "will return for a similar protest on July 26."
In any other country, a journalist would have thought that he or she will be held responsible for deducing that the farmers were indeed guilty of a crime no less than ransacking the city last year. Ransacking the city?
The BKU activists have said that they are not prepared to accept that the rulers will decide where they should gather to raise a cry for justice. The fact that the administration has earmarked a far off place is a dead giveaway of the intentions: those who are crying for justice must not be seen or heard in public places that are too prominent.
There are also serious insinuations that the pro-activity of the Chandigarh administration and police is due to the pressure from a five star hotel near Matka Chowk that does not want milling crowds of rather shabbily dressed farmers to be seen from its windows.
The BKU leaders have clearly told the administration that the protesters will march from Sector 17 to the Punjab Vidhan Sabha. On the other hand, the administration seems adamant on not allowing the marchers into the city except Sector 25.
Ram Niwas, UT Home Secretary, is taking the lead in this connection. Even last year, he had claimed that since demonstrators and protesters of the Bharti Kisan Union and PSEB employees had ran amok without any permission from the administration to hold a rally, the neighbouring states must intercept the movement of such demonstrators at the borders of Chandigarh.
The entire issue assumes a highly provocative context, considering that Punjab's rural folks backed the protests for trans5fer of Chandigarh to Punjab for decades. Political parties across the board pay lip service to Punjab's right over Chandigarh, but here are a bunch of officials who do not want to even allow protestors from Punjab into Chandigarh.
The violent scenes were witnessed only for a day in 2009 but the administration's move to shift out the protests pre-dates such scenes by several years. Even at Matka Chowk, one has seen the police unleashing water cannons and severe lathicharge on unarmed protesters. One can only imagine what will happen at an isolated place in Sector 25.
Clearly, Chandigarh seems to have been completely lost to Punjab. A local English daily wrote highly provocative anti-farmers' editorial, and strongly argued that protests must be confined away from the seat of power at the Secretariat and from the eyes of the general public. What the media, so eager to not allow the picture postcard beauty of Chandigarh to be spoiled even for a few hours, is failing to focus on are the reasons why thousands of farmers are forced to leave their villages to converge upon Chandigarh.
The right of the affected people, activists, farmers, teachers, labourers, unions and political parties to hold a dharna in front of the Secretariat or at Chandigarh's Matka Chowk or anywhere else cannot be taken away by the police or officialdom in the name of maintaining smooth traffic flow. If that is the reason, then there has to be a nationwide policy.
What the Chandigarh administration is saying is that citizens of Mohali or Kharar or Panchkula or any other place, for that matter, can be held to ransom but not those of Chandigarh. This is a dangerous argument, and hardly bodes well for the citizens of Chandigarh, who, one is sure, have far more progressive idea about democratic struggles.
That a section of the media is fully backing the police instead of the affected citizen asking for his rights has been lost on the politicians.
Unfortunately, Punjab's ruling Akali Dal has maintained a deafening silence on the issue of the police and the administration banning any protests in Chandigarh.
It may be mentioned that after last year's violence, the police had gone on a vengeance spree. Teams of Chandigarh police had raided many places in Punjab and had caught and arrested farmer leaders and embroiled them in petty multiple cases. The police were shameless to make clear that their strategy was to exhaust the leaders in getting bail for themselves in one after the other case.
Cases were registered against unnamed farmers for damaging public property, assault on public servants, attempt to murder and rioting.
In its highly provocative and one-sided editorial damning the farmers, The Tribune had then called the visibly poor protesting farmers a "a veritable mob" who, it said, "beat up the badly outnumbered police officials and commandos...teased women and caused mayhem."
Not even the newspapers' own reporters had reported any instance of farmers teasing women, and no newspaper has ever reported in the past protest groups indulging in such behavior. Clearly, the editorial betrayed a mindset: "Many of the protesters were heavily drunk and made a nuisance of themselves wherever they went. If this can happen in the capital of two states, Punjab and Haryana, and the UT, one can well imagine what havoc marauding mobs can cause in mofussil towns."
So what does such a section of the media think about the farmers in "mofussil towns"? That they tease women, drink and make a nuisance of themselves? Such is the media's understanding of our rural folk? The newspaper was angry that the protesters were allowed into the city and said "it was the administration’s duty to keep them away from the centre of the city."
"The organisers...must be given due punishment for this unpardonable should not be too difficult to identify the actual criminals also and to punish them severely. If they get away with what they did, they can be depended on to repeat their activities. As it is, they have all been coming to Chandigarh way too often to disrupt normal activity and hold the capital to ransom at the slightest provocation."
In better evolved democracies, protests are allowed in places where perhaps the Chandigarh administration would have issued shoot at sight orders. It will be pretty sobering to note that at a time when the Chandigarh administration disallowed farmers or teachers to hold a protest at Matka Chowk, the French government chose to allow environmental activists to not only protest at the Eiffel Tower but to even add a nuclear hazard symbol right in the middle of a ring of golden European Union stars on the Eiffel Tower. The stars were sponsored by French state nuclear company Areva to mark France's term as EU president.
With the Punjab Governor losing charge, and a new generation of Punjabis never having heard 'Khiriya Phul Gulab Da, Chandigarh Punjab Da', one can well imagine the wages we will have to pay to raise a slogan near Matka Chowk. So much for having a capital! It is time the capital learnt a bit more about the mofussil towns.
The UT administration claims that it has made sure that the Sector 25 site has all arrangements for water and toilets for protesters. Could it be that our rulers are so dumb that they think farmers swoop down on Chandigarh every year for a sip of water, or to relieve themselves?
If the protesters are insisting on holding their rally in Sector 17, it is because they are adamant that their voice is not meant for the dead at the cremation site but for the government, for the citizenry and for such sections of the media. They don't come to wake up the dead. They want to wake up the motionless apathetic officialdom.
There are none so blind as those who won't see, and there are none so deaf as those who won't listen.
But there is no reason for those sworn to democratic struggles stop trying to make the blind see, the deaf hear and the prejudiced understand.

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