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Jantar Mantar Blues

“Democracy! Bah! When I hear that I reach for my feather boa!” —ALLEN GINSBERG

Set in the heart of the national capital. Jantar Mantar is an observatory built during the medieval Mughal Empire. In school, we read about its history, main purposes and areas like its architectural significance and as a landmark for astronomical studies—and this 18th-century building has been a part of our lives, thanks to the well-informed educationists of the mainland, who care about cramming into us the general knowledge of all the places and landmarks in the country, except those that are our own. In addition to the scientific purposes, I found that the place, not necessarily the observatory but its neighbourhood, is a haven for protesters. Precisely it’s the protest site with one or the other affected individuals and groups arriving here every day with their demands and grievances. This makes perfect sense so far.

News of the Days

A few news reports reflect the contemporary trend:

At Jantar Mantar protest, Modi’s brother Prahlad slams Centre ( Mr. Prahlad participated at a protest at the Jantar Mantar organised by the All India Fair Price Shop Federation, of which he is the vice-president, to press for their charter of demands where he attacked the BJP and its government.)
The Hindu, 17 Mar 2015    

Thousands of Farmers Have Come to Delhi Today to Protest Land Bill ( Thousands of  farmers from across the country who are  protesting the land bill at Jantar Mantar in the capital today, have vowed they won't move unless the government ordinance is withdrawn.)
NDTV, 18 Mar 2015

Solidarity Fast in support of Irom Sharmila at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi (A day long fast was organized here in Delhi on the call of Save Sharmila Solidarity Campaign, Association of Protection of Civil Rights, Lok Raj Sangathan and Students Islamic Organisation of India to support Irom Sharmila and to demand repeal of AFSPA. Many people participated and observed the hunger strike at Jantar Mantar.)
E-pao, 14 Mar 2015

Want to hold a protest, come to Jantar Mantar: Delhi Police ad [In the ad, which has appeared in this paper , police have asked all those who want to hold protests to contact Deputy Commissioner of Police (New Delhi district) to get their venue assigned. ‘Want to hold dharna/ protest. Upto 5,000 persons. Welcome to Jantar Mantar’, reads the advertisement, which also has the Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP)’s phone number displayed prominently.
Indian Express, 7 Feb 2014

Well, the point is with such predictability of action by the aggrieved party, how much is each protest going to be effective. Besides there are specific time frame for a day’s protest, stretching from 9am to 4pm. This completely robs of the essence of a protest, which actually exudes the ideals of opposition and resistance rather than those of compliance and conformity. Then there are other issues too.

In his article published by the Sunday Guardian, Protest at Jantar Mantar is a right, senior journalist Kuldip Nayar wrote: ‘The political rallies were organised by hiring people and hauling them to the city from nearby villages (in olden days). But now there is hardly any rally because political parties have made the two Houses of Parliament a boat club.’ He added: ‘The MPs do not have to sweat it out in the open any longer, they have their air-conditioned chambers.’ From recent observations, the hire-for-protest still continues. While they go for demonstrations for hikes in petrol price, we grew up doing the same thing for our existence.

Back at the Protest Site

Perhaps my upbringing makes me too skeptical because in our hometown, ravaged by multiple armed conflicts and unending social unrest for the last five to six decades, the solutions are obtained or negotiated only through force and coercion. This encompasses both the state’s command of submission from the general mass as well as the demands of the public from the state.

A trace of civility and social development is visible in such a protest at Jantar Mantar and all is in the name of democracy. Mr Nayar concluded that ‘the Government must realise the consequences that curtailing peaceful, democratic agitations will have.’

Mr Nayar was of course articulating with a different motive, like many of the protesters have genuine concerns and that the latter has every right to express opposition and get their demands attended to by the respective authorities. He also mentioned earlier, the protest site used to be Boat Club near Rajpath.
Image source: Imgur

Records show it was one of the peasants’ protests in 1988 that changed the venue. An official report from the New Delhi Municipal Council also mentions that the government had in fact created recreated this site, citing the place ‘is near Parliament, yet it is not so close that it would affect the routine affairs of the concerned authorities. [Also] The Government can easily take notice of the demand of the public from there.’ It is even more baffling that the confrontation can be so docile. This reminds me of the funny viral meme that shows a Canadian holding an ‘I’m-a-Little-Upset’ placard.

On the superficial level this is the part of a healthy democracy. So to say, issues ranging from corruption to sexual violence have found their calling at Jantar Mantar, including those of diverse environmental and political matters from other parts of the country. However, the ideas and the manifestations can afford to be selective—and the reality is quite contradictory because we grew up, apart from learning about Jantar Mantar as a site of science, that the country is the largest democracy in the world yet all along our lives have been toiling under a pseudo-military rule. It cannot be selective but as in the tragedies of our lives, it does. When on earth has democracy become this sort of selective?

If we look at the bigger picture, at its most rudimentary level, democracy is equated with regular elections, a participating citizenry, the rule of law plus established representative and accountable institutions, among others. Jantar Mantar, as we see, is more about offering a space for decent opposition, for creating a space in the heart of the centre to showcase its so-called national image over the ideals enshrined in this form of political system. On the downside, ‘seeing is not believing’, apparently. People from the peripheral Indian states will understand the connotation better.

Back from the Rally

I visited Jantar Mantar for the first time at one of the Nupi Lan’s (Women’s War in Manipur which occurred during the British rule) processions a few years ago. I was so disillusioned that I wanted to burn the banner down—I torched it with my lighter but there were many sensible human beings who put off the fire. Such predictability kills the soul that you are left with no option but to go by the natural animal instincts.

Earlier on that day, a policeman, on queried about the power to control the crowd, he replied it was just a routine task. One set of people come and they go and is replaced by another and the cycle continues without much harm. He did not even care to know the issues of the particular protest groups anymore, he added. Quite a sensible thing—and recently another policeman shared his nonchalance. This time, a few weeks ago on a weekend, it was at a nearby police station on Parliament Street. It was supposed to be a poetry-reading event but it turned out as a protest rather than poems. And the policeman’s apathy was more of an irritation—that these people are always thronging, fooling around out there on Saturdays and Sundays.

Protests are not implied to be violent. Still, the phenomenon of selective democracy plus the candle-light consciousness—or briefly, the conscience awakening of mainland Indian middle-class in response to socio-politico-economical issues, holding candles and rallying sporadically around Jantar Mantar and India Gate—is too hard to be taken as true. If we believe the optimists’ view that our voices are heard at Jantar Mantar, half of our existential crises will be over by next morning.   

—Concluded.


Related write-ups on this blog:

1 Democracy in the Theatre of the Absurd—and the Futility of Election
2 Reality Bites: The Possibility of Ending Democracy
3 Captain America Is No More the Man of Steel 
4 Capital Protest Pain and Rambles 



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