Protesters’ Right Versus State’s Duty: How Shaheen Bagh Has Revived Democracy’s Biggest Debate
The solution to the impasse at Delhi's Shaheen Bagh may lie somewhere between these two variables.
An elderly anti-CAA protestor gestures while she talks to Supreme Court-appointed interlocutors Sanjay Hegde and Sadhna Ramchandran during an interaction, at Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi on February 20, 2020. (PTI Photo)
New Delhi: A manacled George Fernandes produced before the courts after his arrest in the Baroda Dynamite Conspiracy Case remains one of the most powerful images of the turmoil preceding the imposition of Emergency. Fernandes’ successful career in electoral politics thereafter was probably one reason why the picture got firmly etched in the chronicles of contemporary politics.
Not all trade union leaders like Fernandes could enter mainstream politics to become ministers in union governments. There have been countless — from either side of the ideological divide — who have led many a battle against the might of the state. One lesser known mortal was PN Sukul, the leader of the union representing non-gazetted staff at Lucknow secretariat.
A doughty unionist and a tenacious negotiator, Sukul took on three UP chief ministers for over two years in the late 60s, leading the protesting staff which was seeking pay parity with their counterparts in other states. The government felt the secretariat was overstaffed and instead needed a haircut. It was further argued that the dwindling finances of the most populous state of the country left little headroom to indulge the burgeoning lower bureaucracy.
The UP Government Employees’ strike also touched off a moral dilemma which confronted many leaders who were by then part of the political executive; and were consequently mandated to maintain law and order in the face of an extended protests.
Not long ago, the same set of leaders were on the other side of the fence — challenging an imperialist empire. They had questioned the British authority in India by using various instruments of non-violent mobilisation. Like satyagrah, which were part of an assiduously built repertoire by none other than the revered Mahatma!
In power and part of the administration, the same set of leaders was being called upon to crush its own people — in this case the protesting employees of Lucknow secretariat — to submission.
Some in the administration adjusted and reconciled to their new roles in public life by arguing that the modes and the methods of protest honed during the freedom struggle were inapplicable in the changed milieu. They expostulated that post-independence, adult franchise offered opportunity every five years to the electorate to accept or reject an elected government. Moreover, parliamentary democracy empowered lawmakers to defeat a government through a majority vote on the floor of the house.
Fifty years later, the protest in Shaheen Bagh have resuscitated the larger issue that continues to confront a full-blown parliamentary democracy that India today is. That is the competing rights of protesters vis-à-vis the state’s responsibility to maintain order in a public place. The solution to the impasse may lie somewhere between these two variables.
Another factor which determines the outcome of any collective action is the ability of the leadership to determine maximum leverage a mass mobilisation would generate under prevailing circumstances. That requires a very clear understanding of the objectives one had set out to achieve; and perhaps most importantly when, where and how to withdraw when those objectives are met — partially or fully.
Gandhi, in his four decades of public life, experimented with many forms of protests. He was equally deft at maximising the outcome of mobilisation by choosing the exit route at the right point in time.
In retrospect, some of PN Sukul’s supporters felt their leader perhaps could have extracted much more from the UP government in the protracted battle of nerves as the employees’ strike spread to other departments. Within the Congress, some of the electoral reverses in 1967 general elections in UP were attributed to a sustained campaigned launched by the striking staff against the candidates of the ruling party.
Sukul had his day under the sun. He roamed the streets of Lucknow and despite orders from the CM, the police could not arrest him. Then where did he falter? Perhaps he dragged the negotiations a tad too long. Perhaps he overplayed his hand.
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