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How to Spot an 'Andolanjeevi' and Why We Need to Acknowledge that the 'Protest Economy' Exists

File photo of farmers taking part in a protest against new farm laws in Patiala. (PTI)

File photo of farmers taking part in a protest against new farm laws in Patiala. (PTI)

In every other field, the distinction between amateur and professional is both clear and universally accepted. Why would we have difficulty extending this to protesting?

Farmers work the land. Labourers work in factories or on construction sites. CEOs run businesses. When people invest their entire lives into something, they usually need a return. Everyone has a profession, because everyone has to eat. And when you are in any line of work, you might perceive from time to time that your interests are being threatened by policies of the government of the day. And then, assuming that you live in a free country, there are going to be protests.

But has it ever happened that you are struggling to determine the professional motivation of a particular protester? Let's say you see this particular person at barricades, protest rallies, raising slogans and making dozens of media appearances a day. They seem animated. Their rhetoric is uncompromising. But let alone their motivation, you just can't seem to figure out what their profession really is.

Well, you might be dealing with an "andolanjeevi".

There has been a lot of excitement around this word, ever since the Prime Minister inserted it into India's political lexicon. Critics have rushed to denounce the label and/or deny that anything of that sort could exist. Some more loudly than others, which raises suspicion (and amusement). But if you listen to the Prime Minister's speech carefully, I believe he made himself quite clear. Some people are labourers (or shramjeevis), some are intellectuals (or buddhijeevis). Just like that, there are people who are professional agitators (or andolanjeevis). It's another line of work. Why the surprise?

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Remember that everyone has a profession. So if you cannot figure out the profession of a particular protester and why they are so animated, chances are that they are living off the protest itself. That is what it means to be an andolanjeevi. The question now becomes: why would anybody hide their profession? Perhaps because we are conditioned to think of protesters as acting out of conscience. If we realise that protesting can be a job in itself, it undermines their protests.

So how do you spot an andolanjeevi? There are at least two symptoms. First, as I said before, you can't tell what their profession exactly is. The second follows naturally from the first. They are very general, seen everywhere, marching with students, lawyers, farmers and anyone else from time to time. Because they don't care very much what is the cause of any particular group. The protest is the cause in itself.

The professional protesters, and they know who they are, have tried to wiggle out of this label by saying it stigmatises all dissent. But it does not. Should we label any opposition politician as an andolanjeevi? No, of course not. Because the motivations of an opposition politician are clear. They are trying to win the next election. Should any socially or politically conscious person be labeled as andolanjeevi? Again, no, because people take time out of their lives every day to pursue hobbies, passions and anything else they feel strongly about.

In every other field, the distinction between amateur and professional is both clear and universally accepted. Why would we have difficulty extending this to protesting? If someone works full-time at protesting for a number of unrelated causes, it means they are professionals who are providing a service. Why can't we identify them as such?

And again, there is no stigma. Peaceful protest is legal. And presumably, so is making a living off the protest economy. Unless someone chooses to hide their profession, in which case there is bound to be suspicion. Think of a truck driver who transports goods around the country, making an honest living. Who could point a finger at them? But then, what if someone were driving around a truck, loaded with different goods every day, but apparently never going anywhere and denying that they are even truck drivers? That's when you would begin to worry.

Some say that it is outrageous to suggest that andolanjeevis could walk among us. The opposite is true. In fact, it would be naive to say that there is no protest economy. There are all sorts of interest groups, even foreign and diplomatic interests that need to influence public policy. There is a market need for organisers, influencers and campaigners who can focus public attention on something or the other. How could we pretend that there is nobody out there, fulfilling an obvious demand in the market?

We have to reach two important realisations here. First, we have to acknowledge that andolanjeevis exist. Much of what we see is professional, coordinated outrage that somebody is likely getting paid to carry out. As with the now-infamous 'toolkit,' we know there are hundreds, even thousands of people coordinating with each other to generate attention. Attention is currency. And if all these people are putting their lives into this, someone probably needs to get paid.

It doesn't mean all protests are 'bad' or 'immoral' in some way. All products have ad campaigns. Sometimes, it can be hard to tell an advertisement from a sincere recommendation. That doesn't mean we demonise all commercial products. It also does not mean that we deny the existence of advertisements.

The second point is that we need to ask ourselves whether the andolanjeevis right now are doing more harm than good. Take the case of the so-called farmer protests. Could status quo really bring Indian agriculture out of a rut? As population grows, the size of each individual farm becomes smaller and smaller. To boost the income of farmers, do we not need private sector investment? By leaving things as they are and letting the problem fester, are we moving the nation backward or forward?

That leaves us with just one question to deal with. And a lot of critics have tried to use it as the ultimate counter argument.

What about the Mahatma? Would you call him andolanjeevi?

No, because the Mahatma is above the vast majority of humanity. A person like that comes along only once in a hundred years or more. Exceptions cannot prove the rule. Just as Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg may have dropped out of college, but don't presume that the average college dropout will have the same career progression. They were the outliers.

Simply put, there can't be this many Mahatmas. Just as there cannot be lakhs of Einsteins or Tagores. They were called exceptional for a reason. If you believe that India has suddenly begun mass producing Mahatmas at every barricade and protest rally, the joke is on you!

(DIsclaimer: The author is a mathematician, columnist and author. Views expressed are personal.)

first published:February 15, 2021, 15:26 IST
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