Monday, October 24, 2011

Protests signify sound and fury, little else

 A large part of this piece has appeared in the DNA edition of October 24, 2011

Real revolution and change happen far away from city squares, newspapers and TV

The atmosphere is charged everywhere in the world, from the anti-dictators, pro-democracy  protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo to the street protests in Benghazi in Libya to Sanaa in Yemen, from the anti-austerity measures of the government street rallies and arson in Greece and Britain, to the Occupy Wall Street anti-greed and anti-corporate sit-ins in New York in the United States of America to the Anna Hazare-fired anti-corruption protest jamborees in New Delhi’s  Jantar Mantar and Ramlila Maidan.
It is difficult not to shed a bit of cynicism especially in the face of young Simran, a private sector employee in New Delhi who took leave from office – that is, private sector work ethic – to be at Jantar Mantar in April because the 23-year-old felt that what Anna Hazare had to say and what he was doing to back what he was saying important enough for her to show her support in her own quiet way. There is the undeniably electric demand for change in the air. Young people in most of these protest haunts are getting their first taste of democratic politics.
There is a romantic touch to protests and like much else about anything romantic there is brimming over of emotion and sentiment that overwhelms facts. Protests and the sentiments they inspire, however, do not remain at peak level for too long, though in the heat of the moment dictators are overthrown in totalitarian states and in democracies protests evoke promises from penitent politicians. There is momentous momentary change until the sound and fury ebbs, the dust settles, the commotion dies out and people are forced to return to everyday chores. The good feelings that protests generate linger in heart and mind long after the protests turn into memories.
Protests have their uses despite their necessarily short-lived intensity. They have a seismic function and they alter ever so imperceptibly the political and economic landscape and leave mementoes in new fault-lines of class and power configurations which then become the sites of fresh eruptions in the future.
It would be tempting to believe that without protests the political world will retain its monotonous sameness and change, which is the breath of life, cannot come about without the clanging cymbals of protests. The truth is that most of the time protests create a lot of noise and ruckus, and it is business as usual after the carnival of anger is over. The world changes and it does not always happen because of loud protests. Most of the time change is silent, boring and significant. The engine of change is not so much frothy emotion – which is good and healthy in its own way – but ideas and hard work that are most of time nothing but a drudgery.
Most of the time a majority of protestors go home under the illusion that they have changed things but do not realise the real work of change begins after the protests have ended. And mere protests without ideas to fire them or back them leave no impact. Protests can produce good music and poetry, lovely slogans like ‘Make Love Not War’ – the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in the 1940s and 1950s and the counter-culture cult of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States and Europe – but little else.
Every student of student of the French Revolution knows that the storming of the Bastille on July 1, 1789 was an empty, rhetorical act. There were no prisoners in the famous prison and the only victims were the guards who were killed. The music festival in the mud and slush at Woodstock did not end the Vietnam war for the Americans. It was the wily Richard Nixon who realised that it was necessary to pull back and acted accordingly as well.
The on-going Occupy the Wall Street protests and the Hazare-run anti-corruption Lokpal campaigns are short on ideas, and it seems they will go the hippy Woodstock way – run out of steam and return to a state of sobriety. Changes are on the way but they are not being forged in the fires of protests. They are happening where poor and the rich, and the not-so-poor, are weighing options in terms of education and employment, and pushing their way from thatched huts to urban slums to tenements, from inner cities to suburbs, from bad to good schools, from one job to another better one. Hope and change are embodied in these little-noticed, almost subterranean, decisions that individuals and families make in their lives, far away from the heady scenes of placard-holding, slogan-chanting protestors captured for posterity in Page 1 photographs of newspapers and clips of news footage of television channels.   

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