JANTAR MANTAR is one observatory, slightly less than 300 years old, where you can compile some of the most complex astronomical tables, and predict the times and movements of the sun, moon and planets. Right outside the observatory, without ever wreaking any damage to it at all, sundry groups of people with a grouse or a grievance would sit under make-shift tents, or just lie down on a durrie, demanding justice, or silently hoping for it.
Even with the help of all those mysterious looking red brick yantras, they could not calculate when the time will come for the realisation of that final, divine promise — that the meek shall inherit the earth.
Now, the National Green Tribunal has ordered their eviction from India's iconic site of a dharna. It was just too noisy, the NGT said. Not good for the environment.
Almost a quarter century ago, the Sulatas of Delhi had found that the Boat Club was being ruined by farmers who swarm upon the capital, seeking proper remuneration for their produce. Now, the protestors have been told to shift to the Ram Lila Maidan.
The simple fact is: the powers that be do not want to even see people raising their voice. That they did not hear the voice is well proven by independent India's 70 years of history.
When a state suppresses the cry for justice on account of charges of noise pollution, it joins the ranks of the conscience-dead. It votes for the calm of the graveyard silence. We must spread noise pollution at such a time.
Not even the most repressive regimes in the Arab world, who hardly think anything of mowing down protesting crowds, had ever thought of accusing protesters of noise pollution. Dare I say that the Arab Spring did see noise pollution going up a few notches in regimes where silence is considered golden, a way of life to continue that ensures survival.
Surely, the Occupy Wall Street movement added to the noise pollution. It's a pity the writ of the NGT does not run to the World Social Forum venues.
As newspapers carry pictures of officials cleaning up the Jantar Mantar area, having demolished the tents and other makeshift structures on Monday, October 30, India's democracy suffered the blow of a million silent curses. Among these were some of India's finest men who were protesting on the One Rank One Pension issue. No one demanded that the nation needs an answer. A bunch of gau rakshaks quietly shifted from Jantar Mantar to Ram Lila Maidan, though I am not sure they found an answer.
The state of a country's democracy is defined by how it is practised in the chowk.
What happened at the Jantar Mantar is especially important for activists in Punjab. They gulped the sarkari farmaan of keeping Matka Chowk free of any protests rather meekly.
Just a few years ago, Punjab was agog with talk of torture in the police thanas. Well, that still happens, and everyone and his uncle knows that.
Not even the most repressive regimes in the Arab world, who hardly think anything of mowing down protesting crowds, had ever thought of accusing protesters of noise pollution. The Arab Spring did see noise pollution going up a few notches in regimes where silence is considered golden, a way of life that ensures survival. They must have missed our NGT.
Now that the state has developed a new democratically-sanctioned model of torture in the public square — beating up nurses, anganwadi workers, farmers, angry people protesting against the death of anyone in police custody, relatives demanding inquiry into killing of a kidnapped child — it has also ensured that the aggrieved hordes do not come marching into the town.
So you cannot protest at the Matka Chowk, just a few hundred yards from the seat of power, the Punjab Assembly. The state finds the power to throw out powerless people from Jantar Mantar after trying out its prowess at places like Matka Chowk.
Governments, when they are far removed from the concerns of the masses, are programmed to constantly shrink and eliminate democratic spaces where people can raise their voice. Law comes handy as a convenient tool.
NGT is on the right side of the law. When the height of a dam is raised and villages/villagers are drowned in reservoir waters, nothing that happens is illegal. Such fights are being imposed on people in every state, town and village.
Matka Chowk was made a no-go zone for protesters by the Chandigarh Administration by using the law, fair and square. That the democratic voices were stifled in the process is a minor aspect that neither shrieking anchors cared about, nor did Chandigarh's elite media. Editors too like a city beautiful to be calm, free of noise pollution, so they did not say a word, careful that they do not add to the noise pollution.
The state of a country's democracy is defined by the health of how it is practised in the chowk. What happened at the Jantar Mantar is especially important for activists in Punjab. They gulped the sarkari farmaan of keeping Matka Chowk free of any protests rather meekly.
Just as protesters at Jantar Mantar were told to shift to Ram Lila Maidan, Chandigarh's elite told the farmers, the protesting wage-demanding teachers, job-searching youth to shift to a site in Sector 25, next to the cremation grounds.
It is a site 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. Unless the dead are listening.
But the very purpose of protests is to pressurise the government through public exposure, not convince the dead.
One would have thought that the point of public protest always is that such a gathering or protest will inform the people about how a government has wronged its own citizens. The dead are often not moved by the protest.
The fact is that Chandigarh's leading media houses carried headlines that mocked the voices of those seeking justice. "They ran amok, now they’re back,” said a newspaper in a screaming headline to warn people of what it saw as the marauding hordes of farmers. Editors in glass houses can easily miss the connection between a five star hotel that came up near the Matka Chowk and the administration's actions of debarring the milling crowds of rather shabbily dressed farmers who could be seen from its windows.
Silence, as we all know, is the most insidious way of extending support. The fact is that those tasked with seeking an answer on behalf of the nation preferred to either stay silent, or be part of the apparatus that killed the democracy in the chowk.
Punjab’s now ruling Congress party, as well as the opposition Akali Dal refused to be sucked into any debate when the Chandigarh Administration slapped a blanket ban on anyone from Punjab coming to Chandigarh to protest against the government. You will not hear a squeak from them on the issue of Jantar Mantar.
Not one of their leaders went and sat at the Matka Chowk, or the Jantar Mantar when the Punjab Assembly passed a blanket law — "The Punjab (Prevention of Damage to Public and Private Property) Act — the likes of which could only have been possible in North Korea or pre-reforms China, prohibiting any protest, agitation, dharna on any issue in the state without permission from the government.
Punjabis must guard against attempts to snatch away democratic spaces that allow breathing room for ideas. The voice of the dissenter is not meant for the dead at a cremation site. The shout of a protestor will not reach the hallowed portals of the Parliament if the protesters are shunted off to the far away Ram Lila Maidan.
When a state suppresses the cry for justice on account of charges of noise pollution, it joins the ranks of the conscience-dead. It votes for the calm of the graveyard silence.
When the health of a democracy is at peril, the believers of demoracy should check it out in the chowk. Matka Chowk is as good as any other place. So is Jantar Mantar.
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