Several protesters in Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh, had staged a three-week-long jal satyagraha recently. About 50 villagers stood in “neck-deep” water, demanding a reduction in the height of the Omkareshwar dam on the Narmada and land as compensation for the displaced population. The photographs of a file of men and women immersed in water as a mark of protest, or those of the blistered feet of the activists, captured the attention even of city-dwellers, who usually remain indifferent to the sufferings of marginalized communities. The public outrage and extensive media attention forced the state government to accept the legitimate demands. Encouraged by the success of the campaign, a similar initiative was undertaken by villagers in neighbouring Harda to protest against the Indira Sagar dam. Another jal satyagraha took place in the sea, this time in Kudankulam, where fishermen are battling against a nuclear plant.
A national daily has now published a report to elaborate how the jal satyagraha in Khandwa had been “staged”. The media, it argued, had been “taken for a ride” by the protesters who had, reportedly, waded into a canal that was just “two-feet deep”. The report quoted several villagers, who said that they had laid bricks and stone slabs on iron doors used in sluice gates to sit comfortably in the shallow waters. They added that they had taken breaks to eat or to go to the toilet during the vigil.
The report, maligning the integrity of the organizers of the protest in Khandwa, mirrors two worrying developments. First, people’s protests are increasingly having to transform themselves into spectacles to get the attention of the State and its agencies. Such a transformation, however, has not only been necessitated by the unwillingness of the State to engage with critical issues that affect the lives of ordinary people. In a society that often misses the import of messages unless they are communicated in the form of symbols that it can consume with ease, activists are also having to rely on pageantry to leave a mark on public attention that has become notoriously fickle.
Such a strategy, as was the case in Khandwa, does pay occasional dividends. But what activists seem to ignore is that the regressive power of spectacles is such that it ends up devouring the issues that lead to protests in the first place. Consequently, it is no longer important for a section of the media to remember that the villagers in Khandwa had been forced to resort to novelty to get the attention of the nation against a government that had been intent on drowning their homes and croplands. What has become important is the investigation to establish whether the protesters employed unscrupulous means to trick the State into accepting a set of demands.
The second, but equally important, question that the report raises concerns the crisis that surrounds the language of protest in a democracy such as ours. The State remains unperturbed by massive shows of public strength, especially when they are organized by tribal people. Suicides by farmers are inevitably politicized. Armed insurrections are put down brutally.
That the line separating protest and performance has gotten blurred is not the only worry. The point is that the inventory of legitimate protest to demand the attention of the government and people far removed from the sites of conflict has become dangerously depleted.