For any protest to last beyond a small fraction of sustainable time, it needs the support of sponsors. The challenge is in keeping it free from vested interests

There’s a feeling of disquiet among segments of the cross section of a news-aware people across the country. They consume news either in print or television, which is dominated by private players. This has led to a situation where financiers view their broadcasting channel to be a surrogate of their own political, social and economic inclinations. This is a fact of life that is seldom flagged. By and large, the so-called public is unaware of the political slant of the promoters and protectors of the medium who carry the news. Hence, the distinction between facts, comments and commentary often becomes dubious. Comments parade as facts and commentary often becomes the explanation thereof. This makes the job of the reader — to understand what is actually happening — even more complex. The result is that rabble-rousing often gets mistaken for a vibrant democracy.

The current atmosphere of agitations for and against an issue has raised some fundamental questions. One of them is: How significant are street protests as a counterfoil of a dominant majority of parliamentarians, who in their wisdom, took a decision on a given topic? It is generally assumed that given the total voting population of the country, a parliamentarian represents approximately 16 to 17 lakh voters. No single demonstration ever approximates that number. What makes a demonstration great is the media coverage it receives and how for hours, certain shots can be repeated over and over again. That some people get animated and get prone to posture in an excitable manner is no secret. Thus, it is that process give a slant to a situation represented by a selection of facts. Repetition of this approach across more than one forum serves as a drumming up. It goes far beyond the wildest dreams of the sponsors of that limited agitation on the crossroads.

Brigades of two types of professionals then descend upon the location. On January 23, an aspiring leader-to-be descended with a mike on the crowd of protesters in Shaheen Bagh to encourage them. He promised that he would create 500 or better still, 5,000 more Shaheen Baghs across the country. The same day, while delivering a memorial lecture, a now retired VVVIP lauded the very act of protest as something very encouraging. Whether it is encouraging or not is another matter. The bald truth remains that it raised several unanswered questions. For instance, protest is a desirable process in a democracy but the concurrent question is: What form should it take? How should the theme be chosen? What is the mode of protest? Is it disrupting the life of an average citizen, who is interested in nothing more than leading a normal, quiet and ordinary life? The questions are numerous but answers are few. At the end of the day, any protest that has to last beyond a small fraction of sustainable time needs the support of sponsors. Somebody has to promote it and that person would not do so without a vested interest.

Across world history, from Paris Commune to Bolshevik Revolution, lessons are easy to identify. The Paris Commune collapsed when organised sponsorship withdrew. Perhaps, there would have been no Bolshevik Revolution if the Germans had not smuggled Lennon into Czarist Russia. In such circumstances, serenading protest for the sake it, especially by the young and distinguished professionals, who have no track record of having participated in a significant populist protest movement, can only be pandering to the gallery. Such episodes cannot be overlooked because they tend to feed upon themselves, get drummed up and projected. The ultimate spread effect cannot be a gain to anyone or any process. There are innumerable cases where protest movements have fizzled out because of the absence of a sustainable agenda. That, too, would be a tragedy because protests or any process should be an input to be more robust. The danger of throwing the baby in the bath water is too risky to sustain or even consider. It would have made sense if some leader of standing, credibility and past records made a headline by pointing out how protests can get out of hand.

Besides, there are ripple effects, too. Reports have it that a lady enumerator of a certain, totally a political social intervention, while dealing with a community of people of her own faith in Kota, was summoned back to the colony after she collected data of names and addresses. She was threatened not to use them. This kind of contagion is highly infectious. A little later, hundreds of miles away from Kota, a programme run in the aid of internet awareness by Google India and Tata Trust got into foul weather. The reason was that enumerators were asking for the names and addresses of the trainees. The upshot was that the programme, at the end of December 2019, was halted in all the five districts of West Bengal because the trainers faced trouble. Is this right?