On the #Delhiprotests, Social Change and Public Innovation

It’s been a heady couple of days for anyone watching the developments first at Raisina Hill and then all over Vijay Chowk and then on Raj Path and India Gate. The first and most candid account of the developments of the first day is probably by Nilanjana Roy. Here is an account by an international observer and here is another from a more left-liberal source. Several thoughtful meditations on what is at issue are being circulated and many more are yet to be written. By and large all media sources seems to agree that the government’s response to a peaceful protest was heavy-handed, provocative and counterproductive, in as much as it fueled more and more intense stand-offs between protestors and paramilitary forces, which eventually brought goons and hooligans into the maidan and sent peaceful protestors home, many of them bleeding, coughing and burnt. I don’t often use this blog to talk about current events, but I believe this is a moment when we can talk about social change, technological change and how both are fueling mass public events like the #Delhiprotests. 

I’ll share several points of information before moving on to points of analysis:

. The event was particularly notable because it was held at the spectacular and scenographic heart of Lutyens New Delhi, where other ceremonies of State are routinely conducted. At first it was at the foot of Raisina Hill, between North and South Block, the ceremonial seat of ministries dealing with home and foreign affairs. As it broke up the hill it threatened the gates of the President’s House. We have not yet heard of this theory officially, but it is possible that there was some over-reaction by the police on account of the expected presence of foreign dignitaries in the capital that day as well as the upcoming visit of Vladimir Putin of Russia immediately afterward.

. It was also notable because so many activists, public intellectuals, students and other members of civil society were so prominently involved. The demands of the activists and protestors were so uncontroversial, it would appear, that there was almost no place for a politicization of their movement, for there can be no other side to a campaign against sexual assault and gender violence. And yet, the vigor, directness, intensity and seriousness of this campaign speaks of a new urban sensibility, which is not yet evident in rural India. The victim of the original assault, came from the urban middle class, and the crime took place on the streets of the capital.

. The first, possibly fatal mistake of the government was to attack the protestors with water cannons, tear gas and lathi charges. This was viewed on twitter and by electronic media journalists themselves as something unprovoked, unnecessary and unconscionable. I must admit that my own response, as I received this news over twitter to be of brimming anger.

. There was a continuous feedback loop operating between some young students and activists on the ground and senior opinion-shapers active on twitter. There were reports from the ground and advice on how to fine-tune the demands that young people were making. A small number of journalists, writers, columnists and editors active on twitter and social media have had a tremendous influence in drawing focus to the demonstration and even in guiding some of the demands made by an otherwise unorganized and spontaneous mass public.

. The routine practices of the police, which may otherwise seem to an urban intelligentsia to be well warranted for their protection appeared harsh and indefensible once they were turned upon them. This is an uncomfortable truth that should not be elided. Equally, there appears to be the thinnest of lines separating the citizens’ right to public protest and the responsibility of the government to protect law and order. Speaking this morning via multiple media and social media channels, the Home Minister and Prime Minister repeatedly called for the public to go home and to keep the peace. There is still no acknowledgement of the possibility of public action by citizens in the pronouncements of the State. This is the biggest gulf between those protesting and those directing the actions of the police.

. Just about every prior protest, demonstration, rally or other kind of mass movement in the history of India has been carried out by an organization of some kind. Even acts of genocide as in Delhi in 1984 and in Gujarat in 2002 are alleged to have been coordinated by political parties and their forward action brigades. What is new here is that a small number of activists, academics and students have given voice to a long silent need, for change and reform to social behavior and cultural norms on the one hand, and also to the logic of institutions, laws and their implementation on the other.

. This joint critique of society and values on the one hand and of the state and its processes on the other appears to have been difficult for some observers to understand, largely because they have seen this protest through the lens of conventional political action. The state and its apparatus of institutions, the laws and social practice, the cultural values and norms of society are all inextricably interlinked, and change cannot come to only one of them without also involving every other.

. While many young people demanded merely ‘justice’ for the original victim of gang rape, they also complained about other everyday forms of sexual abuse, molestation, groping and the masculist construction of public space all over India, but particularly in Delhi. While it may be difficult for any state machinery to rectify such widespread social phenomena, the State may not escape responsibility for the perpetuation of such social evils either, once they have been identified and named so publicly.

. It is near impossible for any State to begin to address social ills when its own political institutions, bureaucratic cadres and routine processes all pervasively reproduce the same dimensions of gender inequality, exclusion and violence that give rise to extreme sex crimes. As with the anti-corruption rallies of 2011, the public was incensed at both big-ticket corruption and petty corruption, and refused to be drawn into a debate as to the petty distinctions between the two. Nor was it much mollified by the assurances of the government that it had a ‘big plan’ to tackle them both. In the case of the #Delhiprotests, the government was not the object of the protests to start with, but it unwittingly showed itself to be part of the problem.

. Unfortunately, by its high-handed and preemptory actions on the first day of the protests, and by its on-going evacuation of any space for legitimate protest on the second day, the government showed again and again that it was operating according to a nineteenth century playbook when dealing with a citizenry that was well-wired into the twenty-first century world. Both parties are using divergent understandings of the word ‘public’ : the government thinks that it alone guards and maintains the public. The public, well, it thinks that the public emerges as and where it gathers.

. In demanding, among other things, a more responsive and responsible police force, the protesters were asking, in effect, for an improvement in the quality of one of the urban services they enjoyed. This may seem a prosaic reading of what was otherwise a very charged set of scenes over the course of two days, but it came up time and again: video cameras in police stations, automatic and electronic registrations of complaints to the police, realtime feedback and statistics about police actions regarding cases of gender violence. These are all the topics we have been thinking about in the context of Design Public. It is in this way that social and political change comes to be eventually linked with socio-technical change, or innovation.

. Unfortunately, neither the amassing public at centres of protest nor the government and its machinery really knows how to undertake actual improvements and enhancements to the quality, mode and means of its delivery of public services. For this, new approaches such as the Bihar Innovation Lab will be necessary. These are still unproven and therefore far from widespread replication.

. The #Delhiprotests would appear to represent a moment of crisis, when established norms and values are shown to be inadequate, and are shed in favor a new set of behaviors, practices and ideologies. To a great extent this change is generational. To another extent these events represent a second example of open conflict between cosmopolitan, urban value systems against rural agri-feudal cultural and cognitive systems, the first being Anna Hazare’s series of agitations against corruption in 2011. But perhaps the most important change we are observing is the possible emergence of mass mobilization in a loosely coordinated online-offline mode, which does not require even a Team Anna or any other group of empaneled leaders to coordinate and drive, but which is truly self-organizing, self-improving and self-empowering. It remains to be seen whether all of these positive potentialities of socially mediated mass action are, in fact, realized in the near future.

Photocredit: Aditya Raj Kaul

This entry was posted in Design!publiC. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *