Amid the massive scale of protests happening across the country against the controversial and alleged to be discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act, one location has been a constant- the Jantar Mantar Road. Jantar Mantar has been a witness to several historic protests, marches, andolans just like this time. Thousands of people from different walks of life, with the widest range of demands and opinions, come here to make themselves heard and put forth their points making it the flagbearer and symbol of dissent and free speech in our liberal democracy.
The iconic complex was built in 1724 by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II of Jaipur and was originally built as a huge instrument to observe the Sun, Moon and other astronomical features. But this piece of architectural and mathematical delight became the face of Indian dissent and democracy in the 1990s when it was officiated as the place for sit-ins(dharnas) and other protests. Before Jantar Mantar, Boat Club near Rajpath was the official site for protest but it had to change after an interesting fiasco. Humongous protests by the Mahendra Singh Tikait-led Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) at the Boat Club in 1988 disrupted life at Parliament. The protest was being led by farmers who camped with their cattle at the boat club for months in the heart of the city, as the site was rather close to the Parliament it was not a sight to welcome. The location was shifted from Boat Club and Jantar Mantar emerged as the battleground for protests as it was far, but not too far from the Parliament and would be a suitable place to gather and not disrupt daily life in the busy city and yet allow people to reach the ears of parliamentarians.
Since then, the area around Jantar Mantar has seen some of the most popular protests which have changed Indian politics and society in different ways. Let us look back at them as we enter the new phase of protests in 2020:
1)Anti-Mandal Commission Protests: Mandal Commission was set up in 1979 January by Morarji Desai government to identify the socially or educationally backward classes to consider the question of seat reservations and quotas for people to redress caste discrimination, the Commission in its report suggested 27% reservation quota for OBC resulting in total 49.5% quota in government jobs and public universities. The next Prime Minister, V.P. Singh who was enjoying a tough time in parliament in an effort to regain popularity went ahead and adopted the recommendations and “literally” set ablaze the country in protests.
Students in Universities were regressed with the idea of quotas on caste-basis for a new and generally considered to be a “better-off” group. They felt that this would compromise the rights and accessibility of other students from education and government jobs. In 1990, Several students and activists took to the street, the most prominent protests were carried by Delhi University students at Jantar Mantar for weeks. One of the “general-category” students from DU even self-immolated himself which led to a series of self-immolations by students across the country. This was probably the lowest point of the prime-ministership of V.P. Singh but he was hell-bent on not retracting from his act.
It was one of the largest student-led mobilized protests in the country after the JP Narayan Movement. It saw unique styles of protesting like dharnas, morchas, bandhs, and hartals across the country with some of them even turning violent. Years after independence issues of caste were politicized on such a national level and discussed with new unrest and ideas of social division. There were reports that universities were infiltrated by IB personnel and government agents to keep track of student activity and suppress protests. The movement lasted a few months but then fizzled out after three people died at a Boat Club Rally in a police firing. Later, the matter reached the Supreme Court and it gave supremacy to the empirical evidence provided by the Mandal Commission Report and gave a clean chit to the quota policy in the name of equality and equity.
2) Anti-Corruption Movement: In my living memory never has a movement seen as much support as Anna Hazare’s Anti-corruption Andolan in 2011. The massive, non-violent and politically-neutral movement rocked not only the country and its government but also the world with TIME Magazine voting it as one Top 10 news stories of 2011. The movement which was against the wide-spread ‘Bhrashtachar’ (Corruption) in Indian political scene largely adopted and followed Gandhian mode of Satyagraha and non-violent Hartals. It had massive support across the political, social or occupational spectrum with actors, activists, journalists, civilians, bureaucrats, academicians, and most importantly ordinary public coming together demanding the government to pass legislation to alleviate corruption in the government through Jan Lokpal Bill.
The movement started in April 2011 with army-veteran civil activist Anna Hazare declaring fast unto death at Jantar Mantar, demanding the government to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill to finally deal with corruption in the government. This was followed by lakhs of people joining him in similar movements across the country like Bangalore, Mumbai, different parts of Delhi, etc. The anger and frustration were evident after frequent corruption scams and scandals in the UPA regime, the biggest being 2G scams, Adarsh Bhavan Colony scandal, commonwealth games scam, etc.
Anna Hazare was the face of the movement along with the new CM and founder of AAP Party- Arvind Kejriwal, the celebrated IPS officer Kiran Bedi, lawyer Prashant Bhushan, Yogendra Yadav, Aamir Khan, Yoga-guru Ramdev Baba, etc. Anna led the charge with his Bhook-Hartals (hunger strikes) and dharnas at Jantar Mantar and Ramleela grounds in Delhi. Farmers and ordinary citizens would flock these grounds in Delhi and sit with him for weeks with no sign of stopping. The government finally accepted the demands of the movement and agreed to present the bill in the Lok Sabha. Millions of people celebrated the good news around the country. But, the government’s bill was hardly what the movement was demanding. According to Anna Hazare, only 15 of the 71 recommendations were accepted by the government which led to a resurgence of Anna’s famous Bhook-Hartals. But this time the government was not willing to listen or sit silent, Anna was put on house arrest and threatened to be arrested. After some time, people lost interest, Anna Hazare became sick as a result of his hunger strikes, factions and differences emerged within the leaders of the movement and government tried to muzzle protests by making promises of debate, discussion and implementation of the Bill and take actions against the wide-spread corruption. The movement was successful in forcing the government to listen and respond to people’s demands and bring people together was a cause that affected everybody in India. The impact of the movement can be summarised in the words of the star-leader, Anna Hazare who called it the “Second Freedom Struggle Movement” of India
3) Not in My Name: The increasing cases of mob lynchings in the name of religion and cow protection had shocked the nation after passing of the Beef-ban. The killings of Mohd. Akhlaq in UP (2015) and 16-year-old Junaid Khan in Haryana(2017) were seen as a result of the BJP government’s hate-spewing saffron politics and actions of other saffron outfits like Bajrang Dal, VHP, RSS, etc. This led to massive unrest and distrust against the government with concerned citizens took to the streets yet again expressing their anguish and frustration with the government’s silence and inaction over these religiously-driven incidents. Carrying placards saying ‘Not In My Name’, ‘ No place for Islamophobia’ and ‘Shed hate, not blood’, scores of people gathered at Jantar Mantar in Delhi.
People gathered at Jantar Mantar to protests against the rising incidents of hate crimes and mob lynching mostly against Muslims and Dalits motivated by religious reasons. The movement was led by film-maker Saba Dewan who gave the war cry for the movement, it was largely supported by online posts and messages. A Digital movement of the digital world exalted by hashtags, Instagram stories, Facebook posts, and Whatsapp messages. Similar protests were also carried out in Mumbai, Patna, Bangalore, Lucknow, etc. The movement was aptly named, representing the attempt by Indians to echo their feelings against hate and violence in a secular and liberal country. The movement did not last long but it forced the Prime Minister to make a statement condemning the mob lynchings by vigilantes and hooligans who proudly called themselves ‘gau-rakshaks’.
The protests aimed to re-emphasize the Constitutional values of equality, secularism and non-discrimination and Right to Life. The hashtag ‘Not in my name’ is used till date to call out acts of discrimination, hate, and violence against minority communities and has now become a war cry for Indians who are battling the new wave of religious-hate.