Jantar Mantar Voices

Democracy in Action: An example of ordinary citizens being able to voice their concerns

By Dinesh Wagle
Read the article as it appeared on today’s OP-ED page of the Kathmandu Post

If you wish to see the great Indian democracy in action, go to a place called Jantar Mantar, near the Parliament House in New Delhi, where centuries ago a king had installed some planetary observation platforms. From these observatories today, during the day time, one can see not the stars but people from across India and beyond shouting slogans, rallying and screaming against (or for) the government and institutions and staging sit-ins or fasts advocating varieties of causes and condemning many of the evils in the world.

Last week, Jantar Mantar was rocked by some Nepali voices that condemned American “imperialism”, Indian “expansionism” and “autocratic” Nepali Maoism and rooted for the success of the peace process.
“Comrades,” said a lady at a protest programme organized by the India-based migrant organization affiliated with the ruling CPN-UML. “We have always come here to Jantar Mantar to demonstrate whenever there is a crisis in our country Nepal.”

Sloganeering followed immediately. “Stop robbery and abduction!” “Stop violence and killing in the state!” “Stop Maoist atrocities!”

About a week before this event of last Sunday, Maoist supporters had gathered at the same place to “condemn Indian intervention” in Nepali politics and advocate civilian supremacy over the military back home.
The mention of the Maoists reminds me of my biggest worry that troubled me when I first heard the news of their withdrawal from the government in Nepal last month. More than possible derailment of the peace process (as I am sure the Maoists won’t dare do that), I was concerned about the chaos that the Maoists would create in the streets making daily life hell for urban residents. These are the Maoists who, even when they were in government, continued talking about launching agitations on all three platforms, sadak, sadan and sarkar (street, parliament and government) at the same time. Why blame the Maoists only? Protestors of all kinds make the streets of Nepal their primary targets. Can there be a protest in Nepal without smashing a few vehicles, throwing stones and giving a good amount of inconvenience to the general public who have nothing to do with the protest?

Even the most powerful, oldest and largest democracies of the world see highly regulated and properly managed protest programmes. Many cities around the world provide particular space for demonstrations. The ground in front of the U.S. Capitol and the Speakers Corner in London’s Hyde Park see and hear placards and voices advocating or condemning varieties of issues. Jantar Mantar is Delhi’s answer to Hyde Park. Yes, we also have Maiti Ghar Mandala in Kathmandu where peaceful protestors gather to voice their concerns, but in a society that harbours a culture of violent protests, the Mandala itself is struggling for its meaningful existence.

To get back to the pro-UML gathering at Jantar Mantar Road, as the participants sloganeered more forcefully, some felt that the crowd had swollen unexpectedly. A police officer on duty whispered to the emcee. Immediately, she announced in Hindi, “The dismissed police personnel from Uttar Pradesh are requested to move away from here.”

The “dismissed policemen” in plain clothes, who were holding their own agitation against the Mayawati government of U.P., quietly excused themselves and went to regroup some three metres down the street. While the guests at the UML gathering were being seated on newspapers spread on the footpath, the leader of the dismissed policemen standing among his colleagues was assuring his comrades in Hindi, “Friends, our agitation will continue.”

Both of the groups were keenly watched by the members of another agitating group that has been camping on the right side of the Jantar Mantar Road for the past two years demanding Greater Cooch Behar State within the state of West Bengal. (The Nepali-speaking community of the same state are also demanding a separate state of Gorkhaland.) On the left side of Protest Road was a man seated on a bed inside a tent on which several banners were suspended. Wearing a Nehru cap and sporting a long black and white beard, Mister Alamdar Abbas started his “indefinite sit-in in front of Parliament” 10 months ago demanding that Hindi be made the national language in India. “Just like you have Nepali as the national language in Nepal,” he said in Hindi, “We want Hindi here.”

“But will that be acceptable to all?” I asked. “I have seen people in southern India who don’t speak Hindi but Tamil.”

Arrey! Write Hindi in Tamil and Tamil in Hindi,” he countered. “Hindi in English and English in Hindi.”

I couldn’t agree. Yes, I often chat on the web in Romanized Nepali (e.g. “k chha” for “what’s up?”), but I have always been against the keyboard layout available on the web that lets the user type Nepali letters by pressing English alphabets fearing that such an option will ultimately kill the language. Coincidently, thanks to my iPhone that connects me to the web from the street, I saw a Facebook feed in which Kedar Sharma said something like this in Devanagari script (I’ve translated it the other way round: English Devanagari ma Nepali roman ma lekhnu ustai ho. Sayad tapai lai jhinjo lagdo ho yesto padda. Yedi English yesari lekheko tapainlai man pardaina vane mero matribhasha aruko lipi ma lekhiyeko ma kasari dekhna sakchu? (Writing English in Devanagari and writing Nepali in Roman is the same thing. Perhaps you feel quite irritated to read English like this, and if you don’t like English to be written like this, how can I see my mother language written in others’ script?)

However weird his demand may be, Abbas is an example of ordinary citizens being able to voice their demands in a democracy. Will their demands be fulfilled without smashing a few cars, blocking highways and giving pain to a few thousand ordinary citizens? I ask this question because I grew up in a “protest culture” and “People’s War” time in Nepal! But Abbas is optimistic.

“The Indian government has given this space (for demonstrations),” said the man who claimed to have organized a “huge demo in New Road, Kathmandu in 2004 for human rights and pace”. “Those who can’t talk directly to the government come here. Their message reaches the government through agencies like the Intelligence Bureau and, in case of big programmes, the Research and Analysis Wing.”

Apart from the spies, the media spreads the message conveyed here in Jantar Mantar. Like the presence of the Post at the UML programme, many other reporters come to cover or observe the events here. “People knew about our plight because of the media presence and coverage,” said a dismissed policeman from U.P. who was listening to my conversation with Abbas.