Name-Place-Animal-Thing: How We Talk About Protests

This week: The little-reported, often-missed perspectives on protests in India, Palestine and Iran.

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Name-Place-Animal-Thing. Credit: Vishnupriya Rajgarhia

‘A much-needed resistance’

First, there was the relatively unreported Bhima Koregaon celebration, then came the violence, and the misleading headlines and tone-deaf Twitter rhetoric followed. Now, the story of one-sided violence has turned into one about ‘clashes’ – BJP members have accused Jignesh Mevani and Umar Khalid of “incendiary speeches” and ignored calls to arrest Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote, the two men accused of planning the violence on January 1.

As Harish Khare put it, “The violence itself was rather limited; it is the narrative that has been imposed on the violence that is chillingly revealing.”

In this piece for The Print, Dalit leader Radhika Vemula tells a different, under-reported account of the ‘Dalit violence’ than that several TV channels and print media have been reporting this past week.

Radhika Vemula. Credit: YouTube

Radhika Vemula. Credit: YouTube

Right off the bat, Vemula identifies the state’s inaction as a tell-tale sign of its priorities. She asks, “Now if the government provides police protection for Hindu occasions as the Amarnath Yatra or for any politician’s visits, why was it unable to provide our community police protection for an event as big as this?” By offering protection to certain groups, the state lends legitimacy to their claims and concerns, and the lack of police protection didn’t just leave the gathering open to attacks but also undermined the symbolic importance of the occasion.

She adds that what has been portrayed as a flash in the pan is actually just one expression of the struggle that “has been simmering for the past two years.” According to Vemula, “ It was a much-needed resistance against the ongoing atrocities of the BJP in Maharashtra, and also at the Center.”

Also read: The Dalit is the New Muslim

Politically, Khare sums it up best, “The BJP has a dilemma on its hands. Electoral politics and tactics can be finessed to edge out the Muslims and the Dalits, but their absence from the political space does not mean an end to their aspirations, dreams or anger and a sense of discrimination.” This isn’t just an inconvenient narrative for the government but also those of us who cannot acknowledge our complicity in the caste structures that still shape our lives.

Protests tend to jolt our humanitarian compasses and nothing seems to create – and rupture – a political narrative quite like violence does. We pick sides quickly, ignoring particulars like ‘who, what, where, when, why’ as we focus all our attention on close reading one instance instead of the long arc that led to the violence or the events that will follow after. But these instances don’t come to us unfiltered and they certainly don’t exist in a vacuum, so what determines whether we see a cause as legitimate or not?


Our ‘selective humanitarianism’

When Malala Yousafzai got shot in the head for being outspoken, world leaders didn’t hesitate in picking sides. Yousafzai was a hero, and eventually a Nobel laureate, and the Taliban, the oppressors and terrorists. But the world has been relatively silent about another young girl, this time from Palestine, who is currently facing imprisonment for assaulting an Israeli soldier – in her own backyard, after the soldier shot her 14-year-old cousin in the face with a rubber bullet. In this piece for Al-Jazeera, Shenila Khoja-Moolji asks, “Why isn’t Ahed [Tamimi] a beneficiary of the same international outcry as Malala? Why has the reaction to Ahed been so different?”

Khoja-Moolji breaks down the ways in which we – those outside the particular context Tamimi occupies – see and process humanitarian struggles. On one hand, Yousafzai and Tamimi both have similar histories of activism and protesting, but where the Taliban’s hostility is seen as unequivocally bad, Israel’s aggression is considered legitimate, all because most of us assume that state-sanctioned violence (as that carried out by Israeli soldiers) *must* stem from some real threat.

Also read: The Trials of Ahed Tamimi: Israel Set to Make an Example of 16-Year-Old Palestinian Girl

One reason for our muted reaction to Tamimi’s arrest and potential incarceration is our “selective humanitarianism”. Khoja-Moolji writes, “girls like Ahed who critique settler colonialism and articulate visions of communal care are not the empowered femininity that the West wants to valourise. She seeks justice against oppression, rather than empowerment that benefits only herself.” In other words, Tamimi isn’t the ideal candidate for our sympathy because she doesn’t fit our template of the tragic feminist hero. To support Tamimi, we’d first have to acknowledge that she was wronged and that too by a legitimate state actor, and to recognise that we’d have to accept that political authority does not automatically err towards justice.

Palestinian teen Ahed Tamimi (R) enters a military courtroom escorted by Israeli Prison Service personnel at Ofer Prison, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, January 1, 2018. Credit: Reuters/Ammar Awad

There’s another aspect to Tamimi’s identity that Khoja-Moolji points out – Tamimi’s already a known activist, and in a way, the fact that she’s an informed protester, not a hapless apolitical victim, somehow makes her less of a candidate for our humanitarian concern. Citing anthropologist Khoja-Moolji explains that only particular kinds of suffering are considered worthy of our concern – the “exceptionally violated female body and the pathologically diseased body.”

However, several other kinds of suffering and dispossession fall through the cracks in our current model because we don’t register them as severe or ‘real’. Issues like “unemployment, hunger, threat of violence, police brutality, and denigration of cultures are thus often not considered deserving of humanitarian intervention,” writes Khoja-Moolji.

And so, time and again, we lean towards the ‘official’ narrative whether we’re discussing a single teenaged activist in Palestine or lakhs of protesters in Maharashtra.

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Hindsight is 20/20 but what about now?

There’s another round of protests that’s had all the quacks, hacks and wonks in a tizzy this week – Iran. While many have been prophesying a political overhaul, Shervin Malekzadeh says, “This expression of political dissent is not, as of yet, an all-or-nothing proposition. That some assume it must be no doubt says more about them than it does about Iran.”

Writing for Muftah, Malekzadeh points out that we don’t yet know what sparked the protests but that in post-revolutionary Iran, such direct action is more a way to remind the government to do its job (improve the economy, live up to electoral promises) than to overthrow it. He writes, “The ethos of Do your job! is a more reliable barometer of events on the streets of Tabriz or Mashad than Off with their heads! (though many Iranians would no doubt be amenable to the latter, at least figuratively, if it ensured the former).”

Here, Iran watchers, especially in the US, lean towards popular expression instead of the state because they see the former as the more legitimate authority (or because they see the state as illegitimate). But Malekzadeh presents a more complicated perspective, in which Iranian citizens themselves don’t see their government as illegitimate but are protesting anyway (which means that protests too can be about more than just overthrowing systems). As he put it, holding elected officials accountable is “hardly compatible with a desire to smash the state.”

Protest rally in Iran. Credit: Reuters

Protest rally in Iran. Credit: Reuters

Malekzadeh makes another interesting observation about the protests, “Shame is a powerful tactic for convincing authorities to do their jobs; the citizen who wields it in the public square is embarrassed for the political class who leaves her no other choice.” On the face of it, this makes sense. Iran positions itself as “forever vigilant in the struggle against injustice around the world” and so obviously, its citizens expect the “same commitment at home.” But this idea of shame is a compelling one, because we only willingly ever attach it to states we see as legitimately democratic – shame can only exist if there’s concern and by acknowledging its political importance, Malekzadeh implies that Iranians don’t (at least, yet) think that the state does not care about them.

Vemula, Khoja-Shoolji and Malekzadeh may be talking about radically different contexts and struggles but they all stress one thing – these sparks are not stand-alone events, but part of a long resistance.

People protest everyday in ways big and small – to assert cultural pride, to maintain individual freedom, to exercise their own political power and keep the ever-invasive state in check – and that’s what makes the act of resistance so optimistic for protestors and so dangerous for the state. You never know which singular moment will be the moment. As Malekzadeh writes, “Demonstrators themselves may not even know they are on a revolutionary path until it is too late.”

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