Hitting the right notes: How protests have shaped our lives - Hindustan Times
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Hitting the right notes: How protests have shaped our lives

ByNatasha Rego
Jun 07, 2024 10:10 PM IST

We enjoy our rights today because, at some point in history, someone demanded that they be granted to us. A look at what makes a protest successful.

Protest is a uniquely human activity. We’ve been at it for at least a few thousand years, in surprisingly similar formats.

In India, wrestlers who were protesting against a wrestling federation chief who was accused of sexual harassment, were manhandled and dragged away from their protest site in Delhi. The Women’s March on Washington in 2017 saw thousands of women taking to the streets the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as the US president. Irom Sharmila, who went on a 16-year hunger strike against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Manipur. (HT Archives, Getty images, AP, Reuters) PREMIUM
In India, wrestlers who were protesting against a wrestling federation chief who was accused of sexual harassment, were manhandled and dragged away from their protest site in Delhi. The Women’s March on Washington in 2017 saw thousands of women taking to the streets the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as the US president. Irom Sharmila, who went on a 16-year hunger strike against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Manipur. (HT Archives, Getty images, AP, Reuters)

The earliest such movement on record is a labour strike in Egypt in the 12th century BCE, during the reign of Ramses III. Tomb builders and artisans from Deir el-Medina, who were among the highest paid and respected in the country, set down their tools to protest poor working conditions and consistent late payments.

Large sums were being donated to temples across Egypt. There had been successful war campaigns against the Libyans and the Sea Peoples (marauders who arrived via the coast). Why then were they not being paid, they demanded.

Their stir was recorded in a scroll called the Judicial Papyrus of Turin, an administrative document found in Deir el-Medina in the early 19th century.

The workers were appeased when their dues were eventually cleared, but periodic strikes continued over three years, every time payments were delayed, the scroll notes. Workers blocked access to temples, preventing priests from making offerings to the deceased, which was considered a serious offence.

Labour strikes have followed a similar format, then, for millennia.

In the US, it is considered very poor form to cross a picket line and patronise a business that has driven its workers to protest outside.

As tactics change, with children skipping school, women withholding sex from spouses, and climate protestors throwing soup at the glass shields around works of art, all to little effect, researchers are examining what makes for a successful protest.

In their 2011 book Why Civil Resistance Works, political scientist Erica Chenoweth and political strategist Maria J Stephan found that non-violent movements were twice as likely to succeed, because they appeal to a wider range of people. The authors examined 323 violent and non-violent campaigns from 1900 to 2006 and analysed how success typically does hinge on numbers. If one can galvanise about 3.5% of the population, it more or less guarantees a successful campaign, the book states.

“That sounds like a really small number, but in absolute terms it’s really an impressive number of people,” Chenoweth added, in an interview in the Harvard Gazette. “In the US, it would be around 11.5 million people today. Could you imagine if 11.5 million people—that’s about three times the size of the 2017 Women’s March—were doing something like mass non-cooperation in a sustained way?”

The chances of such a mass gathering depend partly, of course, on the ruling dispensation. In the US, thousands of students at more than 130 colleges and universities have demonstrated against Israel’s war on Gaza since it began in October. By May, more than 2,000 student protestors had been arrested, suspended, expelled or prevented from graduating.

In India, wrestlers who were protesting a lack of action against a wrestling federation chief who was accused of sexual harassment, were manhandled and dragged away from their protest site in Delhi.

“I am concerned that the decline of the global left has taken the teeth out of protest over the last 100 years, and the rise of social media has dematerialised protest over the last 10 or 15 years,” says journalist and writer Raghu Karnad. “In the last few years in India, police are creating an expectation that a protest is illegal until deemed legal, which is completely backwards.”

Lone rangers

Perhaps the most unusual kind of protest is the one consisting of a single individual.

A new film still under production explores the life of Irom Chanu Sharmila, before, during and after what has gone into the records as the world’s longest hunger strike. It lasted for 16 years, with Sharmila force-fed through a tube as she protested the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

The Act gives soldiers the power to arrest without warrants and shoot to kill, if there is “reasonable suspicion” that there is need for such action, while fighting insurgents in the state. Sharmila was a 28-year-old activist in Manipur when, empowered by the Act, Indian soldiers shot and killed 10 civilians, including a teenager and a senior, at a bus stop near Imphal. From that year, 2000, to 2016, Sharmila stopped eating, making news statewide, then countrywide, then worldwide as she demanded a repeal of AFSPA.

In August 2016, with tears streaming down her face, she ended her fast with a few drops of honey. The protest hadn’t worked. AFSPA remains in place in parts of Manipur and in parts of Nagaland, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

Sharmila has since found love, married, and has two daughters, twins aged six.

“What drew me to her story was this idea of how the world is quick to create heroes and is equally quick to discard them,” says Akshat Nauriyal, the new-media artist who is making the film, titled How Sweet Does the Honey Taste?

They do declare

A protest does work best when it is joined by multitudes. Rosa Parks leading to the bus boycott and then to “I have a dream”… the power of one paired with the power of the crowd has changed the world.

Pharaohs learned to pay workers on time. Women were included among those with the right to vote. Monarchies fell, modern democracies were born. Slavery came to an end, then segregation. Laws against sexual minorities have been repealed; new formats of the family embraced. India was freed from its colonisers; apartheid ended in South Africa.

We have the five-day work week and eight-hour workday (at least notionally) because of workers’ protests in the late 1800s in the US.

Even when success is less dramatic, or not visible at all, every protest succeeds in at least one way. Because of Sharmila, parts of the world—and millions in India—were forced to learn about AFSPA, what it is, and what it can be used to do.

“What a protest tries to manifest is a growing circle of awareness and of agitation. So even a small protest is meant to inform and awaken a larger group of people who witness it,” says Karnad. “Whether the protest is led by an individual or a small or large group, then, that multiplier effect is its purpose. You want to capture people’s attention and that is the main threat to the larger powers you are standing up against.”

What is a protest you joined, a cause you fought for, or a mission you wish to see succeed? Write in and add to our history of humanity’s most ancient method of sending out the powerful message: We’ve had enough.

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