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Protests of the Common Man

February 1st, 2013

by Sunil Asnani

of Matthews Asia

“To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.”—Ella Wheeler Wilcox, poet

Protest is often used by people with little social or political influence to instill accountability among the powers that be. In modern, liberal democracies, government officials can sometimes become complacent once elected, and protests may help to remind them not to take public opinion for granted.

With democratic India's very birth rooted in a non-violent freedom movement against British colonialism, the country is no stranger to protests. It saw people of all ages and communities involved in the struggle for its founding. But in the years following its independence in 1947, India saw protests become increasingly violent and obstructive. The issues became more politicized and seemed to hold less relevance for the average citizen or common man. In addition, student activism also started to decline after India’s economic liberalization of the 1990s made better job opportunities available to youth.

Fast forward to more recent times, however, and we see that India’s protests and demonstrations of the past few years have once again begun mobilizing people to speak out and show their strength in numbers. These protests have been forceful and more impactful despite the concerted efforts of India’s police to quell them. This may perhaps be due to a focus on issues that are generally apolitical—whether they center on corruption or violence against women—and the effect they may have on the greater population. It is no wonder that there has been widespread participation, with people from all walks of life including students, office workers, homemakers, writers and musicians taking to the streets, often spontaneously. Even the traditionally conservative urban middle class has been moved to get involved.

At times, some recent protests have been criticized for a lack of organization and demands that may seem irrational such as the death penalty for juvenile suspects of serious crimes. But for all their faults, India’s recent demonstrations are an essential step toward a more participative democracy, and may help to spur an overhaul of the country’s judicial and administrative machinery that I believe has not kept pace with its economic development. While the investing community might rightfully blame this activism for recent policy impasses, public protest movements could drive governments to make more thoughtful and representative decisions that may sustain long-term economic prosperity. For example, public discourse over brutality against women in India has prompted many states to set up “fast track” courts specifically to address such crimes. Not only may this measure help the social advancement of women, but it may also lead them to be able to contribute further to the country’s prosperity. So, in a way, civic activism can fundamentally change societies. In India’s case, it could help it move away from a society in which gender or social position can limit the extent to which individuals may access education or obtain high-skilled jobs. If such barriers can be broken down, the whole economy in principle may become more productive. Nevertheless, social conventions can take time to fade.

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