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Leaderless Protests: A New Wave of Political Activism in the 21st Century

Twenty-first century protests across the world are distinct from the ideological battles of the 20th century. They are episodic, unplanned, and unstructured. The masses may be inspired to protest against generally incompetent, inefficient, and unresponsive governments, economic distress, inequality, and corruption.
London Black Lives Matter Peaceful Protest from Vauxhall to Westminster. Photo: Unsplash

Shakespeare’s plays, writes Stephen Greenblatt in Tyrants, probe the psychological mechanisms that lead a nation to abandon its ideals and even its self-interest. “Why would anyone, he asks himself, be drawn to a leader manifestly unsuited to govern, someone dangerously impulsive or viciously conniving or indifferent to the truth? Why, in some circumstances, does evidence of mendacity, crudeness, or cruelty serve not as a fatal disadvantage but as an allure, attracting ardent followers? Why do otherwise proud and self-respecting people submit to the sheer effrontery of the tyrant, his sense that he can get away with saying and doing anything he likes, his spectacular indecency?”

These troublesome questions hold resonance for us till today. Entire societies are in thrall to right-wing tyrants who lack both competence and compassion. They have emptied democratic institutions and practices but retained the shell. And yet people admire them and return them to power in election after election. Fortunately, all citizens are not held in thrall. They cannot be. So the discerning and the critical draw up a litany of grievances against the tyrant-institutional capture, weakening of the opposition, centralisation of the executive, control of the media, and suppression of civil society.

Still they are unable to figure out what the reason for the popularity of right-wing populists is. Without a worry line on his forehead, the populist continues to reinvent and implement colonial policies of divide and rule, suspend civil liberties, and puts activists, cartoonists, satirists and artists into prison. He thumbs his nose at critics. And people accept him because somewhere he touches a sentiment that might, otherwise, form part of the political unconscious-fear of those who are not like us.

In plural societies, he excavates and manipulates memories of conflict between communities in days long past. This acts as a trigger to unearth suspicion and anxiety. We live in an age of distrust of our fellow citizens. We live in an age of fear that dissent will be brutally repressed. Societies that had managed to construct a fragile social contract between communities that have a history of conflict, as in India, witnessed the collapse of that balance. This is the tragedy because the makers of the Constitution did their best to provide alternative norms for the restructuring of society.

The task was formidable. In 1947, chaos in northern and eastern India had begun to resemble Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature; war of all against all. But the solution that Hobbes proposed in his 1651 Leviathan – a powerful state – was simply not enough. In India, society had to be transformed and social relations had to be reworked and strengthened. The makers of the Constitution had to introduce a modicum of sanity in a society that had been wracked by insanity. A new society had to be created out of the wreckage of the old, it had to cluster around norms that were far removed from religious mobilisation and enmity that marked the pre-Partition and Partition days of the 1940s. The political community had to be reinvented.

On November 25, 1948, B.R. Ambedkar, the chairman of the drafting committee of the Constitution, stated that political democracy cannot last unless there is at its base social democracy. Social democracy means a way of life which recognises liberty, equality, and fraternity as the principles of life. These three principles are not separate items. “They form a union of trinity in the sense that to divorce one from the other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy…Without fraternity, liberty and equality would not become a natural course of things. It would require a constable to enforce them.” Indian society, he said, lacks fraternity. “What does fraternity mean? Fraternity means a sense of common brotherhood of all Indians – if Indians being one people. It is the principle which gives unity and solidarity to social life. It is a difficult thing to achieve.”

The conceptual twin of fraternity is solidarity. Without solidarity, a democratic community is disaggregated into a collection of highly self-centred individuals.

Solidarity enables us to come together in networks of shared concerns, establish a dialogical relationship with our fellow citizens, and enter into discussions on the distinction between what is and what can be.

Expectedly, it is precisely the civic virtue of solidarity that the autocrat attacks. Social polarisation has not only ripped apart society, it has damaged friendships and associations. In the process, the idea of ‘the people’ as a political category has been fractured along the lines of ‘we’ versus ‘them’, ‘citizens’ versus ‘outsiders’, and those who ‘belong’ versus those who have ‘infiltrated’ into the body politic, namely refugees.

The deleterious consequences of the institutionalisation of right-wing majoritarianism or Hindutva could have been predicted. Terrible slurs and violence have been catapulted to the forefront of public consciousness and the political agenda. Our own people are subjected to abuse, hate campaigns, and violence. The multiculturalist project that was initiated in the 1990s has come full circle; now, members of a numerical majority, whose prejudices have been skillfully manipulated by pernicious ideologies such as hyper-nationalism, racism, or ethnic superiority, believe that the minorities have to be shown their place. Fragmentation of citizens and opinions allows Shakespeare’s tyrant to implement nefarious schemes. And we, the remaining fragments of the people, are silenced.

And silence we must remember is acquiescence even as the ‘tyrant’ goes for the gut of suspected opposition. The political community has been once again divided because people once again have mobilised on religious grounds. Today, we, the people of India, have been once again divided by cynical power politics. This is the tragedy of contemporary India; the shuttering in of the Indian mind through unbelievable stories of fabricated conflict. This is what tyranny means for a society that had learnt to live together after the earth-shattering events of the Partition.

And we, who have been part of the civil liberties movement, and fellow travelers of the Left, watch in sheer helplessness and a degree of suffocation at the way the ruling class casts a pall of fear over the country. Brahma Prakash, author of the work on Body On The Barricades, writes, “I take the risk to assume that at least some of us are feeling suffocated by the situation shaping Indian society. We are feeling barricaded, chained in our bodies and spaces. I am looking for words and phrases to describe the times we are living through. For me, no other words match the potential and vulnerability of ‘I can’t breathe’. I am looking for a figurative image that can capture his situation in body and action. The image I see is that of the body on the barricades.” The feeling he calls breathlessness is akin to the condition that afflicted people who were struck by the pandemic. It is inspired by the last words of George Floyd in May 2020 when he was murdered by white racists in the United States.

Also read: How Hate Has Been Normalised, Behaviourally and Institutionally, in Modi’s India

Protest movements and hope

Still there is a glimmer of hope.

If absolute power leads to suffocation, then resistance to power is as natural as struggling to breathe in conditions of ultimate breathlessness. It has been estimated that since 2010, protest movements that number around 60 span every region of the world. These unplanned and unorganised protest movements, which are quintessentially urban, were initiated by the Arab Spring in 2010-2011 against corruption and regressive political policies. The second wave commenced in 2019 across the world.

Since the first wave of protests, we have witnessed the awesome spectacle of masses without leaders or hierarchical command structures, spontaneously coming together to fight for the right to breathe. Twenty-first century protests across the world are distinct from the ideological battles of the 20th century. They are episodic, unplanned, and unstructured. They do not have alternate agendas. The masses may be inspired to protest against generally incompetent, inefficient, and unresponsive governments, economic distress, inequality, and corruption.

We have read about leaderless spontaneous protests in history. For example, the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 in France. Leaders of the French Revolution, Danton and Robespierre, emerged later to trigger the protest into a political revolution. But 21st century protests do not plan to move into a revolution that will bring about institutional change and political transformation. No longer do protesters wish to patiently and laboriously disseminate ideologies of nationalism, socialism, and revolutionary transformation, build up cadres, organise rural peasants and the urban working class to launch a movement with clearly defined strategies and ideals.

The objectives of the contemporary protest movement are not to take over state power in the Leninist sense. Nor do they want to posit civil societies as an alternative to a power-hungry state and a profit-driven economy, as was the trend in social movement literature after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Protesters just want their voices to reverberate in regimes that are indifferent to voices from the ground. The trigger for the uprising may be a rise in prices of metro-tickets as in Chile in 2019 or a rise in gasoline tax that was imposed in France.

The protests of this century are fueled by new communications technology. Social media, particularly messaging apps such as Telegram, are used to announce where the next meeting will be. The use of messaging to connect with each other summons huge crowds at the touch of a button on mobile phones. The ability of protesters to link with others, inspire, and coordinate to bring millions onto the street is extraordinary. This phenomenon has been termed the digital flash mob. Sometimes movements achieve their objective; often, they do not. Sometimes they assemble rapidly and dissolve just as quickly. In other cases, such as the famous Yellow Vest movement of France, protests initially spurred by a rise in the gasoline tax periodically erupt to make a point.

Leaderless protests have few attachments to traditional political groupings or ideologies. Some of them have the desired effect, the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt (2011), the resignation of the Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika (2019), and the resignation of President Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka (2022). In other cases, members of the movement are put in jail and there is no perceptible change in the polity. In still other cases, political uproar creates a crisis situation, subsides, and things return to normal, as in Sri Lanka.

Also read: Resisting Dictatorship, One Video at a Time

Mass movements without leaders or organisations can, admittedly, prove unpredictable. The demonstration can go this way or that, turn into a mob, wreak violence, and dissolve rapidly.

Still there is no political performance comparable to the one wrought by ordinary people who leave their homes and their workplaces to demand their rights and the rights of their fellow citizens as the anti-CAA movement did in India from 2019-2020.

Such is the power of solidarity that can bring together fellow citizens, who are till then strangers to each other, in a mass movement against Shakespeare’s tyrant and his policies of social polarisation. We strive to articulate the constant niggling unease that our people are besieged by tyrants. We struggle for our own humanity and we can do so only through solidarity. We have to do this because in authoritarian regimes, we suffocate. We are disoriented when we see that urban spaces that were once alive with assemblies, demonstrations, colourful banners, and revolutionary songs, have declined to urban wastelands upon which nothing conducive to democracy is allowed to take root.

Leaderless protests, as in the case of the anti-CAA movement, serve to hammer in the message that masses can come together fired by the spirit of solidarity, and cast doubts on Shakespeare’s tyrant, his competence to rule, his many injustices, and his cynical exploitation of emotional vulnerabilities. The picture presented by autocratic societies, such as ours, is not pretty, yet there is a glimmer of hope. There is nothing quite as awesome in history as the spectacle of masses without leaders or hierarchical command structures that spontaneously come together to fight for the right to breathe.

Neera Chandhoke was a professor of political science at Delhi University.

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