POLITICS

The #NotInMyName Protests Aren't Perfect, But Here's Why Turning Up For One Matters

Notes from a protest.

29/06/2017 4:01 PM IST | Updated 29/06/2017 4:02 PM IST
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People attend a 'Not in my Name' protest against spate of anti-muslim killings in India, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, India on June 28, 2017.

Standing at a #NotInMyName protest in Kolkata it was entirely possible to feel hopeful, to feel a surge of solidarity, to feel that if nothing else that there were like-minded people, who felt aghast at recent events, shocked enough to leave their homes on a rain-sodden monsoon afternoon and come together in protest.

It was equally possible to be cynical and wonder whether this would achieve anything at all. Protests like these, a mish-mash of reheated poetry and sterile sermons can feel like preaching to the converted. Many of the usual suspects were in attendance. There was a high degree of overlap with a lit fest crowd. And as with an protest, it quickly became a media scrum every time a celebrity was spotted.

The camera person standing on the chair next to me made the Muslims standing in front turn their placards around to face him so that he could get the "right ambience" – rain soaked men in their kurtas, #NotInMyName placards, and a stage and crowds behind them. The men were afraid their phones would get wet in the rain but an obliging man collected all their phones for safekeeping in a plastic bag so the photo-op could continue.

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Citizens protest named 'Not In My Name' against recent lynching incidents at Madhusudan Mancha on June 28, 2017 in Kolkata, India.

Someone else at the protest posted on the Facebook group that he left in disgust upon seeing a prominent actor/director speak at the venue – someone he branded an "opportunist" whose very presence reduced everything to a "fashion show".

No one is under any illusion that liberals in India can swing any election other than a poll on Facebook (and perhaps not even that). For that matter neither can conservatives who are fiscal conservatives but want no truck with any social conservative Hindutvawadis.

Many worried even about the title - #NotInMyName. It's a tricky one. Some questioned whether it meant that in effect those attending the protests were merely distancing themselves from the lynch mobs as opposed to stopping them. The slogan we were told comes from the Vietnam War protests in America. (And to underline that Anjan Dutt, filmmaker and singer, sang a bit of Joan Baez as well). For the young college student crowd, that was a moment of sheer bemusement. For the grey-haired in the crowd (and there were many) that was a bit of Yesterday Once More nostalgia.

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Citizens protest named 'Not In My Name' against recent lynching incidents at Madhusudan Mancha on June 28, 2017 in Kolkata.

But in those days America had gone to war against Vietnam officially in the name of the American people. That gave the slogan true relevance. We have borrowed the slogan but the context is different here. The Indian government has not declared war in our name on Muslims or Dalits, at least not officially so. Of course murder is bad and the law must take its course the law minister has said. They even insist they have not declared war on eating beef in this country. Their cattle rules are just about animal cruelty. What is happening is more insidious than the American war in Vietnam and the old slogan fits uneasily in these troubled times.

The government whose ministers rarely bother to even acknowledge the lynchings has indicated clearly that the opinions of civil liberty-types, jholawallas, English-media pundits and intellectuals, simply do not matter. Nothing is being done in their name or not in their name either.

If anything, a friend commented drily, a cow at the protest would have been the most relevant since much of the horror we are seeing today is being perpetrated in the name of the cow.

If anything, a friend commented drily, a cow at the protest would have been the most relevant since much of the horror we are seeing today is being perpetrated in the name of the cow.

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People attend a 'Not in my Name' protest against spate of anti-muslim killings in India, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, India on June 28, 2017.

That is why it would be wishful thinking to hype these protests as some kind of Arab Spring. Many critics saw insufficient solidarity with Dalits as opposed to Muslims. Still others are worried secular liberals only reacted to the buzzwords of the Hindutva brigade without trying to change the terms of the debate. All of that is worthy of debate and introspection.

But no protest can wait for the perfect rainbow coalition. No protest can wait for consensus on strategy and tactic. Every protest counts because the act of showing up counts. That should never be discounted or belittled especially in this time of Facebook activism.

But no protest can wait for the perfect rainbow coalition. No protest can wait for consensus on strategy and tactic. Every protest counts because the act of showing up counts.

Many who dismiss the protests are angry that the word Lynchistan has come into vogue. Of course it's an exaggeration, a click-bait headline-seeker's shorthand. India is no more Lynchistan than it is Gang-Rape Capital of the world. These are sensational monikers but meant to make us sit up and take notice. Those aggrieved that these #NotInMyName protests are maligning India's good name would do better to save their fire for the lynching that besmirches India's reputation rather than a few protests.

Read the Caravan story about the eye-witness account of what happened in that train compartment and be upset about that rather than the wet placards and poetry of a few thousand rain-soaked people on a monsoon evening.

Yes, soon it will be business as usual. Even as the announcers were reminding the audience about a candlelight vigil, the people behind me were discussing the nearest café options. Yes, much of what was said was just platitudes and earnest homily in a time where too much ugliness has been normalized. We are a cynical lot and it takes too much to move us. Many of those who came to the protest come from places of privilege that feel safe from attacks in unreserved compartments on a train. But they came. That matters.

Many of those who came to the protest come from places of privilege that feel safe from attacks in unreserved compartments on a train. But they came. That matters.

But were they moved?

How old was Junaid? Asked singer Moushumi Bhowmik who had just sung a protest song of Babri Masjid vinage. 16 someone said. 16 she said thoughtfully. And then said "My son is 27". Then she sang old song of Rabindranath Tagore's - Aaj jyotsna raatey shobai gechhey boney. On this moonlit night they have all gone to the forest. An unlikely song for a protest. But then she reminded the audience the poet too had lost his own son way too early.

Then she stopped and said pay attention to the next line.

Aamar e ghor bohu joton korey, dhootey hobey, moochtey hobey morey. (I will have to clean this room of mine with great care, I will have to wipe it with great care). We are all culpable, she said whether it's in our name or not. That is why a protest song written after Babri or 2002 is still relevant. We have allowed it to come to this pass.

As she sang, finally someone behind me started singing under his breath and one more person and then another. And for that moment, the sound of honking buses and shrieking ambulances receded and only the protest shimmered, fragile, ephemeral, even wishful but a protest nonetheless.

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