For over two decades, Jantar Mantar has been the official protest venue in New Delhi for activists raising their voices for various causes. Politically-charged banners, reporters milling about, wary police guards feigning disinterest, and make-shift tents shielding hunger-strikers from the harsh Delhi sun, are common sights at the ground in the heart of the national capital where democracy expresses itself daily in dissent.
But that might soon end. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) shifted the protest venue to the Ram Lila grounds near Ajmeri Gate citing noise pollution and disturbance caused to the residents who live nearby.
Before Jantar Mantar became the nerve centre that drew Delhi's discontent, protests were held at the Boat Club in Rajpath. It was only in 1993 the official site of protest was shifted from the Boat Club to Jantar Mantar.
A massive week-long protest that almost brought the capital to a halt in 1988 had prompted the change of protest venues.
At the agitation of Mahendra Singh Tikait, the leader of Jat farmers from Uttar Pradesh, more than five-lakh farmers had occupied the stretch between India Gate and Vijay chowk.
"The Capital had seen the biggest protest of its time. Tikait brought thousands of agitating farmers to the site and for almost a week he had held the place under siege. He had polluted and filled the place with an Army of cattle along with his protesters who even started cooking food there. A new legislation was introduced and protesting at Boat Club was banned since then," a senior NDMC official told The Pioneer.
The Telegraph, describing the intensity of Tikait's protests, reported that while the netas in Delhi were first dismissive of him, they sat up and took notice when the lush lawns of the heart of the capital were taken over by cattle, and the roads were covered in tents put up by farmers.
The Telegraph reported:
They sang and danced by night; by day they sat listening rapt to their leader's extended harangues. Delhi's classes frowned at the chaotic disarray that broke out on the showpiece green lung of the capital. The government was at a loss to cope with the sudden avalanche of peasants in its well-ordered official district.
After Tikait's protests, the government cited security reasons — the Boat Club is very close to the Prime Minister's office, Finance and External Affairs Ministry — to move it a bit further away from the seat of government in Lutyen's Delhi.
Since then, Jantar Mantar has seen protests that has changed the course of Indian laws and Indian politics.
Anna Hazare's anti-corruption movement that later spread to different parts of the country was anchored from Jantar Mantar. It was at Jantar Mantar now political rivals Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi shared the stage with Hazare.
It was at Jantar Mantar the seed of a political party — that was to storm Delhi Assembly elections in 2015 — was planted, and nurtured by the ambitions of Kejriwal, a former tax commissioner.
Jantar Mantar was the place where youths of Delhi gathered to demand that Indian laws be changed after the gruesome gangrape of a young woman on a bus on the night of 13 December, 2012.
In more recent months we have seen Tamil Nadu farmers protest with the skulls and bones of other farmers who had committed suicide. Delhi also united to protest at Jantar Mantar after the murder of Junaid Khan in a train on his way back from Eid shopping. While the "Not In My Name" protests took place all of over the country, one of the largest congregations was at Delhi.
However, historians say that the change of venue of protests in Delhi has changed the nature of dissent.
"Those mass mobilisations on Rajpath were an opportunity for the people to communicate their anger directly to the government. Now, it's no longer possible to do anything more than a symbolic protest," Sohail Hashmi told Outlook.
The Ramlila ground has always been the fall-back venue for protests too large for Jantar Mantar. It has seen the historic India Against Corruption movement of Gandhian Anna Hazare, joined by Ramdev.
The first protest at Ramlila Maidan was held by Jayaprakash Narayan against Indira Gandhi's government in 1975. It was reportedly attended by over a lakh people.
Ramlila grounds have always had an association with mass movements. It remains to be seen if the distance from the seat of power in Delhi will affect the protests held there.