What do they want? (Home Minister Shinde, of the students)

The students in Delhi who were protesting on Saturday didn’t know exactly how to get to what they wanted. Some thought that the death penalty and castration for rapists would do it, some thought appealing to the people in power might do it, some thought telling the police off would do the trick.

They wanted safer streets. They wanted the police, and their parents, to stop telling them what to wear, when to go out, which friends they should be with, how to behave. Many of the young men wanted no part of a system—a system they recognized clearly, though they didn’t call it “patriarchy”—that took in boys and men, and spat them out the other end as rapists and abusers. The girls and young women out there wanted, as many banners said, respect and freedom, not protection; they really, really wanted to be treated equally.

They may have been confused, but they were articulate in their confusion. The only problem was that they were articulate in a way that baffled those on Raisina Hill—the government officers in North and South Block, the parliamentarians to the right of the Hill, the police officers who formed that thin khaki line in between the protestors and their state. They had no leaders. They had no urgent list of demands to be met, because they were not politicians with an agenda to be haggled over. “I thought this was what you were supposed to do,” said one 17-year-old girl to me. “Go out into your public spaces and express your opinion. We want lots to change about how we’re treated, so we’re here to say that.”

For Residents Only

Delhi is the city of warning signs. Do not park here or your tyres will be deflated. This space for residents only. Some signs are unspoken but understood: do not attempt to come out into (male) streets, or you will be raped. One sign is always understood, in this city of power and gated communities: all “public spaces” exist at the pleasure of the state, and the state may withdraw your rights to “your” space at any time it chooses.

The students saw Raisina Hill as a public space. But over the years, the Hill has become less and less public. Boat Club demonstrations have retreated further down Rajpath. The public has access to Raisina Hill chiefly on Republic Day and Beating The Retreat, when it may watch tanks, fatuous floats and folk dances, and military bands. For the rest of the year, Raisina Hill is used exclusively for the entry and exit of government vehicles, Parliament vehicles, even though there was a time, not so long ago, when this was not the case. Each of the radial roads that span out around Rashtrapati Bhavan, Parliament and North and South Block has slowly been closed down, or become increasingly policed.

The public, the citizens in whose name the powerful run the country, have been pushed down Rajpath. At India Gate, they can have an illusion of public space—balloon sellers, boating, candyfloss and golgappa sellers, a few photographs against Amar Jawan Jyoti. But larger and larger parts of Rajpath have been annexed for official purposes only.

The students didn’t know that. They thought that the correct way to approach those in power was to come to them, and to sit at their doorsteps, waiting for them to step out and say hello. But on December 22nd, when the protest was still peaceful and still belonged to the students, most officials in North and South Block chose to use the back way home, around Rashtrapati Bhavan, down North and South Avenue. Not one of them thought that they might want to step out of their white Ambassadors, and take that short walk up to the yellow police barricades, just to see for themselves how dangerous these young protestors, chanting their slogans, might be. The Home Minister, Mr Shinde, said today he didn’t think government should be expected to run around meeting its citizens—what if, he implied, others protested, demanding meetings?

Imagine that. What if those in power actually had to spend their time meeting their citizens, listening to their grievances? Do we not know that government has more important things to do than to talk to us?

The students thought Raisina Hill was for everyone. Today, nine metro stations have been closed, to prevent protestors from using Rajpath—the King’s Way—and this has been justified by the violence created, not by students, but by political cadres, by faceless men attracted by the presence of TV cameras, happy for a chance to smash something up in front of an audience.

Lutyens’ Delhi sits safe and sanitized today, in the circle of those nine metro stations where no ordinary citizens will be permitted to get off the trains, go upstairs into their city. The bungalows of ministers and government officials, the prime minister’s house, the offices of North and South Block, the Hill and all it stands for are encased in their own, private bubble of security, emptied of mobs, protestors, aam janata.

The students have been asked to take their protest somewhere else, somewhere out of sight, preferably. Women in this city are often asked to step back, to not use public roads or transport after dark, to stay away from roads, parks, metro stations, bars, parties, malls, schools, places where they might not be safe. In this city with its broad avenues (in Lutyens’ Delhi, if not in the newer colonies and in neglected, invisible West and East Delhi), its planned open spaces, there is little in the way of public spaces for women, for the young, just as little as there is for the poor. These protestors will eventually be shunted around the city, asked to protest here, and there; just as we ask women not to do this, not to do that. It’s always framed as a question of someone’s safety, never as a question of your right to be free and safe in public space.

What wasn’t being said

 At the embryo protest on the 22nd, there were many issues that stayed unspoken and dormant. Were the students aware of the wider issues surrounding rape—the silence in families and homes, where women are most vulnerable to being sexually assaulted, the deliberate, centuries-old practice of using rape as a weapon to keep Dalits and lower castes in line, the innumerable instances of custodial rape and rape by military forces and the police in areas where they were supposed to be serving the people? Would they have been as exercised, as angry, over the many rapes of women in the slums, of homeless women—and if not, were they prepared to ask themselves why? Were they engaged in the debates over the death penalty, the reasons why so many people are opposed to capital punishment?

Were the students aware of the extent to which child abuse and violence in the Indian family affect both men and women? Was there an understanding and a sense of solidarity among the students of the far more severe and lethal violence meted out by the state against young adults and protestors in Kashmir, in the North-East? Were there broader issues underlying women’s rights, or the politics of violence, that might have emerged?

Perhaps those 10,000 students who came out of nowhere on December 22 didn’t care about these issues, or didn’t see the connection, for instance, between Honey Singh’s vile, pro-rape rap songs and the violence they were protesting on the streets; perhaps at least some of them did.

Talking to just a few students and protestors, you see a spectrum of views: some are very politically aware, some just want to see a rapist hanged and don’t really care about the wider context. But what they seemed to want was to be allowed to occupy this space while they expressed their feelings and groped their way to a different understanding of the city around them. Perhaps that occupation would have led to more and more political conversations, of the kind that often does happen on college campuses. Instead, they were routinely patronized, by a state that didn’t seem interested in what they had to say, by politicians who didn’t bother to sit down with them and listen, and by a city administration that treated them as a nuisance, squatters to be evicted.

On the 23rd, when the city administration shut down Metro stations, it effectively prevented students from reaching the city centre. It did not prevent organised (and sometimes highly politicised) students’ unions from bringing in their NSUI and JNUSU and BJP students’ wing and AISA agitators; it did not prevent random hooligans from gleefully wrecking the protest; it did not prevent political cadres from showing up to mug for the TV cameras.

It did, however, manage to shut down and silence the students who’d started out with no agenda, beyond the simple one of wanting to be heard. At the heart of the city, at the heart of power, there was no space for them.

More posts:

A blocked protest: Notes on my city

On the Dec 22 protests: Notes From Raisina Hill

On survivors and victims, the language of rape: Talking Rape

On the death penalty and rape statistics: Executing The Neighbour