No one is quite sure if life in Mumbai will move to its regular rhythm today. The spectre of protests and sit-ins by the pro-reservation Maratha groups looms large over the city. Popular wisdom suggests it’s best to be cautious given such protests have a way of turning disruptive and violent during the course of the day, despite the best intentions of protest leaders. The original August 9th protest, the anti-British Quit India movement back in 1942 at the Gowalia Tank Maidan, remains an example of this.

The last round of protests by the Maratha groups in end-July saw localised but aggressive violence, including riots in many cities including Navi Mumbai, Pune, Solapur and Aurangabad, and tension across Mumbai. Their leaders denounced the violence but did not call off the protests. Their state-wide protests plan for today has made people uneasy. The Bombay High Court urged them earlier this week to “not resort to violence”. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis too said that “we (the State) will not tolerate violence”.

The seven months of this year have already seen large demonstrations and protests in the city. In the immediate aftermath of the violence at Bhima Koregaon in January, lakhs of Dalits came out to protest and held Mumbai to ransom for a day. Two months later, lakhs of farmers organised by the Left parties completed their Kisan Long March in Mumbai. Their discipline and protest methods earned them – and their cause of agrarian distress – many admirers in the city. The enormous rally of Dalits at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in July 2016 shook the city.

Cities are centres of capitalist enterprise. They are also centres of social unrests and revolutions. The city as a political space to organise and agitate; its streets and spatiality offering citizens an easy platform; its addas, taverns and cafes incubating protestors down the ages; the city as the home of a government where protests must head, have all been recorded by a bevy of urban thinkers.

The political sociology of cities allows for associations, protests and movements. It is in the very nature of cities to attract protestors who wish to make their voices heard. It’s pointless to lament that protests only happen in cities or reduce them to traffic congestion.

Some of the largest anti-British protests happened in India’s cities, Mumbai being the epicentre of a number of them. It saw, on August 9, 1942, one of the largest demonstrations and rallies to Mahatma Gandhi’s clarion call of “Quit India”. The resolution at the All India Congress Committee session on August 7-8th called upon the British to leave India in line with Gandhi’s statement in May that year “to leave India to God. If this is too much, then leave her to anarchy.”

Large crowds were expected to gather to listen to Gandhi and other leaders at the Gowalia Tank Maidan and Shivaji Park on the 9th morning and evening, respectively but the leaders had all been placed under arrest in the intervening night. Aruna Asaf Ali filled in the large shoes of her leaders and risked her life to unfurl the tri-colour at the Maidan. She was beaten and the flag was torn down by the police.

The crowds went berserk in their protest against this. The police did not hold back either. This violence claimed the lives of eight protestors on the spot and injured 170. Later, protests at Shivaji Park also left many injured and a few arrested. The violence continued for two weeks as small groups of anti-British protestors picketed and shut down markets, schools and colleges, damaged railway lines and other government property, and injured the police.

The British had invoked the Defence of India Rules and Criminal Law Amendment 1908 to ban organisations including the Congress, arrest leaders and ban protests. But it did not deter protestors. It also did not prevent violence despite the AICC resolution making it crystal clear that “Quit India” protests were to be non-violent.

Violence should not be the currency in any protest but it often ends up being that.

First Published: Aug 09, 2018 00:35 IST

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