Dissent, Protests, Riots & Rage – Why Are We Seeing More of These Events

This is one of the posts whose audience might have potentially polarizing notions, so a disclaimer is much needed. So here it goes…

Disclaimer: I understand that readers are quite passionate about the following content. The views and opinions that are expressed are mine and does not represent any organization or group of people. I’ve kept this neutral and strived to neither take sides nor be judgemental. Given the theme of this post, if you disagree with something, I would welcome a discussion. It would be my absolute pleasure to learn from what you have to teach me.

Now that we are done with the disclaimer, let’s move on..

During my engineering college days, some of my seniors riled us up and asked us to join them for a protest. It’s been so long that I don’t even remember what the protest was all about. However, as I recall, the naïve me back then woke up early on the day of the protest and went to the planned location – wondering how the day would go, and how large the student crowd would be. Seniors had expected a student crowd of over 200 people. Fact is, hardly 25 showed up. The whole protest fizzled out even before it began. That was my earliest experience of a protest.

Here is what I learnt from that experience:

  • The cause for any protest must be significant, thought provoking, and should be able to connect with the common man. Intent of the protest matters the most. Stronger the intent, stronger the commitment from the participants.
  • Protests need to be well organized and coordinated. There needs to be a thorough planning, detailed communication – right from the organizers to the participants. Clearer the communication, robust is the participation.
  • Strong will to face the consequences, be it positive or negative.
  • Peaceful protests as well as violent ones have a common thing. Impact.

Even as the world battled the pandemic, protests continued to occur everywhere. It is therefore not a surprise that the global economic and political landscape will always have protests as an integral part of it. Just look at the below figure showing the trend of protests for the year 2020. This is from the Global Protest Tracker by Carnegie Endowment for World International Peace that shows crucial trends worldwide.

Starting March 2020, protests continued to increase in numbers for rest of the year, barring that of September 2020. There is a growing unrest amongst the common man across the globe, across all walks of life. A frustration that is slowly building up. Common causes across several protests were the same: injustice, corruption, greed, mishandling of power, police brutality, prolonged lockdowns, under-performing political parties, under delivering on their vote campaign promises, etc. I will cover more on this later in the post.



Dissent and Protests explained

Ever since the human mind developed intellect and reasoning, it knows two key things- to agree with someone or something or to differ. All humans live in context with each other, that begins with immediate family, friends, the society, the community and the nation at large. This context then expands to the global one, something that appears farfetched but one that can have some deep impact on the way we live, flourish and express. To agree or to differ is not as easy to fathom for the receiver as it is for the one who expresses agreement or dissent. Especially in context of nations, it can have serious implications altogether.

Freedom is the cornerstone of democracy, but not many countries in the world enjoy both at the same time. People elect their leaders, sometimes the leaders thrust themselves on the populace. Either way, leadership determines how one is led and leads a life. People in democratic nations enjoy the biggest of the freedoms, that of speech and expression. Democracy is based on the assumption that the government in power is elected by the people and hence it is for the people, by the people and of the people. Hardly has there been a period in history when elected governments in supposedly healthy democracies have had long spells of peace. Dissent, protests, divergent views are considered healthy aspects of a good democracy. But several regimes, even in democracies, have differing levels of tolerance for dissent. The immediate attempt is to reclaim control over the way people think.

Even a country like the US which considers itself a bellwether for healthy democracy, does not appreciate too much dissent for too long. It’s a double edged sword- dissent and protests. No government likes to be seen facing one. Some oppose dissent overtly, some are coy and discreet about it, lest they are seen as autocratic.

Dissent and protests are tools in the hands of the populace to express their point. When these tools are snatched away, curbed or punished, the very concept of democracy is defeated. But governments the world-over tend to curb dissent because it is something like the bad son in a sophisticated family, you can’t disown but neither can you flaunt. So they resort to cajole, threaten, arrest, negotiate, do whatever possible to negate dissent and neutralize protests. At times, these efforts go overboard and then chaos reigns. That is what is happening in the world of late. Several nations are facing the wrath of protestors and voices of dissent are crying shrill in spite of the curbs. The main solace and support for dissenters is the media, especially that which does not come under state sanctions- the online mode. Cameras that capture scenes that would never have otherwise seen the light of the day. Bytes that would have been silenced in editing rooms and opinions that would never have mattered had it not been expressed through columns and op-eds and interviews.

A new world order is fast emerging in tandem with the emergence of the social media where the more a regime tries to brush things under the carpet, the more the media digs it out with gusto. That scares governments and makes them act and take steps hitherto unknown anywhere.

How The Pandemic Changed The World’s Idea Of Peace

In the peak of the pandemic induced lockdown, the whole world came to a standstill for several months. Cities normally packed with people were deserted. Vehicles, businesses and the economic machinery came to a standstill. What suffered the most was the protests that were happening across the world, in countries as the US, India, Hong Kong, Russia, Myanmar, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand. These countries have seen some of the worst riots, protests and dissent in the past few days.

The pandemic induced break was not something either party had anticipated but it was something that the governments saw as a blessing in disguise. What the brutal force couldn’t achieve, was done by the deadly virus. Protestors stood their ground initially but when the virus spread, they stood the risk of contracting Covid and also spreading, something that was beyond their capacity to handle had it gone out of control. At some places the protestors withdrew on their own, at others, they were forced to down their voices. The ensuing economic hardships broke the backs of many protestors who didn’t know how to survive. Just like an army cannot fight on an empty stomach, protestors needed to feed their families amidst lost jobs and severe money crunch. But in spite of it all, they returned as soon as things looked bright.

These protests were symbolic of the grief and angst that the people felt about government and policies. But more than that, it exposed the fault-lines in the way we are ruled, requiring serious thought by political theorists about governance, realpolitik and democracy in general.

While there have been far many such events occurring all over the globe, some of them caught our attention, some stirred that something in us which made us not just notice, but also to take action. Here I cover events that I’ve followed closely. Read on.

Protests in America caused by killing of George Floyd and Capitol Hill Riots

In a matter of just over a year, America saw two of the most bitter protests in its recent history. Perhaps not since the civil war had the population risen in so much force as they did in retaliation of the brutal killing of George Floyd. Not the police officers who did it, not those who witnessed it, but the whole world gasped in disbelief. The whole façade of the American culture of non-discrimination crumbled with the killing of this one black man. The world saw how the police officer crushed the life out of a hapless looking man. Not much could be done about it since the Police in the US enjoy the privilege of qualified immunity that spares them in case of such killings.

Britain is facing the heat of racism all over again with the now infamous Megan and Harry interview by Oprah but British Monarchy thrives on the premise of not changing. Had the royals changed, they would become commoners. So the people love their royals to be what they are, racists and all that comes with the paraphernalia. But the same cannot be claimed by the Americans who pride on being the strongest supporter of freedom. So George Floyd’s death became a thorn in their mask of pride. It exposed the deep rooted racist attitude of common Americans who may have hidden it for the sake of appearing liberal and liberated.

When Police Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for a good eight or so minutes, no one intervened or opposed the steely curbs of the other police force. You cannot fathom why no one seeing what was happening dared to intervene, it happened in broad daylight on a roadside. Was it fear for the police brutality that would follow or was it the colour of the person being stubbed? Would it have been the same had Floyd would be white? The answer to that question is not as simple and straightforward as it appears to be. But thankfully, Floyd’s death did not go unnoticed. Soon protests erupted in over 2000 cities and towns in 60 countries. He became the emblem for everything that was stubbed- lives, opportunities, dignity. George Floyd died but his death was resurrected by the world who couldn’t forget that it was not just a black man being killed by a white police officer amidst other whites who did not see anything wrong in his killing.

Increasing cases of blacks being at the receiving end of police brutality in the US had perhaps reached the tipping point. What began as peaceful protests soon escalated into riots and looting by protestors who couldn’t contain their hatred for the systemic racism that is thriving in the country. The police retaliated with a vengeance. Memories of the Police killing of Rodney King in 1992 and the subsequent protests when the officers were acquitted, came back to haunt America. Amidst all the brouhaha of change, nothing much had changed. A large section of Americans felt ashamed, both by the racism of the police force and the crude way in which the rioters behaved, something hitherto synonymous with developing countries. You’re not different from them, said the world!

The Black Lives matter campaign spread across the world, even down under, up to Australia and New Zealand where thousands of people gathered at Christchurch and Wellington as also in New Zealand in solidarity of George Floyd. Protestors reminded of the dark history of the police of the two countries against racial profiling and violence against the indigenous people. They gathered outside the parliament and raised their fists in protest. The nations soon saw another wave of protests against the lockdown, but the Black Lives Matter protests were symbolic of a growing unrest even among whites against the highhandedness against the native population of Australia and New Zealand.

Capitol Hill Protests in America

Americans were put to shame once again at the behest of a lost presidential candidate who, when he saw nothing much could be done about a mandate that a centuries-old democracy had handed him, decided to use his notoriety to full effect. What shamed Americans is the visuals of that day when hundreds of people, calling themselves supporters of the President, descended over Capitol Hill when they couldn’t contain their anger simmering for long over the perceived electoral loss. Accepting defeat with dignity is not something all leaders can do gracefully, though that is considered a hallmark of good leadership. Some leaders come in the guise of bullies and a nation pays the price for electing one such bully. The world, especially those nations who have been constantly ridiculed for its uncultured population that erupts in protest at the drop of a hat, smirked at America that day.

While America simmered under the embers of protests unprecedented in its recent history, protestors the world over were not silently watching.

Farmer Protests in India

India saw some bitter protests erupting, especially in the capital, over the Indian Agriculture Acts of 2020.

The protests came to haunt the Government once again, barely a few months after the pandemic had put to rest the Shaheen Bagh protests. But this time it was on a larger scale on the border of the capital, with the passing of the Bill in the parliament that looked for doing away with middlemen in agricultural produce.

Farmer protests took an ugly turn when the government was left red-faced with the protesting farmers storming the national capital and unfurling the Khalistan flag on the Red Fort at New Delhi. It was a similar feeling for the Indian Government who wants to deal with an iron hand but is unable to do so for fear of being seen as autocratic, something all democracies practice to some extent but don’t want to be identified as.

The right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party government has been on an aggressive spree of fulfilling all its election promises and has already achieved several of those, including the construction of the Ram Temple at Ayodhya, revocation of the article 374 that granted special status to Kashmir, the Citizenship Amendment Act being some of the them. A large section of the population that voted the party to power for a second term in 2019 supports these endeavours of the government and does not see any point in protesting over what the government had already declared in its election manifesto. Since the party enjoys a clear majority in the lower house, ie. the Loksabha, it becomes easy for the party to get bills passed through it frequently earns the ire of the other parties who expect a debate in the parliament over controversial issues. What a lack of strong opposition fails to do in the parliament is being done by the common people who do not always tow the government’s line. The divide is becoming highly pronounced off late than it was ever before and there are no signs that it may turn faint so soon.

Protests in Israel

The pandemic that gave some respite from protests and mass agitations, also became the reason for more protests. Israel saw some hardcore protests against the Benjamin Natanyahu government for mishandling the pandemic as also for shutting down the courts and the parliament for a long duration, leaving the state machinery at the mercy of the police.



Protests in Hong Kong

2019-20 was a defining year for Hong Kong, coming to the front pages after 1997 when it was handed by the British to the Chinese authorities. The government of Hong Kong introduced the Fugitive Offenders Amendment Bill which brought into the ambit of extradition those countries with which such an arrangement did not exist earlier, including Mainland China and Taiwan. Fears of being exposed to Chinese and Taiwanese laws gripped the people of Hong Kong who are already not happy about being separated from democratic British rule and fear losing autonomy to a further extent. Even today, Hong Kong dreams of comprehensive autonomy and political reforms, while even elections and fair representation by elected members remain a distant utopian dream.

Like everywhere else, the protestors met with police brutality, a sign of the high handed handling of dissent by ruling governments who see no other way out to deal with agitated civilians who turn unruly many times. To escape being persecuted, protestors resorted to wearing masks which further irked the police. Like in India with the Jamia Milia Islamia University which came under the scanner for its role in the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, two Universities in Hong Kong – Chinese University and Polytechnic University became the epicentre of the angst. Both places, it was the students who were at the forefront of the uprising against perceived abrupt government policies and highhandedness. This added salt to injury of the Hong Kongers who are dealing with a rising inflow of Chinese immigrants and a major dominance of Chinese culture that is systematically being done by China. Siege of the Polytechnic and a brutal suppression by the police made matters worse. Students in general do not tolerate dominance that tries to muzzle their voice. The adrenaline of the youth makes matters more complicated. Students have always been at the forefront of agitation everywhere in the world and have been instrumental in bringing about quite some reform in modern world.

Protests in Myanmar

If India, Bangladesh, Hong Kong was not enough, Asia had some more reason to shiver in pain at the way Myanmar slipped into a military regime all over again. Pakistan and Myanmar have had unsuccessful stints with the democracy, only to be usurped by the military time and again, much to the chagrin of the superpowers who see it as a dent in ongoing relations.

In Myanmar, the coup led my Military Chief Min Aung Hlaing unseated the elected head Win Myint and State Counselor Aung Sang Su Kyi were detained. A decade long experiment of democracy led by Su Kyi came to an abrupt end which triggered massive silent protests. Her fight with the military had seen her in detention (House arrest) for her rising against it, for a good 15 years.

In sync with Su Kyi’s peaceful mode of politics, the people of Myanmar resorted to peaceful protests, pot banging, labour strikes, military boycott and civil disobedience. But that was not what the military regime in Myanmar appreciates nor tolerates. Over 2000 people were also detained following Su Kyi’s detention and over 50 were killed in the retaliation by the military leaders who deployed pro-military protestors and instigators, a ploy to sniff out the silence in the agitation and fuel discord among the common people. Their game-plan extended to an internet blackout, suspension of fundamental rights and a declaration of emergency which led to several deaths in the past few days as the whole world watches silently how a small nation slips back into dictatorship, shrugging aside the whole idea of a people’s government. It saddens a viewer to see a small nation in so much anarchy.

At the time of this writing, the protest is seriously escalating with close to 200 casualties. We will have to wait and see how this ends.

Protests in Thailand

Thailand joined the Asian Nations that protested when in 2020 protests began against Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha and soon expanded to demand reforms in the Thai monarchy. What started out as student protests on campuses and what was stopped by the pandemic, soon resumed in July 2021. The imposition of the nationwide lockdown and the resultant economic hardships added fuel to the growing unrest.

People demanded drafting of a new constitution and an immediate halt to intimidation against criticism for the monarchy. King Vajiralongkorn is loved by the Thais but they want reforms in the governance of the monarchy, in keeping with the changing times. How long can a monarchy live with thwarted liberties and a rule of intimidation, they asked? People today question the role of Monarchy, like they did in case of Nepal a few years ago. Since they cannot directly oppose monarchy which is a remnant of ancient class divide and reeks of prejudice, its relevance in today’s world comes under the scanner time and time again.

Hatred to Opposition

What is worth pondering is that though democracy is the preferred form of governance in most parts of the world, it is often disdained by regimes who find it unsuitable to further their personal agenda. Countries that have gotten used to dictatorship, autocracy, stratocracy and military rule, find it safe to be that way. Such regimes find support from many within the country which is indeed alarming. Governments today are finding it suitable to have a strong grip over the administration and abhor dissent, difference of opinion or an opposition. They don’t like anyone opposing their ideology. When the opening of the world was heralded by the internet that brought countries closer and demolished barriers among people, several nations are seeing their peaceful lives shattered by the very leaders they elected (or were thrust on them).

Protests in Russia

Hatred to the opposition is a dangerous trend that was seen in Russia in the case of the poisoning of the leader of the opposition Alexei Navalny. Earlier in August 2020, the world woke up to the news that Navalny was hospitalized at Berlin for poisoning enroute Moscow from Tomsk. Navalny returned to Russia in January 2021 and was immediately detained. His suspended sentence of almost 2.5 years was turned into a prison sentence which entailed that he would need to be in the corrective facility for the next almost three years. Now no one has to be told what a corrective facility would be like. Not to be quiet, Navalny appealed to the public who responded positively. His statement read “Do not be silent. Resist. Take to the streets – not for me, but for you”. Starting with Moscow and St. Petersburg, the protests spread across cities in Russia attracting thousands and thousands of people though the official figures were barely a 4 or 5 thousand mark.

Navalny is a blogger with a massive following of millions of young Russians, on social media. Soon after his arrest, his team put up a video of Putin’s Palace which got 100 million plus views. 44 year old Navalny is a thorn in the eye of 68 year old Putin because the former criticizes Putin’s policies and iron hand approach. Hundreds of his supporters have been detained by the police after his rallies, though he managed to get his supporters elected to local councils in Serbia. The reason why Navalny and Putin are at loggerheads is known by the young who expect a change in the way Russia functions.

What can we learn from these

If you observe a common thread that runs through all the above cases, you, like I did, would find some patterns:

  1. Most of these protests are in response to the nation’s policies that are perceived as unfair or discriminatory to certain sections of the society that are marginalized for long.
  2. Students and youth form the backbone of these protests and uprisings
  3. Countries where these protests happen are not necessarily dictatorial regimes but even strong democracies.
  4. The governments detest protests and instead of a patient stance of negotiations and restraint, mostly resort to break down the protests through police force.
  5. The governments use brutal police force and detains protestors who are then slapped with sedition charges and imprisoned or harassed, tortured and watched over.
  6. Technology is being widely used to track the identity of the protestors- this was seen in America where the protestors at Capitol hill were spotted and many saw their employments being lost owing to their participation. Hong Kong protestors bore the brunt of being identified and persecuted and so they came up with ingenious ways to bypass technology with their own version. Bandanas, wearable tech and apps were used to escape being identified and yet to enable communication among each other through special apps.
  7. State machinery almost always targets the youth for their participation in protests leading to much unrest across the nation.
  8. Protests begin for seemingly common goals across the globe. Protestors learn from each other across nations in the way they should gather, spread message, avoid being identified and detained.
  9. Inequality, injustice, intimidation, corruption, climate change, extreme poverty and an equal flaunting of power and wealth by the rich and the powerful and discrimination are some of the common reasons for protests. A simple issue like a hike in fares soon spirals into nationwide protests, showing a trend of low levels of tolerance to misrule by the governing regime. It is also an indicator of people being less tolerant towards leadership that does not understand their misery, does not value their freedom and uses citizens as puppets towards yielding and retaining power. In effect, a large part of the nation’s wealth and resources remain saturated among the powerful few, leaving the rest in total poverty.
  10. People expect reforms which are not always possible, at least in the immediate future since governments are averse to anything that radically alters the fabric of the nation.

What is worth noticing is that age is no more a barrier for protestors as you can see someone like Greta Thunberg who began voicing her opinion against the world’s inaction against climate change with her ‘How dare you’ thunder.

People world over want change. Everything from the way we educate ourselves, the way we learn, work, entertain and gain information is changing at a rapid pace. The knowledge economy is something unfathomable and beyond reach for several people across nations. As a result, they see massive change as something unfair and expect the government to change itself. Many times, the governments use the citizens for their own vested interests but side-line them once they wrest power.

Perhaps it might be the case where the world that is increasingly heading towards an open way of sharing knowledge and appreciates being treated equally irrespective of class, financial status or race, needs a new kind of governance. Autocracy, dictatorship, monarchy or stratocracy must make way for a new form of governance. A weak analogy would be the changes in governance that have benefitted the corporate world in the recent years, going from sole ownership to shared ownership, from a hierarchical structure to a flat structure. The heat of the past centuries where the world tested different forms of governance, including communism, has somehow slowed down in innovation. The think-tanks of the world need to introspect, political laboratories need to come up with win-win solutions to problems that ail the nations.

It is also time people of the world realise that agitations, demonstrations, protests, riots don’t cause much dent to the powers that be but harm those who are part of it. Can there be a middle way?

We must find out sooner, before more damage is done.

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