We will be talking about violent protests today (not in the interpersonal sense). Doesn’t however include planned violent protest against the state since that would take this article to an entirely different tangent.
We associate great concepts of ‘morality’ and what we think (rather what we are taught to think) is ‘just’, with violent protests. Public opinions shape rapidly when incidents of violence are seen in protests. Sympathies get divided, popular support is lost. Mass mobilization shatters, factions are introduced, the entire credibility of a movement is questioned to the point where the cause of the protest is belittled and deemed unworthy; treated like a menace at best, terrorism at worst. This article questions these binary concepts of morality and justice that we associate with violent protests and how quick we are to take the side of the ‘good guys. The article questions the causes of violent protests, why they are looked down upon, who benefits from them and why they will exist as long as structural inequalities exist.
Before we talk about violent protests, a little something about non-violent protests first. These are the default form of protests; held to be the morally superior form of resistance and we need to understand why. Well, on the surface, it’s a pretty decent concept: — no one dies, no one gets harmed, nothing is destroyed and people get what they are demanding. Everyone wins, everyone goes home. Another victory for the virtuous government that listens to its obedient citizens. Yeah so this doesn’t happen but since we’ve been continuously fed this idea of nonviolent moral protests through various authorities, textbooks, mass media, etc.., it becomes the narrative most of us conform to. Part of it also has something to do with how our society perceives anger rather than how it delegitimizes it. Anger is generally looked down upon and is not considered something constructive or valid. On the contrary, anger is something that should influence and radicalize our politics. It should radicalize the way we take up space, how we show up for ourselves and for others. But all that is side-lined because we are made to believe that calmness is the ultimate form of intellectualism and power that one can achieve and I call bullshit on that. When talking about India in particular, we are also heavily weighed down by the Gandhian legacy.
But mostly why non-violent protests are propagated to be this morally superior form of resistance is because it is easily controlled. Master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house. When we are ‘allowed’ to protest by the people we are protesting against, it serves no purpose. And that is also the reason why such protests are easily ignored too. Policies are promised, outcomes are promised, public opinion is manipulated and there goes the revolution ready to be flushed in bourgeois’ toilets. Non-violent protests also come from a place of privilege. As Arundhati Roy writes in ‘The Doctor and the Saint’, people who are already dying of hunger can’t sit for a fast unto death. Peace remains reserved for the privileged. We need to understand that there are certain communities and certain classes of people who can afford to be nonviolent in protests. Those who don’t have to worry about who would feed their children at home, who do not have to worry about their jobs, who do not have to worry about being jailed for an offense they never committed.
Another reason why we should be extremely skeptical of peaceful protests is that their validity depends on who is protesting and for what they are protesting. That is to say, if the protest is led and consists of people who already possess some sort of privilege and is something the majority accepts as ‘just’, it has more chances to succeed in comparison to a protest that is led and consists of marginalized communities upon whose exploitation the privileged thrive. To better put this point across, when Babasaheb led the Mahad Satyagraha to use the water in a public tank by Dalits, Gandhi himself labeled the act to be a Duragraha and publicly condemned it. Similarly, during the BLM movement in the USA, the police forces were taking a knee as a way to show support to the protestors (predominantly white) protesting peacefully, on the other hand, were thrashing the localities who were protesting in the same way but were predominantly black. Let’s consider one more example: — the French revolution, dripping from head to toe in the blood of the nobility walking towards ‘glory’ carrying the guillotined heads is hailed to be this mother of freedom and sovereignty. The Russian revolution on the other hand is treated as this doomsday when millions were killed, freedom was snatched and dystopia was glooming bright. Maybe that is because the French revolution was a revolution for rich white men to reach the level of rich the royalty was at. A revolution that shaped and empowered our exploiters as we know them today, giving them the power and agency to glorify history however it suited them. The Russian revolution on the other hand was a revolution of the common masses to overthrow the bourgeoisie.
Now coming to violent protests. Firstly, we need to understand that protests (violent or non-violent) are a reaction to the existing, deep-rooted violence in our society. Letting people die of hunger despite having the means to feed them is violence. Destroying livelihoods to build something more eye-pleasing is violence. Deliberately making people crawl for a liveable wage to see profits rise is violence. Is this no violence in your just opinion? Or is it that common that you consider it a routine part of life? Thousands of farmer suicides every year is no violence to us, that deserves no outrage, no action but sure we need to show how much we value non-violence through google meets and social media when we saw the farmer protest turn violent for a day. Decades and decades of injustice and violent suppression of millions is no violence but good lord we will shit our pants when stones are thrown and buses are burnt. And despite all this high held morality we do support and sponsor violence. We sponsor violence even greater than we see in protests turning violent but choose to overlook it on a daily basis. We support it when we discard the perspective of protesting students and provide social support to the cops assaulting and torturing them. We do it when we ridicule people’s autonomous will and send hundreds and hundreds of troops with unchecked powers in disputed territory to uphold our claim. We do it when we reinforce symbolic forms of violence by upholding caste, by pledging ourselves to hatred against communities different from ours, by maintaining and exploiting class differences.
More often than we would like to believe, violent incidents in an otherwise non-violent protest happen in the spur of the moment. The protestors know, are agonizingly aware of the consequences of turning violent in their protests. The violence inflicted upon them after such an incident would be manifold, would risk their entire movement eventually leading to failed sacrifices. Therefore, people who are privileged, who have never felt the need to protest against anything in their life should not be the ones telling the marginalized and the oppressed on how to protest and what is the ‘ethical’ way to do so. Such groups are already fighting with all their might for some speckle of representation in order to claim their rightful space and it certainly doesn’t help then for people to come and appropriate their struggles.
Violence is an intrinsic feature of our society; it manifests itself in both physical and symbolic forms. And it will continue to be so until an unjust power structure and strict hierarchy exists in our society. The more privilege you are born with, the easier it is to be ignorant of such violence and associate binary concepts of morality with the same. It is necessary for us then to not fabricate everything into our narrow understanding of ‘ethical means’ and look at the underlying dynamics of violent protests. Our loyalty, our support, and our allyship at the end of the day should lay with our people and not with the system that wouldn’t let go of any opportunity to exploit us to death.
This article has been written by Manvi, IInd Year