Dharna to defecation: The Indian art of protest

Through the centuries, Indians have evolved several novel ways to protest injustice. Many are still practised in India and some have even been adopted abroad.

 
By Amit Mitra
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Dharna to defecation: The Indian art of protest

Peaceful Protest: Mahatma Gand GAYS AND lesbians in their thousands demonstrated in Washington recently, demanding an end to discrimination and escalation of the war against AIDS, and dramatised their protest by lying on the street for five minutes. Not many of the demonstrators, whose numbers greatly exceeded the Vietnam war protest of 1969 and the civil rights rally at the Lincoln memorial in 1963, would have known that in lying down, they were staging a dharna, a form of protest that originated in Indian villages and moved abroad through the efforts of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Contrary to the general impression that Indian villagers are passive, they can boast of a long tradition of protesting injustice, using a variety of protest forms. The protests have a validity and can be against an exacting moneylender or a cruel landlord and even against state policies.

When Gandhi began experimenting with satyagraha at the turn of the century in South Africa, he was using a method that had been perfected over centuries by the peasants of his native Kathiawar in Gujarat.
Origin of dharna When the British came to Kathiawar in 1805, they branded the local people as barbarians. A civil servant, George Jacob, wrote, "Of civil or criminal law, the people of Kathiawar have no idea, nor do they seem sensible of the want; but such is the case in barbarous communities. Each caste manages its affairs by panchayats or councils."

What Jacob and other British administrators failed to realise was that in Kathiawar, the community was the law and public protest took such forms as dharna and hunger strike. The Kathiawar Gazetteer of 1884 states, "If a man had a large claim against a chief or another individual of social importance, and all other means of obtaining his rights failed, he would post himself at the door of his debtor and vow to fast until his claim was satisfied. In extreme cases, the creditor was allowed to starve to death, but generally his importunity was rewarded, as few liked to take upon themselves the odium and discredit of causing their creditor's death."

Dharna was not restricted to credit transactions, alone, nor was it always an individual act. Groups of people -- even an entire village -- would stage a collective hunger strike to protest atrocities inflicted by a tax collector or a rapacious landlord.

A more severe form of protest in Kathiawar was traga (self-wounding), undertaken mostly by the Bhat or Charan castes, who are also in Rajasthan. Traga seems to have died out as a protest form, but till the turn of the century, a Bhat or Charan standing surety for a promise was considered inviolate and no deed or transaction was considered valid unless witnessed by a member of either caste.
Extreme forms Hunger strike and self-immolation are resorted to even today. But traditionally, these have been extreme forms of protest, to be undertaken only as a last resort. At times the mere threat to commit suicide was enough to force the oppressor to relent. But the protester would have to be prepared to carry through with the threat if the need arose. The saga of Amrita Devi and the Bishnois is a case in point that has since become a legend (See box). The relay hunger strikes -- essentially not eating between meals -- is a modern innovation.

Passive resistance is not the only form of protest known in India. Violence was both frequent and common and historian Ranajit Guha recounts in his Elementary Forms of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India that four popular forms of struggle were destroying, burning, eating or looting -- and often, all four together.

A common feature of peasant rebellions the world over has been destroying the oppressor's symbols. Leon Trotsky relates in his account of the 1905 rebellion in Czarist Russia, "In certain districts the landowners' houses that were left standing could be counted on one's fingers." During the Raj in rural India, the sadar area station, with its bungalows and administrative buildings as the unmistakable symbols of authority, often met a similar fate when rebellious peasants marched into town. And, this could also be in reverse for British soldiers sacked Chandni Chowk and the Red Fort, as James Leasor makes clear in his Mutiny at the Red Fort, but he also adds that they were civilised and above reproach.

Arson as an instrument of destruction was by no means exceptional. After Gujjar peasants marched to Bulandshahr during the so-called Mutiny of 1857, a official, clearly terrified, wrote: "As the Goojurs had entered the station (the sadar area) they fired each house, commencing with the dak bungalow; and during the four days we were absent the station was completely destroyed."

And in rural India, the Kunbis of the Deccan, who launched their famous struggle against Vani moneylenders in 1875, made bonfires of the moneylenders' shops, houses and haystacks in Ahmednagar and Pune. The Moplahs (Muslims) of Malabar burnt down their landlords' houses and temples during their 19th century uprising.

Gargantuan feasting of the enemy's food stocks was often a popular way to celebrate a successful uprising, even if it resulted in vast amounts of food being wasted. This was a fairly common form of protest throughout the world, from Germany in 1525 to Maoist China. In India, despite caste restrictions, such feasting was not unknown and anthropologist Verrier Elwin lists an attack on a village in Ganjam district of Orissa, after which the raiders "took pigs and goats which they killed and ate on the spot -- a characteristic touch".

Looting is of course a part of any rebellion, no matter how peaceful. During the peasant rebellion in Pabna (now in Bangladesh) in 1873, of the 53 cases registered in the Sadar subdivision, 30 related to looting. During the relatively peaceful Deccan riots of 1875, the disgruntled peasants looted the grain and other valuables from the houses of the moneylenders.

Apart from these collective and aggressive forms of protest, flight was a method of protest often resorted to by victims of tyranny. Several rulers of the smaller states in Kathiawar, where 512 states existed before Independence, had to restrain their cruelty because their peasantry fled en masse in protest to a neighbouring state.

But the most defiantly contemptuous of protests was to defecate at the oppressor's door. Mulk Raj Anand records such an incident in his novel Coolie and this form of protest still survives in many West Bengal villages.Fortunately for the 'enemy', it doesn't take mass forms.

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