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Signs of discontent

by | New Delhi, India

Friday, 29 July 2011

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In early April this year, the educated upper and middle classes and youth in India’s urban centres rallied behind an unlikely hero, 72-year-old anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare, from a small village in Maharashtra. Anna Hazare adopted a favoured protest tactic of Mahatma Gandhi, the fast until death to shame the Government into considering an anti-corruption bill and enacting it into law.

Hazare’s use of the fast showed how the symbolism of this act has changed since Gandhi’s time. Gandhi’s own understanding of the fast was that it was first and foremost a self-directed act, designed to purify the self of its own selfish excesses. When it came to protesting against the State, he used non-violent resistance as his main political method. But since then, and as we saw here, fasting has become politicised – turned into the ‘hunger strike’ and used as a protest weapon against the State.

The semiotics of the protest also revealed an interesting amalgam of symbolism brought in to strengthen the protestors’ halo and just cause.

For example, an image of Mother India, portrayed as a typical Hindu Goddess, was superimposed upon a map of India, symbolising the protest as a patriotic movement to restore the glory of the nation which has fallen, due to the actions of corrupt politicians. The image showed her holding the Indian flag in her left hand and waving it, while holding up her right hand in the gesture of a blessing – all to encourage her devotees, the patriotic middle class in their just fight. 

India has always been portrayed as the ‘mother’ in all of its languages, in contrast to some other cultures, such as Germany, which represent their country as a ‘father’. So a popular chant is ‘bharat mata ki jai’, which would be translated as ‘Victory to Mother India’ or ‘Hail Mother India’. 

It’s the custom in India when setting forth on a venture of any kind to seek the blessings of parents, especially your mother. So, the protestors’ portrayal of Mother India blessing her children showed that they were embarking on a new mission to save the nation.

They also put up a huge banner featuring a warlike call to have strength. All the Indian heroes of the Independence struggle and prior were depicted on the banner – as if to indicate that their soul and spirit were now invoked in the battle, making their spiritual blessing available to the modern warriors fighting to save the country.

Anna Hazare, the rural activist and contemporary hero wearing the Gandhian mantle, dressed as befits this symbolic lineage – in white khaki with the trademark white cap of the people’s hero. There was nothing flashy, trendy or designer in his attire to take away from the Gandhian image.

Modern protests would however be incomplete without two new elements – the televised debate and the candle-lit vigil. So, not only did TV cameras cover the man undergoing his fast for 36 hours, they set up temporary interview spots on the site and staged televised debates with various political celebrities who added their mite and sound bite to the battle. Finally, citizens around the country showed their solidarity with the cause by setting up candle-lit vigils in their towns on the evenings of the three-day fast. Of course, Facebook, Twitter and all manner of social media were liberally used to swell the numbers of protestors.

Contemporary middle-class protest in India is thus positioned as being clean and positive – the ‘good’ fight against the cancer of corruption. It is a fight that is blessed by the legendary heroes of the motherland, drawing inspiration from the master protestor, Mahatma Gandhi, televised and debated by intellectually minded citizens and finally, touching the hearts of millions of ordinary people throughout the country. What could be a more noble play – for power to influence the government?

© Hamsini Shivakumar  2011

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