The need for global action

By Vinay Bhat,

Time Magazine termed “The Protestor” as the person of the year in 2011. Protests in the middle-east overthrew tyrants; the Occupy Movement held the world’s attention spreading like wildfire and Europe was ablaze against austerity measures imposed. Clawing their way through, facing bullets, batons and pepper spray, the protestor influenced global change and made the world stand up to take notice. It wasn’t that the establishment wasn’t prepared for this level of an uproar, but had more to do with the fact that no amount of preparation can subdue the voices when they reach this decibel and in unison. As the Occupy movement has beautifully phrased this – “You can’t evict an idea whose time has come”. Yet there are millions of other voices which have not attained the chorus to cause the fundamental changes they would like to see.

While back home in India – Adivasis, Dalits, Kashmiris, farmers, fishermen and slum dwellers continue to fall under the State sponsored bullet, the level of public attention continues to be marginal and the middle class gladly turns a blind eye. While Team Anna managed to become the 24×7 reality show that was soon cut off due to other TRP priorities, protests for survival continue to be ignored.

Hunger strike [TCN Photo]

Children lying on the hot grounds of Jagatsinghpur in the middle of summer were ignored, and the State continues to push the undemocratic POSCO integrated steel plant to completion. Dalits protesting against the heinous casteist act of Made Snana in Karnataka were ignored and caste violence continues to escalate with complete apathy from our liberal champions. Muslims protesting in Forbesganj,Bihar against a road that blocked their access were shot down. Hundreds of people march across states from Kashmir to Delhi against the archaic AFSPSA, and the State doesn’t so much as engage a few words with those who marched such large distances. Perhaps the most glaring case of State benevolence in India is where Soni Sori a tribal teacher is sexually violated, while the perpetrator SP Ankit Garg is honored with a Gallantry award.

It is not only the State which is to blame in these instances. We as a society are answerable to the marginalized, and if we continue to ignore these voices when they are non-violent we have no right to express condemnation when they turn violent. When Dr. Binayak Sen was arrested, there were global protests in outrage. Even the EU took notice and sent special observers for the case hearing. It certainly raised scrutiny of the case, and prosecutors couldn’t get away with ridiculous accusations and arguments. The coming together of middle class society made a difference in this case, and perhaps it is because of Dr. Sen being “one of us” that the outrage was expressed.

But it is the Soni Soris of India that need us more than ever now. The Supreme Court sent Soni back to the custody of the Chattisgarh police despite her cries for help and even after knowing that stones were shoved into her vagina by these law enforcers. Where is our outrage? There was an attempt to orchestrate events and protests just like it was done in the case of Dr. Sen, but the response was lukewarm at best, and got no coverage at all. Soni Sori has written four letters from prison, each heart wrenching and expressing the pain of a woman, a mother and an Adivasi who is out of the public eye while the State is allowed to rape and murder. These letters remain unread by the public at large.

Global protests and global advocacy plays a very important role in how we hold our Governments accountable, for the State simply cannot ignore such international scrutiny. We must lend our voices to those who are not heard. There are victories to show for this. It was international advocacy through Survival International that helped the divestment of the Church of England and Norwegian Pension Fund from Vedanta, and hence the subsequent environmental clearance rejection from the Jairam Ramesh. More recently, we have the case of the moral victory against DOW, whose sponsorship of the London Olympics is a blatant violation of the spirit of the games having denied Bhopalis a dignified life. Global outrage followed by concerted efforts in the UK, have reaped rich dividends in terms of solidarity from British MPs and at the same time shaming DOW.

While all of us waxed eloquently in electronic spaces about corruption, our Facebook statuses remain silent about issues facing the 300 million weak in India who live under fifty cents a day. NRIs – the greatest gift to mankind since sliced bread must go beyond eating Republic Day Samosas and rejoicing the devaluing Rupee. They have the unique position of talking to international groups and lending strength to movements for justice. It is time for all of us to come together. If last year the world felt the tremble from “the protestor”, let this be the year where structures of violence and injustice crumble into dust. We must all fight.

Vinay Bhat is a community activist based in northern California.