Protest can’t be Routed: The ‘Failure’ of the Farmers’ Protest in Delhi

NEW DELHI, INDIA – JANUARY 29: Farmer warm themselves around a bonfire at Ghazipur (Delhi-UP border) during the ongoing protest against the new farm laws, on January 28, 2021 near New Delhi, India. (Photo by Amal KS/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

By Brahma Prakash

The Revolution will not be Televised

You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out […]
And skip out for beer[tea] during commercials, because
The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no highlights on the eleven [nine] o’clock news
And no pictures of hairy armed women liberationists

[…] The revolution will not be televised.

Gil Scott-Heron’s rap rings so true even today that we can tune into it for some time to take a break from Twitter and TV sets. It is a song for all those who thought that the biggest protest of our time – the Farmers’ Protest – will be televised on the prime time. The rap is a reminder of the reality of the protest and revolution and the limits of what can be televised and what cannot. As a reminder, let’s sing it for the protestors who are warding off virulent hate, for the youths who are labelled terrorists. Sing it for the protestors who have come with the bleeding heads and the broken limbs, in a broken republic, on the unbroken beats. Let’s hum together for the farmers who are returning from home. Say it again: You will not be able to stay at home/ You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out. The rap is too raw, but it is too real. Take it literally, nothing will be televised. Neither your rage, nor your death, nor your life, nor your suicide. But you have to fight.

The assertion that the revolution or protest will not be televised is both political and ontological in a sense. They are the name of the radical ruptures that take the world upside down. They are the upsurges that burst like glaciers and erupt like a volcano. They are the moments of an outbreak that cannot be framed. They are not the channels that can be channelized. Protestors have to risk the body and space, violently or non-violently. One can capture the gesture, one can capture the posture, but the protest remains at large to linger in the future movements and memories.

When the union leaders and authorities enforced the route, they must have thought that the people would obey the command and follow the designated route. But they forget that a protest cannot be routed. They forget that people are not armies or the dancers whose movements are choreographed.

You were wrong if you had thought that the revolution will be televised on prime time at 9 pm. If you had thought that your handshake, your smile, your shout, your laughing out loud would be televised, you were wrong. That your love, your lunger, your warmth, your ways of winning the hearts of Delhi would be televised, you were wrong. It was wrong on your part to believe that your protest on the ground would shake the conscience of the nation. You were wrong if you had thought that the mass action spoke louder than the rowdy media. You won on the ground but lacked the narrative. You had the moment but failed to the media. And an event failed to the narrative.

Media and Mobs

What happened on 26 January, 2021 was astounding. The day began with parallel parades. When elected representatives were busy in ritualizing the Republic, it felt as if the Republic had slipped into the streets to greet the people. As the nation was showcasing its success and might, the farmers came showing their plight. As the imported jet roared in the air to show the power of the self-reliant nation, one who made the nation self-reliant (on food) was standing on the road. And the battle began. One had the power, the other had the people. One had the nation, the other had the land. One had the media, the other had the message. One who was voted for held the centre, one who voted had to go to the borders. And it went deeper. Separated, barricaded, full of trenches, diving deep into the skin and psyche: the nation and the farmer! One who grows, one who rips; one who sweats, one who sleeps; one who sells, one who sacrifices. The cut is so deep that the boundaries within the borders appear so natural.

On 26 January, 2021. Delhi borders were all mesmerizing. It was offering oblation to the farmers with slogans and flowers spreading the message of love and discarding hate. It appeared as the farmers had returned after winning a World Cup. It was celebrations all around: marching tractors, biking protestors, the slogan-shouting women reminding the liberationists of the 60s, cheering crowds, dancing children, the love and warmth of the locals spreading the contagious courage amidst the warning of the novel coronavirus. Protestors might not have expected the response they had received. It was overwhelming. The newness of the protest overshadowed the ritual parade of the neoliberal state. The message was clear: it was neither only the parade, nor only the parallel show. It was a battle between the fake and the real, between the obsession for power and the passionate articulation of the people. Said an onlooker, the protest would bring the government down. But it happened another way round.

While these were the scenes on the streets, something else was unfolding on the screens. Mainstream media was going berserk. While the protest remained largely peaceful on the ground, media created monsters all around. It felt as if it was all planned. Media plotted the narrative as a dictator plots a dictatorship. Far from the real, in the time of the post-truth, visuals created the visibility and the repetitions the referentiality. Media successfully proved that the protest is a threat to sovereignty.

Media presented farmers as the mobs – unruly and uncivilized, barbaric community taking down the city and civility. As targets were turned into a threat, the elite and middle class’ repulsion for the farmers was evident. Against the tractors and trolleys, trolls were out. The creepy anchors crept into the hatred and the leaders into the hate speech. In a nation that remains agricultural, farmers were called out: unruly, anti-social, goons, hoodlums and the anti-nationals. When their sons in the army were getting the medals for bravery, they received the badges of shame. Caste mind came out. In the Brahminical body politic of the nation, the touch of the farmers desecrated the sacredness of the monument. In demonizing and witch-hunting of the farmer, the nation re-actualizes the centre. And the plot brought down the biggest protest of our time.

Those who thought that the protest would be covered by the liberal media were stunned after seeing their balancing act on the rope. Media deployed the language in the most innocent ways. Goondas were called locals, and farmers as foreigners. When the police and goondas attacked a peaceful gathering, they named it a clash; the group that talked about freedom was termed a mob. When the state kills the people, it is a riot. When people defend themselves, it is called the obstruction of duty. The use of this language by the media becomes proof for the police. It shows how much the media can manipulate, how much they can manufacture, how cold-bloodedly they can crush, how fatal they can be.

It is difficult to say who is more policed, the police or the media. While the police fired the tear gas, the media fired the cultural bomb. Without firing a bullet, they annihilated the confidence of the protestors in themselves. Their every ‘shot’ shot down the power of non-violence to a dead end. Every shot was a manipulation of the truth. Every shot propelled a lie. Every shot was ammunition of hate. Every shot was a shot in the arms for the authoritarian state. Every shot was fired to sustain the narrative of the state. Every shot was a shot of betrayal. The shot that will lie in the hearts of protestors for the years. History should remember how a historical protest failed in the media narrative.

Unions were wrong if they thought that the media would give them standing oblation for taking the moral responsibility for the violence. They were wrong if they thought that the protest can be routed like a parade. They assume that people will move on the assigned path without deviating from its route. It was certainly named a parade, but it was out and out a protest. It did what every protest does – disruption. Instead of asking for sympathy, it marked a non-violent assertion.

The protest did not only shake the state but also the conscience of union leaders who wanted to organize the protest to mobilize sympathy and not claims – the claim that the city also belongs to us. It would be disastrous to think that non-violent protest is an act of pleading and not a matter of assertation. The state has termed all such assertions an act of violence. One is not advocating for a violent protest; one is simply asking to go beyond the state’s definition of violence and nonviolence and read the Republic day event in that light.

Peaceful Protest and Violence

What we witnessed on 26 January, 2021 was a farmers’ upsurge in Delhi. In a situation of upsurge, it is too much to ask people to follow the route when the police were busy blocking the roads, when the IT cell of the ruling party was busy in spreading rumours. When the farmer leaders succumbed to the hegemonic media narrative, it appeared that they were not prepared for the psychological war waged by the media and the state. Imagine what could have happened if the union leaders had taken bold positions, claiming the success of the protest, justifying the actions of the protestors, and blaming the government for the violence. It might have looked unethical to many, but the movement could have been more intact. The activists would have been more emboldened. It could have been difficult for the state to go for the assault they initiated in the aftermath of 26 January. So, shall one give up moral conscience and just think from the standpoint of morality when life itself is at risk?

The other points could have been raised. When was the last time the Delhi police said sorry for their violent acts? When was the last time the Home Minister apologized for the riots? Anyone who has participated in peaceful protests in Delhi knows how the police provoke violence, how they throw stones on peaceful protestors, how they use water cannons with sewage waters, how they arrange local goondas in masks and helmets to beat the protestors, how they kick women protestors in the belly. They don’t apologize because the state thinks that it has a monopoly on violence. It can do what it wants. But the liability of non-violence always lies with the others.

The point is not so much about how state manipulates violence and non-violence to enhance its power. A more serious problem is that the state has a monopoly on violence and the police force has popped up in our popular perception. So, while a peaceful protest and demonstration is called violent, the state violence is seen as an act to maintain peace like a surveillance camera for security. Ask the police and they will say that iron nails are carved on the road to facilitate the way for the peaceful protestors.

The question is not simply about the practice of violence but how violence and non-violence are defined and who define it. Judith Butler has argued how the state seeks to rename nonviolent practices as violent. It is done at the level of public semantics. Many times, one who claims to practice non-violence also misses these nuances and gets easily entrapped in the statist understanding of violence. This brings us to the point at which every peaceful protest turns violent.

When was the last time a peaceful protest did not turn ‘violent’ in Delhi? Was it the JNU protest or the Jamia protest, Dalits protest or the protest of the Maruti workers? Who will claim that the Anti-NRC-CAA protests were violent? Weren’t they termed violent? Weren’t the protestors portrayed as seditious? Was Shaheen Bagh not labelled as the terrorists’ assembly?  The instances clearly show that violence and non-violence do not depend on the acts, but on the authority, which names them.

So, should one not condemn the violence in a peaceful protest? One should. But condemning violence, of any sort, seems like the easiest way out. And that’s a trap. The increasing passive sense of nonviolence needs a more nuanced approach before we declare peacefully protesting farmers as anti-social elements. The question of non-violence has to be re-articulated not from the position of a privileged sense of morality but the pushed sense of vulnerability, from the exposed point of the iron nails – from the point of ‘I can’t breathe’, ‘I can’t move’. The question of non-violence has to be reposited when the authority does not have a conscience, when it keeps posing the logic of non-violence for the others and none for itself. Otherwise, there is a danger that we accept the very idea of the protest and demonstration as a violent act, the stated statist position.

One needs to read the message and intention inherent in the so-called violent and non-violent act. In Martin Luthar King’s words, “A riot is the language of unheard.” Though one cannot romanticize this idea, one needs to read the message from the point of vulnerability. The use of water cannons, the firing of tear gas, barricading the assigned routes, police lathi charge – all have been accepted to facilitate the peaceful protestors. It has been accepted that placing the barricade is part of maintaining peace. Of course, removing it or pushing it amounts to an act of violence.

There is no doubt that sporadic violence happened during the farmers’ protest. But the more sustained and powerful criticisms of the protest came for another reason: for the symbolic violence in which a group of farmers entered the Red Fort. Can we simply term their act as an act of anti-social elements? Media and middle-class understanding of violence and non-violence are like vegetarianism and non-vegetarianism. That one who eats vegetable is non-violent and one who is non-vegetarian is violent. Neither the question of violence nor the practice of non-violence can be simplified at this level.

A Matter of Visibility  than Violence

Is there another way one can read farmers entering the Red Fort? One can read the act of farmers entering Lal Qila more as a matter of visibility than violence; it was more a matter of owning than disowning. It was more a matter of right than the rite from which one reads it as an act of discretion. Maybe one group worked as instigators. But for several of them entering the monument was a sacred act and a symbol of pride. It cannot be read as storming or capturing the Red Fort. By participating in the act, some of the farmers made a simple point that the national symbol belongs to all. If the farmers’ touch of the Lal Qila is read as an act of sacrilege, then the interpretation has only one logic. It comes from untouchability. It is nothing but a casteist interpretation. For farmers who entered the Red Fort, it was more a matter of appearance than occupation. It was more a matter of citizenship than terrorism. It was more an act of democracy than disturbance. It was more a matter of forceful non-violence than violence. It was a matter of reclaiming the space that we have already lost. We have already lost the very sense of non-violence. It had to be. After 60 days of protest, it was a desperate attempt to demonstrate one’s grievances when the state lost its conscience. The protest failed not because they were turned ‘violent’ but because even the practice of non-violence was perceived and termed as violent. Even sporadic violence becomes a seditious act with chargeable offence. When a joke itself is perceived as a threat, we need to redefine non-violence.

Dr. Brahma Prakash, Assistant Professor, Theatre and Performance Studies, School of Arts & Aesthetics, JNU, New Delhi. He is the author of Cultural Labour: Conceptualizing the ‘Folk Performance’ in India (OUP, 2019).


Like Cafe Dissensus on Facebook. Follow Cafe Dissensus on Twitter.

Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, born in New York City and currently based in India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.


Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Travel Writing: A mode of constructing knowledge”, edited by Raeesa Usmani, Surat, India.

One thought

  1. Mr. Bramha Prakash … Please substantiate your point at least with some proff. Whole nation is not a bunch of fools, as you are trying to portray us. Either you substantiate it or stop glorifying the wrong things.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s