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17 Aug 2017 13:55
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  •   Home > News > International

    Jantar Mantar is the place to protest in India, where people go to extremes in order to be heard

    Jantar Mantar has become synonymous with India's proud belief in the democratic right to peaceful protest. One man eats mice and snakes, while nearby sits a woman who's been protesting since 2012.


    There's a corner in New Delhi called Jantar Mantar. It's a bit like the front lawn of Parliament House in Canberra or Speakers' Corner in London — and every day a mix of Indians make the most of their right to peaceful protest.

    It has become synonymous with the country's strong and proud belief in the democratic right to free speech.

    Some might say that no-one epitomises India's little guy like the country's farmers.

    It's pretty hard to miss Prakash, a farmer from Trichy in Tamil Nadu, and his group of fellow farmers. Clad in green loincloths, their protest area is demarcated by real human skulls and bones.

    "These are the real farmers," he says as he points to the human remains before him.

    "In Tamil Nadu there was heavy drought. That is the reason 400 farmers commit suicide in [the] last one year."

    He explains that the bones around him are the remains of those farmers, which have been collected from the farmers relatives.

    "We are agitating in this place for 41 days. That was so powerful, in that 41 days we agitated 38 types of protest, including eating mice and snakes," Prakash says.

    "We have to, we have no water. The farmers [do not] have anything. That is the reason we don't cultivate anything. We have to eat mice."

    'I've say here through winter, summer, day and night'

    The farmers' 41 days of continual protest might seem massive, but it's nothing compared to some of the other stories on the corner.

    Jagjeet Kaur is a woman in her early 40s from Ludhiana in Punjab. Since December 2012 she has sat in the same place for 24 hours, day and night.

    "In winter, summer — through the storms, mosquitos, flies," she says.

    Her story is controversial. She alleges she was sexually assaulted by a policeman — a claim strenuously denied.

    She says she will not go until she gets justice, and explains that there are others like her who get by on goodwill handouts from nearby temples.

    "Many people who are living here are poor and destitute," she says.

    "They don't have a place to live [or] source of livelihood and [are] dependent on food from Gurudwara."

    Starving to have their identity recognised

    Rajiv Sharma is among a group of people from Ghurkaland on a hunger strike.

    The Ghurkhas are a minority tribal group whose ancestral home sits in the mountains making the border between north-eastern India and Nepal.

    They were made famous by their military exploits in colonial times — indeed Britain still has a Royal Ghurkha rifles regiment today — but here in India, they want their identity recognised with a province to call their own.

    "This is the sixth day of the hunger strike, and we are protesting for the last over 30 days, well over 30 days here, and this is basically for the Ghurkhaland demand," Mr Sharma says.

    "We are Ghurkha Indian and the Government must recognise it.

    "We are demanding the 30th state within the constitution of India."

    Mr Sharma said Jantar Mantar was an ideal place to protest, as it was accessible for people around the country to get to.

    "You have better transportation in the national capital, you have media, you have newspapers and all kind of access," he says.

    "So people from all around the world can see what exactly the problem is and it can get recognised pretty quickly."

    Ghandian tactics remain strong

    Next to the Gurkhas are about 50 people, mostly men, dressed in red, standing behind a banner bearing a devil caricature.

    The caricature holds a gun in his hand, which spews out American dollars as it explodes. Written on each of its pant legs are the words 'privatisation' and 'capitalism'.

    Mhaarlugam — a south Indian going by the one name — is here with a union representing workers in India's defence industries.

    He explains that he is opposing employment opportunities going to privatisation.

    "We are opposing the Government of India policy, they are converting assets from Government to privatisation," he says.

    Each day, employees from a different factory take it in turns to head down to Jantar Mantar and go without food or water, to demonstrate against Government plans to privatise their factories.

    Mhaarlugam's desire for India to be self-reliant is rooted in Mahatma Gandhi's struggle to end British exploitation.

    The father of the nation's influence continues today. Mhaarlugam points out that Ghandian tactics — peaceful protest and hunger strikes — are still widely used.

    "Peoples are coming down in the street to fight against the Government, against the policy, against the scheme," he saiys.

    Watching on at the entrance, alongside the bored police, are a series of stallholders selling everything from food to toiletries and even underwear.

    One of them is 65-year-old tea seller Sant Narayan Gupta. He has seen people from all parts of country come to Jantar Mantar, each with their set of demands.

    "I listen to them, watch their protest, while selling items from here," he says.

    When asked who has moved him the most out of all the protestors, Mr Gupta points to the farmers.

    "Farmers are not getting anything. The Government is not supporting them," he says.

    "I was in tears when I saw two kids crying a couple of days ago here."

    Outside, some of the police smile, while others wave me away as I take some photos.

    The mood is relaxed, and I'm struggling to reconcile the hardships, anger and frustration bringing people here with the almost mundane atmosphere.

    But, as India marks 70 years of independence from Britain this month, what is clear is that the peaceful protests which helped win the country's freedom have become a defining aspect of its democracy.

    © 2017 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved


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