Intervention – “Why Do Empty Streets Threaten Democracy?”

Ritajyoti Bandyopadhyay, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Mohali; ritajyoti.csssc@gmail.com

Introduction

The COVID-19 lockdown has brought before us an image of the street in urban India that we have hardly seen before. Of course, until the 1990s, successful general strikes periodically rendered the streets of cities such as Calcutta into a massive mesh of empty spaces. Nevertheless, there was a difference. The strike days were moments when city streets would witness massive protest rallies, occasional arson in trams and buses, and skirmishes between the strike-makers and the strike-breakers. Tram-cars had always been the particular targets of the strikers. These “large and track-bound vehicles, when burned or overturned”, could obstruct traffic comfortably, especially in streets where tram lanes merged with the standard carriageway (Hobsbawm 2005). It may be argued that from the mid 20th century, cities embraced the underground or elevated rapid rail tracks, outer ring roads, bypasses and flyovers, partially to avoid such disruptions. In this essay, we will try to explain the historical connection between urban streets and democratic political culture in India, as street-actions shape democracy beyond “high-politics”. This exercise may enable us to anticipate the implications of empty streets and public spaces for Indian democracy.

The Current Context

It is well-known that in India, the COVID-19 lockdown was promulgated via Section 6 of the Disaster Management Act (henceforth DMA), 2005. This Act leaves out any mention of “lockdown”. Nor does the DMA include epidemics in its purview. However, it authorises the government to put the circulation of humans and commodities into indefinite detention, curtailing the fundamental right of movement under Article 19(1) of the Indian Constitution. As the DMA began to rule the country, the street became an empty space without its social, political and economic operations.

The DMA also empowered authorities to clamp down heavily on normal political activity – one that we witnessed in Indian cities during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests between late 2019 and early 2020.[1] During the protests, Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh neighbourhood became the epicentre of a 100-day long spell of intense cultural and political dissent. The sit-in protest by hundreds of local Muslim women and children became a site of international solidarity. A day before the national lockdown was promulgated – on 24 March 2020 – the city police forced the protestors to vacate the site, citing violation of social distancing norms. Within a couple of days, the Shahin Bagh neighbourhood, Zakir Nagar and the areas adjacent to the Jamia Millia Islamia University were completely sanitised. The walls in these neighbourhoods carrying graffiti and posters were thoroughly whitewashed. The lockdown thus facilitated the bureaucratic takeover of the country. Within a few days, the existing labour laws were amended, preparing grounds for more capitalist exploitation. The country’s economy was further liberalised to make room for an additional 25 percent Foreign Direct Investment in crucial sectors such as defence (raising the cap from 49 to 74 percent) (Roche 2020). None of these decisions were greeted with popular dissent on the street.

The suspension of the street means the dissolution of a public political culture that thrives on gatherings, crowd formations, graffiti, barricades, traffic suspension, territorial battles, theatrical performances and speeches. Since the time of the French Revolution, the urban street has acted as the prime site for the appearance of political publics and a familiar channel of protest. This connection grew more rooted in the mid 20th century, as popular sovereignty became the only recognisable form of polity throughout the world. The street became one of the key mediators between the people and authorities.

The lockdown appears to threaten this well-established political culture. The lockdown became the occasion for the disappearance of public gatherings and protests against the passage of the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the “whitewashing” of the public walls that hosted political graffiti, the arrest of several students and activists who were literally “on the street” during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act campaign, and the destruction of a hard-earned set of progressive legislations that offered some protection to the working class. Social distancing, or the fight against COVID-19, has come to present itself as a “prose of counter-insurgency”.

What is the Street?

According to the commonsense understanding, the street is a space outside immediate and privately controlled spaces – a space shared by a group more substantial than a single household, and a passage that has to be navigated before one can access other privately-owned spaces. It is a shared intermediate space between buildings, dwellings, parks and other sites, which may or may not be public. As an interstitial space, the street plays a vital role in determining urban form.

Besides, the street as an intermediary between properties plays a vital role in the valuation/pricing of a property. It gives a property an access-point, a frontage, an air duct, visibility and proximity with market places, transit points, schools and so on. Further, the street is very central in determining the pathways of other infrastructures and public utility services such as underground water, drainage systems, electric wires, and telephone cables. These infrastructures follow the street to reach households. This way, the street acts as a meta-infrastructure. Thus, it becomes apparent that the ability to control the street is the ability to control city life. As Robert Gutman (1978: 248) writes, “no matter what the image of the street, it has always included a set of assumptions about who would own and control it, who would live on it or use it, the purpose for which it was built, and the activities appropriate to it”.

Our language recognises the power of the word “street”. An examination of this word and its etymological migration reveals that street is indeed a playful word. The Cambridge Dictionary definition is worth considering: “a road in a city or town that has buildings that are usually close together along one or both sides”. A couple of associations are integral to the very lexical definition of the street. First, streets must inhabit an urban world (“a city or town”), and second, streets must share boundaries with a dense assemblage of buildings “along one or both sides”, i.e. the street by definition is three dimensional, involving not just the surface and sidewalks, but also vertical projections for which it provides a baseline. In short, the street is urban, and it refers to a spatial complex. As an ensemble of spaces, the street has been very central to the strategies of state power, class power and popular resistance, rebellions and insurrections.

The street is etymologically unique. Even its closest synonym – the road – does not necessarily convey the same social and literary connotation of the street. Roads are corridors that connect points in space. Streets, on the other hand, presuppose and result in density, congestion, conviviality and neighbourliness of urban life. Streets, therefore, refer to a lifeworld or a whole cosmos of interdependence among the humans, the buildings, static objects and objects in motion. The street is, as Lata Mani (2012) points out, “a delicate, imprecise equilibrium” of “contiguity, chance, conflict and conviviality”. It is an uneven terrain of the familiar and the unperceived where unspectacular negotiations about questions of meaning and power can unfold. Whatever its function as an infrastructure of circulation, the street remains open to multiple uses and forms of life. Commerce can turn quickly into a celebration; leisure into warfare or protest. Such boundary crossings are often unpredictable, but are vital forces for the life of a city. As Mani (2012) writes, “street life is in inverse proportion to road width”. A street is lively when the two sides are close, so much that “people, sound and activity” can traverse “back and forth with ease”.

Riots and rebellions, protests and agitations, find their home in densely populated and closely built-up streets where life and labour, production and re-production, come into close interface. Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh could sustain a protest for more than two months because it had access to narrower lanes where a thriving community lived and worked – spaces where politics dissolved the distinction between public and private domains. Even the occasional activists who gathered in Shaheen Bagh in solidarity found food and shelter in the adjacent neighbourhood. This protest became more crucial in public discourse than any other usual protests in Jantar Mantar because it obstructed vital traffic between Delhi and Noida (the New Okhla Industrial Development Authority planned city). After all, it did not happen in a “protest zone” meant to accommodate protests without much disruption to circulation. A planned city plans and quarantines future protests. A procession of 5,000 bodies can still block the central and northern parts of Calcutta. Lutyens’ Delhi cannot be blocked by a rally, ten times larger than this, because roads secure it.

In Paris, we know, the Revolution of 1848 thrived on strategically placed barricades. The authoritarian state that followed the Revolution of 1848 destroyed the early modern riotous Paris streets and replaced them by a series of intersecting and parallel roads, along with diagonal thoroughfares. Canon shots follow straight lines. Unobstructed straight lines “through the closely-built workers’ quarters” made the city spatially legible. Paris in the hands of Haussmann engendered a graphic illustration of the mid 19th century imperial authority. While commenting on the spatial contexts of the 1848 Revolution and 1871 Commune, Engels (1895) wrote: “Rebellion in the old style, the street fight with barricades, which up to 1848 gave everywhere the final decision, was to a considerable extent obsolete [in 1871]”. The Revolution of 1848 exposed the spatially beleaguered state of the authority in the city, which called for major road-building initiatives. As Engels (1872) writes:

By “Haussmann” I mean the practice which has now become general of making breaches in the working class quarters of our big towns, and particularly in those which are centrally situated, quite apart from whether this is done from considerations of public health and for beautifying the town, or owing to the demand for big centrally situated business premises, or owing to traffic requirements, such as the laying down of railways, streets, etc.

Thus, it may be argued that streets affect popular movements and popular movements affect how cities are planned and re-built.

Street Protest

One of the critical media through which marginalised social groups can make themselves visible in public discourse is by disrupting the flow of traffic and commodities for which streets act as channels. By “street protest” we refer to a genre of protest that emerged and evolved in Indian cities, in the 20th century, outside the parliamentary structure and as distinct from what is known as “high politics”. Often, street protest has manifested in a spectacular form of political performance involving mass mobilisation, demonstrations, strikes, dharnas, deliberate acts of traffic obstruction, and destruction of public utilities. It acts through the interruption of the routine, and it calls the city’s rhythm of circulation to a standstill.

In Calcutta, the tradition of street protest began during the Swadeshi Movement, when for the first time anticolonial nationalist sentiments embraced the street and began communicating with the “mass-in-the-making”. Historian Swati Chattopadhyay perceptively suggests that a comparison between New Delhi and Calcutta in terms of spatial legibility gives us a significant contrast. This is why, she argues, the shift of capital in 1911 should be read as a “significant spatio-political gesture” (2015: 42) on the part of the colonial state in imagining a “new relationship between state, city and politics” (ibid.): “if New Delhi produced a clear description of the imperial state in the 20th century, making it visually explicit, Calcutta defied this form of legibility” (2015: 40). The nationalist movement in the Swadeshi era, on the other hand, “inaugurated a new way of thinking the city as a political space” (2015: 42).

The post-1905 years anticipated many of the subsequent trajectories of the city’s political culture. The last three decades of colonial rule witnessed the growth of comparatively more permanent infrastructure of mass mobilisation. Historians who studied politics in the final decades of colonial rule have suggested that “mass communalism” as a “political force” arose in the subcontinent from the “eruption of masses in politics” during the inter-war period. Communal mobilisation and territorial warfare in Calcutta between 1918 and 1926 bolstered the appreciation of the capability of “mass action”. The late 1930s saw the gradual development of political organisations outside the Congress fold with distinct political visions and agendas, which both widened and deepened the sphere of organised political activities among different sections of the masses (Chatterjee 1990). By the time the city witnessed the Hindu-Muslim Riot in 1946, it already had an extensive framework for “competitive political mobilisation” (ibid.).

A study of street protests allows us to understand the much-overlooked transformation in the nature of Calcutta’s politics and its relation with public space, as the city transitioned from imperial to popular sovereignty with universal adult franchise as the basis of mass democracy. An instance of this transformation will suffice. The demographic and territorial aspects of political demonstration in colonial Calcutta was restricted mainly to the native quarters and in enclosed halls with a limited audience capacity. Space for agitation expanded substantially in the mid-1940s (Chatterjee 1990). The most massive mass mobilisation in the pre-independence period happened during the riot of 1946 that encompassed the entire city, the Maidans, and affected every inhabitant of the city. After 1947, occupying the hitherto restricted secretariat area of Calcutta, the streets around the Governor’s House and the Maidans became a matter of political and agitational commonsense.

In the postcolonial decades, it became usual that political parties would mobilise masses from villages to large cities such as Calcutta, Bombay and Delhi, and occupy a central park. Every year on 6 December, Mumbai turns blue, as more than half a million Ambedkarites physically occupy the streets leading to Dadar’s Chaitrabhoomi. They occupy the city for a day on the 5th and transform its public spaces. For the city administration, this day is a test of their logistical capacity. According to an estimate in 2019, the Mumbai administration deployed 100 additional CCTV cameras, 16 water tankers, 380 water taps and 120 fibre toilets for the visitors. As a precaution, 45 lifeguards patrolled the Dadar seafront (The Indian Express 2019). Occupying a big city – however symbolic it might be – gives a sense of empowerment to the “village masses”. Occupying the city streets gives a sense of intervention in the stronghold of power.

Popular movements in the postcolonial decades earned the Indian metros a name in the global geography of protest. These movements also gave us a legacy of people’s engagement with the state. With the universalisation of popular sovereignty since the mid 20th century, the street protest became the most frequently used medium of mass agitation. During the anti-CAA protests, for instance, it was the street and the people on it that interpreted our Constitution and demanded dignity and justice. Time and again, popular struggle in the streets and public squares discovered ways and means to recapture democracy in insurgent ways – from displaying the national flag along with a rainbow of colours, to the “reprints of the Constitution with Ambedkar’s face on the cover page, to resurrecting memories of the long anticolonial struggle” (Samaddar 2020). Our democracy is indebted to the culture of street protest. The streets had provided the material environment for public assemblies and have transformed when crowds animated them.

Conclusion

The lockdown has suspended street life. It has destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of street vendors, transport workers, beggars, and pavement dwellers. We also need to understand the erosion of our rights and political subjectivity as streets become inaccessible to the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. The loss of the street means the loss of access to the usual methods of protest: blockades, dharnas, and demonstrations (The Wire 2020). The pandemic has empowered the centralised bureaucracy to take crucial public policy decisions without a massive popular backlash on the street.

Nonetheless, the jobless migrants in India have spoken. Cities such as Surat, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Delhi, Jaipur and Lucknow have witnessed serious law and order problems as migrants and the urban underclass transgressed lockdown protocols, again and again, demanding rations, wages, and safe passage home.[2] The cops found it extremely difficult to contain these crowds as the usual methods of crowd control proved too dangerous from a public health standpoint. Beating up and dispersing the crowd involved the cops in close contact with alien bodies, breaking social distancing protocols. Shelling teargas meant that the crowd would start collectively sneezing, which would inevitably spread the disease. Taking the protestors into police custody meant a further concentration of bodies in already crowded prisons. In fact, cities across the globe witnessed a spirited reclaiming of streets and public squares in the last couple of weeks following the murder of George Floyd.

The empty street is a threat to our democracy. It can be said that people’s access to streets and their ability to use them as a collective social wealth is a measure of substantive democracy. In this sense, the street acts as an infrastructure of democracy. Let us, therefore, reclaim our streets and re-occupy our sidewalks.

Acknowledgements

This article draws from the experience of extending relief support as part of the Migrant Workers Solidarity Network. Views are personal. I am thankful to Andy, Anu, David, Parag, Sandipa, Shreya, Shriya, Sushmita and Vaibhav for useful comments.

Endnotes

[1] Arguably, the passage of the CAA was a fundamental breach of the social contract between the people of India and the state – one that Birla and colleagues (2020) have termed as the “Indian state against its people”.

[2] Recently, the Migrant Workers Solidarity Network in India has published a “resistance map” (see the featured image above) to present a comprehensive picture of dissent in various Indian towns and cities during the period of the national lockdown: https://www.mwsn.in/resistancemap/

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