Monday, Mar 04, 2024 | Last Update : 07:54 PM IST

  Opinion   Columnists  11 Nov 2022  Farrukh Dhondy | Why protests matter… and stifling them is unacceptable

Farrukh Dhondy | Why protests matter… and stifling them is unacceptable

In his words: "I am just a professional writer, which means I don't do blogs and try and get money for whatever I write."
Published : Nov 11, 2022, 8:13 pm IST
Updated : Nov 11, 2022, 8:13 pm IST

In professed democracies such as the UK or India, the State’s antagonism to the freedom of speech cannot and must not be tolerated

Activists from the group Just Stop Oil block a road in London, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022 demanding to stop future gas and oil projects from going ahead. British climate activists who have blocked roads and splattered artworks with soup said Friday, Nov. 11, 2022, that they are suspending a days-long protest that has clogged a major highway around London. (Photo: AFP)
 Activists from the group Just Stop Oil block a road in London, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022 demanding to stop future gas and oil projects from going ahead. British climate activists who have blocked roads and splattered artworks with soup said Friday, Nov. 11, 2022, that they are suspending a days-long protest that has clogged a major highway around London. (Photo: AFP)

“O Bachchoo, what are you weighing in those scales?
The might of the right
Against the song of the wrong?
Will it tell you whether the truth or the lie prevails
The blight of all sight
How long will we prolong
The blood and injustice that human folly entails?”
From The Second Bungle Book, by Bachchoo

I spent years of my misspent life protesting on the streets for the causes I believed in. America’s unjust war in Vietnam caused me to march down the streets of Mumbai shouting “hamaara naam, thoomara naam, Vietnam, Vietnam!”. And then in London’s Grosvenor Square, outside the US embassy, shouting “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh!”. I vaguely remember there was a rhyme in the extended slogan: “the Lie will lose and the Truth will win” -- but memory fails and perhaps it’s a Freudian suggestion from my Zoroastrian background which opposes the capitalised “Truth” to the eternal “Lie”!

My story of agitational protests involves being arrested and acquitted of charges… (We’ve cut this rubbish as no one wants to read about your boasts --Ed. Sorry yaar… don’t cut my wages –fd).

There are today determined and notorious protests of a movement in Britain called “Just Stop Oil”. It’s very active. Its members have blocked the streets of London and last week taken to obstructing outer London’s peripheral motorway called the M25. Their protest has caused severe disruption.

My introduction above should indicate that I was and am in favour of direct action in a democratic framework (or even against the religious fascist regime of Iran or the mafia dictatorship of Russia) to achieve an objective for the public good or even to just state an opinion.

So let me admit a certain bewilderment about the aims of the “Just Stop Oil” movement. I understand that these are climate activists who are quite rightly engaged in saving the planet from human activity that causes global warming. I am equally convinced that this movement is not targeting the oil from olives or sunflowers in which people fry their eggs and vegetables.

They are probably against the use of petrol in cars and aircraft. I am sure none of them use motor transport or go on flights, and apart from walking, they ride bicycles.

What I am unsure about is what they mean by “Just Stop Oil”. It may be a laudable aim but is it achievable? Is Britain going to abandon cars, buses and flights?

The question I am asking is not aimed at the ultimate objective of the movement but at its strategy for achieving it. My throwing eggs and tomatoes at the windows of the Chinese embassy will cost Beijing the repeated services of window cleaners, and if I get tougher, probably the cost of reglazing one or two of them, and my action will probably get reported in the local press, but will it get Xi Jinping changing his policy towards the Muslim Uyghurs?
Or will he acknowledge Taiwan as an independent state?

The British police has of course been mobilised to stop these protesters and are even now engaged in carrying off those who squat on the highways to stop traffic or superglue themselves to the forecourts of petrol stations to police vans. Hundreds have courted arrest and been successful.

In a democratic state, however much inconvenience or tragic distress it causes to a grandfather who is trying to convey a very small granddaughter to an emergency ward of a hospital but can’t because of the traffic jam… Okay, all right, I am being sentimentally inventive and sensational, that scenario is hypothetical, but certainly the disruption of thousands of cars on Britain’s roads has some parallels?

Yes, the police carry the disruptors away, but last week they did more than that. Two constables on this motorway-clearance detail arrested a young journalist called Charlotte Lynch, who was there on behalf of her London-based radio station LBC, handcuffed her and took her into custody. They were going to charge her with conspiring with the disrupting protesters.

The arrest and summary treatment of her as a criminal has become deeply embarrassing for the Hertfordshire police force, to which the arresting coppers belong. A question has been asked in Parliament about Charlotte’s arrest and her treatment. The media universally sees it as an attack on the freedom of the press to report events and incidents that the government, perhaps even the present home secretary, Cruella Braverman, want to suppress.

The arrest of Ms Lynch is, one hopes, an incident of police overkill. It is one of several reports of reporters and press photographers being stopped by the police from doing what they have a guaranteed right in a democracy to do. Yes, one expects that in China, or in Iran or Russia, reporters who go against Xi Jinping, Ayatollah Khamenei or Vladimir Putin can face the consequences they anticipated and defied. All praise to the brave who fight for truth.

In professed democracies such as the UK or India, the State’s antagonism to the freedom of speech cannot and must not be tolerated.

Free speech is of course enigmatic. I for one hate the garbage that right-wing commentators put out column after column, but I would defend to the end their right to annoy me. I may even, if these running dogs are arrested and silenced, join a demonstration to allow them their right to bark.

Tags: vietnam, us embassy, grosvenor square, just stop oil