States with higher literacy levels report more protests, and nearly half of these protests were led by political parties, according to an IndiaSpend analysis of police data over six years.
The sharpest rise in unrest came from student-led agitations (148 per cent) between 2009 and 2014, show the data, gleaned from the Bureau of Police Research & Development (BPRD), a national police agency.
Karnataka reported the most student protests (12 per cent), despite a statewide ban on student unions in colleges. A high literacy rate and a concentration of educational institutions in the state could be the reason, said Venkatesh Nayak, coordinator, Access to Justice Programme with Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, an advocacy.
Up to 75.6 per cent of Karnataka is literate (national average: 74 per cent) and the state’s capital, Bengaluru, has more colleges (911) than any Indian city.
Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra together account for more than 50 per cent of all protests recorded between 2009 and 2014. Except Madhya Pradesh, all other states have literacy rates higher than the national average.
Between 2009 and 2014, 420,000 protests were held across India — an average of 200 protests a day nationwide, and a 55 per cent rise over five years.
Unrest grew across the country for varied reasons — communal (92 per cent), government employee grievances (71 per cent), political (42 per cent) and labour (38 per cent).
Agitations are the collective expression of dissatisfaction with government authorities, and social, political and economic establishments. They could relate to an array of issues — from education, essential services and transport facilities to wages, Dalit issues and rights of women.
A protest gets recorded by the police either when prior permission is sought for holding it or when officials take suo-moto cognisance, based on information they gather.
Tamil Nadu has a history of high-profile agitations: From anti-Hindi agitations in the pre-Independence era to public expression of solidarity with the Tamils in Sri Lanka and marches against the Kudankulam nuclear plant.
Delhi, the country’s capital, was seventh in terms of number of protests — it reported nearly 23,000 in the period under study. The city has designated demonstration sites, the best-known being Jantar Mantar. Protests are a daily affair at these venues. These range from retired soldiers’ demand for “one rank, one pension” to those that followed the Nirbhaya rape case in December 2012 and Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement.
Underdeveloped states, such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar — with 25 per cent of India’s population collectively — accounted for less than 1 per cent of agitations during 2009-14. These states are numbers one and three, respectively, on India’s population chart and have literacy rates much below the national average (Bihar has the lowest).
Similarly, undivided Andhra Pradesh, fifth in terms of all-India population ranking but with a literacy rate of only 67 per cent, recorded only about 1.55 per cent of all the agitations that took place in the country in the period.
Kerala, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, and the northeastern states defy the link between protests and literacy. But that could be explained on the basis of their small populations.
The northeastern states are generally considered to be politically volatile. But it is likely that in at least one state, Manipur, the absence of public protests can be attributed to the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which enforces curfew-like situation in the state, said Nayak.
Assam reported the most protests in the northeast: 17,357. The Bodoland issue — a long-simmering movement for a separate state for Bodos — the question of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and the diverse agendas of the many ethnic communities could be reasons.
Political parties and their affiliates are behind 32 per cent of the protests. And if you add their student bodies and labour unions, the percentage goes up to 50 per cent.
In Maharashtra, the number of demonstrations staged by political parties was large but their scale and intensity were not as high, said former state police chief Rahul Gopal. Political protests are often triggered by the need to be noticed by the electorate, he added.
While 48 per cent of 3,929 protests in Jammu and Kashmir were quelled by force, less than 0.1 per cent of 109,548 demonstrations in Tamil Nadu — the state with the largest number of agitations — were similarly tackled.
Up to 45 per cent of protests that attracted police force were in Jammu and Kashmir alone. The agitations in the wake of the killing of Burhan Wani in July were dealt with using pellet guns, a move criticised for mass blindings and other injuries it caused.
Over the last six years, the government has used police force to check less than 1 per cent (3,972), according to the BPRD data.
Most instances of police force were reported from Kashmir, West Bengal, Manipur and Rajasthan. Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal have also seen a flurry of demonstrations against major developmental projects that caused displacement of native populations, said Nayak.
Force of any kind, especially firing, is resorted to only when there is a chance that the protest might turn into a riot, said Gopal. “Bullets are the last resort,” he said. “Batons or just the presence of a high number of police personnel is enough to make sure that protests do not get out of control in most cases.”
The Supreme Court had observed in August, 2016, that while maintaining law and order is necessary, care has to be taken not to use force beyond what is “absolutely essential”. The apex court had issued the warning while hearing a petition alleging police brutality at a demonstration in support of Jammu migrants in 2007.
(In arrangement with IndiaSpend.org, a data-driven, non-profit, public interest journalism platform. Prabhpreet Singh Sood and Prince Singhal are Bengaluru-based members of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters. The views expressed are those of IndiaSpend. Feedback at email@example.com)