Almost forty degrees in the afternoon on a Delhi Saturday normally means the roads won’t whisk anyone who can help steer clear of them, but Jantar Mantar is expecting at least 1500 people in response to the Anonymous Occupy India call to protest against the recent shutdown of sites like piratebay.com, vimeo, isohunt.com, etc, by major internet supplier circuits within the country – or so claims their Facebook events page. A sweaty-templed volunteer, who’s bustling around looking extremely harried, attempts to cater to the small line of participants gathering in front of him. He hands out paper print-outs of Guy Fawkes masks – which have spaces for eyes scissored out and a flimsy elastic string to hold them to the face – and simultaneously tries to inform, “I know what the Facebook page says, but balancing out ratios, I can say we can expect around 300-400 protesters to turn up.”
So a crowd of approximately fifty waits. Sure, there are those who made it a point to follow the tentatively suggested dress-code of an all-black garb, men and women in tees, there’s even one guy behind the desk in something that too-closely resembles a pair of boxers, but it seems like more than half of this crowd comprises of media persons purposefully handling multiple-lens cameras, or notebooks, milling around expectantly for a deluge of protesters, who, as time passes, never turn up. Unfazed, the present gathering forms a masked, black-swathed barrier and raises banners and placards bearing messages like, “Stand for what’s right, even if you have to stand alone”, “Raise your voice, save your voice”, and sloganeer compatible exhortations.
“The idea is that the government should be afraid of people, not the other way round. Such blanket bans of websites isn’t something we can take lying down. Moreover, the file-sharing sites are not used to share only movies, but are also a huge resource of educational videos,” reasons Saurav, one of the participants, most of whom are willing to comment only insofar as their identities remain concealed. At the most, they concede to revealing first names. A volunteer explains they prefer to remain unknown not just because they want to keep in tandem with the idea of Anonymous, which initiated the movement, but also because they don’t want to misleadingly present to the public, by revealing only certain names, an image that there is an hierarchy at work – for each participant is equally involved and important. They are also intent on dispelling the belief that Anonymous is hacking government websites. “To use the word hacking to describe what they’re doing would be to employ a misnomer,” he says. “They’re using DDoS, short for Distributed Denial of Service, which doesn’t cause any direct damage or intervention with the data on the target sites, but people are unable to access the sites due to a massive traffic directed towards it.”
When conversation veers toward the Guy Fawkes masks omnipresent at the protest, a common reaction to the question of the Guy Fawkes icon’s relevance to an Indian audience is, firstly, surprise that a number of people in the protest are actually aware of the specific Fawkes allusion rather than the more immediately apparent V for Vendetta one, followed by assurances that there is a very relevant ideological parallel, “Fawkes fought for freedom. We’re fighting for ours. If we turn a blind eye to what’s happening now – even if it seems minor, we may just pave way to something huge.” Another participant seconds, “Today they have a problem with file-sharing websites, tomorrow it might be a Facebook status update, a tweet. We don’t want India to head in the way of China.”
Interestingly, a couple of protesters have turned up in altogether different masks. “These aren’t Hanuman masks, although it might seem at first glance to be,” says one of them, keen to be accurate. “These are masks of the vaanar-sena, Hanuman’s soldiers, because Hanuman represents anonymity.” He’s distressed at the extent to which anonymity has been compromised at the protest. Mask still half on, when most of the crowd have discarded theirs, he mouths from a corner, “A threat situation has already been created in virtual space and has the government reacting which is a good thing.” But the whole point of an anonymous public protest is to unleash a more tangible force. “This protest distorts the idea of anonymity and what it can achieve – the fact that it’s uncontainable, and also allows us to engage with the public discourse in a different way. Not just ask questions about anonymous groups per se but anonymity – ‘who is the other 99%?'”
By five thirty, though, the crowd has dissipated into impromptu cliques – one group stands at the far end of the road still shouting slogans, while others lurk uncertainly in ones and twos, lapsing into desultory conversation. Siddharth, who was supposed to join the protest with friends, admits they abandoned the idea at the last moment, and he didn’t know what to do when he arrived at the venue. “I suppose the problem is that internet users tend to be upper-middle class populations who’ve never been inducted into a protest ethic. I’ve been part of Occupy Berlin and there a single message had the potential to trigger people to take to the streets in droves. It’s a little new for India, and will obviously take time.” But while Siddarth is largely hopeful for the future, believing this is just a first step and will eventually gather momentum, Arjun, another twenty-something protester, is visibly angry and disappointed. “Anonymous has done as much as it can to organise the protest and spread the message. It’s upto us to take it forward,” he says. “What’s the point if people just show solidarity online by clicking yes on Facebook event pages and then don’t actually turn up for the protest? It won’t do shit in the larger scheme of things.”
Had to file inputs for the magazine, but the protest was so interesting, did a story for myself instead. One of the journalists I met there, surveying the scene bemusedly, said, “Protests ought to have a beat for themselves in newspapers.” True that.