The Bartlett


Transcript: Moving Protest Beyond Borders

Exploring the role that space and occupation play in modern, global protest movements. 


protests, solidarity, protesters, support, people, happening, transnational, india, occupation, infrastructure, spaces, act, diaspora, archive, political, movement, protest movement, women, demands, government


Christoph Lindner, Raktim Ray, Ulfaque Paiker

Christoph Lindner  00:06

Hello, and welcome to Building Better, a podcast about the cities and human spaces we build worldwide that asks, how can we build better? My name is Christoph Lindner, and as well as being your host for this podcast, I'm the Dean here at UCL's Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment. In each episode, I sit down with experts from the Bartlett and from the built environment sector to explore new ideas and solutions for some of the big issues that affect our daily lives, our societies and our planet.

Christoph Lindner  00:47

In this episode, we're going to be talking about the women's movement, and how activism can cross communities and borders. And I'm excited to hear from two researchers about their work on the global women's movement and their project, transnational infrastructures of resistance. Today, I am joined by Dr. Ufaque Paiker, Ufaque has a PhD in modern Indian history from the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her work lies at the intersection of history, cultural and religious studies. She wrote her PhD on the transformation in Urdu from early to late colonial period in Bihar, and her MPhil focused on students politics in the Aligarh Muslim University. She is also a co-recipient of the 2021 Antipode Right to Discipline grant, and documented resistance and ideologies of organisers and participants of two of the most dynamic contemporary protests in India.

Christoph Lindner  01:54

I'm also joined by Dr. Raktim Ray, Raktim is a lecturer and joint program leader at the Development Planning Unit here at UCL. He has an academic background in geography, Urban Planning and Development Studies. He identifies himself as an ethnographer. And his research geographically focuses on various cities in India and London. His current research interests lie in the area of politics of care, urban resistance, and spatial occupation.

Christoph Lindner  02:26

So welcome Raktim and Ufaque and you are two of the creators of the research project, the Transnational Infrastructures of Resistance. Can you tell us just a bit about what this project is?

Raktim Ray  02:41

So when we started conceptualising this project at the end of 2020, one of the motivations for this project was two important protests that were happening in India at that time. One protest was against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Registers of Citizenship Act which abbreviated as CANRC, this act facilitated a pathway to Indian citizenship based on religion, which was against the Constitution. And simultaneously the Act criminalised Muslim minority population in India. The second protest, which followed after CANRC protest was the Indian Agricultural Act, which facilitated price fixation of agricultural commodities by allowing corporate companies to enter the agricultural commodities market. Both of these protests observed some of the largest mobilization that India has witnessed since colonial time, looking at this massive mobilization that was happening, we three, me, Ufaque and our colleague at King's College London, Srilata Sircar  were interested to understand how resources are mobilized through solidarity networks, and what infrastructure is required for this prolonged occupancy. Then we received a grant from Antipode Foundation to conduct this research. So that's how we kind of started conceptualising this project.

Christoph Lindner  04:00

Ufaque, how did you become involved in the project?

Ulfaque Paiker  04:02

So I mean, since I'm based in India, and I've been part of both the protest movements, and in one of my conversations with them, we really exchanged some ideas regarding how do we see protest? How do I see from my own identity, location? How do I look at from a political, ideological and political lens? And some of the questions which he was raising some of the concerns which I had, I think we came together on these concerns and question and thought about exploring something which was very significantly altering the political dynamics of India.

Christoph Lindner  04:38

So already, there's been a lot of big words used. One of them that really caught my interest is "solidarity network", what is the solidarity network?

Raktim Ray  04:47

So the way we looked at solidarity network is how people come together and provide support to each other and to a larger political cause. So my idea of solidarity network also started before these protests were happening also during the COVID 19 pandemic. So when the lockdown happened, what happened was in every neighborhood in London, I found that there were mutual groups, which were kind of self mobilising, self organising. And they were supporting lots of resources to the community, which were shielding, which were vulnerable. From that moment, I also feel that these kind of people who are coming together and volunteering is also something kind of very interesting to study, and pandemic kind of put that impetus to make people together for a common cause and to help others. So that's how I try to look at Solidarity Network when I kind of started looking at these kinds of work.

Christoph Lindner  05:47

The other word I'd love to understand in a bit more depth is the word occupation. And in the context of the kind of work that you're doing, looking at protests, what is an occupation?

Ulfaque Paiker  05:58

One can understand occupation is as a way of reclaiming the spaces, all these spaces, which were, quote, unquote, occupied during these protests, were occupied with a particular kind of intent with a particular kind of political demand to it, that people will occupy these spaces, how will they occupy the spaces? How long will they occupy these spaces? And what is the political implication of this occupation? So the political implication of these occupation was to open a channel of dialogue with the state so that that state could engage with the population regarding whom they were, they were passing on or formulating the laws.

Christoph Lindner  06:38

And what were some of the key complaints or demands or challenges that the occupiers were making in the cases that you're studying?

Ulfaque Paiker  06:49

With respect to the anti-CA movement, that is against the Citizenship Amendment Act, what people were demanding, and specifically Muslims were demanding in the case of anti CA protests is that it specifically targets them and the fear is looming large over their head, that the citizenship might be revoked their nationality was under question. So with respect to the anti-CAR movement, that was one of their demands to revoke the act completely. With respect to the second movement, that is the farmers movement, the government was intending to pass three laws with respect to the farming community with respect to the pricing. And the farmers were protesting saying that it is it was against their interest. And although the CA Act still remains largely in the gray area, the Farmers' Act was revoked after the protest.

Christoph Lindner  07:40

So one thing I'm wondering about is it sounds like participating in these protests, which are done in visible public ways potentially exposes the participants to political and other kinds of risks. What is that like in the case of the two protest movements that you've been studying in India? Are the protesters taking a risk by by coming together?

Raktim Ray  08:05

Yeah, I think it was very important because and we also in our project always kind of had this question in our mind, like how much information we should be revealing and how, how much we should not be because there is always a danger of kind of releasing and identifying those protesters. And there were cases of incarceration of many of these protesters, which happen in both the protest and particularly when we look at in the first protest, which is CANRC, there was a very common tool which the government used that these are unruly people, and they don't, they are kind of getting funds from Pakistan, which has been always part of the political debate that anything the state feels is problematic kind of find it funded by the Pakistan. So there are a lot of violence also happened in one of the major university in Delhi, which is Jamia Millia Islamia University, where students were brutally attacked. There were also a lot of police brutality, which happened on the protesters who were protesting on the sides. But still, I think the state, the more they were making the coercive mechanism more visible. People were trying to solidify more to show their dissent against the government. So in a way, yes, it was risky for many of them. And some of them are still in prison, when we are talking today, but they I think, didn't kind of feel that importance of their religion or their identity or their citizenship, more important than their individual safety,

Christoph Lindner  09:44

You used the phrase unruly people. This is the phrase I understand that the government used to describe the protesters rhetorically, it's clearly trying to construct the protester as a disruptive presence and the kind of disorderly mob. I'm wondering in your experience, in your research, what are some of the ways that governments or the police, what are some of the ways that institutions portray protest in order to undermine the efforts of protesters?

Ulfaque Paiker  10:14

They try to create that impression using the media that the day to day activities of people are disrupted. And especially the sites in which these protests were happening were important sites connecting one part of the city to to the another part of the city. So one of the ideas which were generated was that day to day activities are stopped. Students are not going to not able to go to the university, people are not going to get access to hospital people are not going to be able to go to offices. But this was the milder one. Apart from talking about stopping the day to day activities. There were also accusations about seeing them as disrupter as seizing the city, as holding the government to ransom and accusations like that. And specifically, after these protests happened, we saw the prominent activist and known faces were accused of inciting violence in the city. And based on these charges, many of the protesters are still behind the bar based on these allegation that these people were behind. destruction of the city behind inciting violence in the city.

Christoph Lindner  11:31

Something I've always wondered is why do protests take place in certain spaces? You know, how does a protest movement decide on where physically to occupy space in a city.

Ulfaque Paiker  11:44

One of the marked departure of these two protests was moving away from the designated space of the protests. So before the anti-CA and farmer protests, most of the protests, majority of the protests used to happen in a place called Jantar Mantar in Delhi, and Jantar Mantar was also closer to the parliament. And not only in Delhi, in other parts of the country, in other cities, they were designated space of the protest. What these two contemporary protests, which we are studying did was to change the site of the protests, instead of designated sites of these protests, we had protests happening in the enclaves of the city, near the homes of the people where they were staying, or near the highway, specifically speaking about the farmer protest. And this change of site of these protests actually changed a lot of things most significantly, the time for how long the protests will continue. So earlier, when the protests used to happen in designated spaces, the protests continued for at the max four hours, three hours, two hours, or sometimes even as less as half an hour. But these protests continued for months, three to four months. And this continuation of the protest also changed a lot of dynamics, especially the gender relations. So in anti-CA and farmer protest, we see large participation of women protesters, and since these protesters were practically staying on the road spending their time on the road for four to five months, it also changed the gender dynamics within household where women came out as political beings,  men had to take the responsibility of the domestic duties within a household that also changed how we look as how we very, very categorically, look at women as political being as as main actors of the political transformation of the demands, which these people were making to the government. And the space which got changed was near the highways in the intersection, in the liminal spaces, which connected the rural and the urban area it happened in because these were closer to the rural population, the rural population actively participated in the protests by just not coming in large numbers but also sending goods, food for the protesters. So that formed the link between two areas of the city and also changing the gender dynamics within households.

Raktim Ray  14:03

Just to also expand and add a little bit what Ufaque was saying protesters were very strategically selecting these locations, because in farmers protest the location was a single border, which was important because it was the rural gateway to Delhi, the capital, and the protesters realised that if they occupy that space, it will disrupt the commodity chain on which Delhi is very much dependent on and hence the protest will have a bigger impact of disruption. Simultaneously the protesters can also mobilise resources from the surrounding rural areas, which not only in terms of people but also agricultural commodities, which were used for community cooking in the occupation site. Whereas for the CA and NRC protests, locating it within religious minority areas, the protesters received a lot of support from the nearby mosque and religious institutions. So hence, I would say that these particular locations also became the part of making of certain infrastructure for these solidarity networks.

Christoph Lindner  14:59

So one question I have relates to the gender transformation that you were describing Ufaque in the protest movement. How did that change at all the way that the authorities responded to the protests having more women protesting in public space? How did the authorities change or not their response as a result?

Ulfaque Paiker  15:22

I think the authority - the way authorities responded to the large participation of women in the protest is that before these protests, the government wanted to see themselves as savior of specifically speaking about anti CAA protests as savior of Muslim women, and especially with respect to the many legislations which were passed, they specifically were posing to support women. In case of the instant Divorce Act, it's called Triple Talaq Act. And they said that we are with Muslim women, and we will support them against this draconian anti-woman instant divorce measures within Islamic laws. But when they saw that women, Muslim women came out in large numbers on street, speaking about their own rights, about their own citizenship, right, while embracing their religiosity, while embracing their veil, while embracing of how to be Muslim on street, or how to be women on street, they really responded very aggressively to it. And post that protest movement we have seen, we have specifically four to five known women behind bars. They also put one pregnant Muslim woman behind bars. And so the activists were also behind bars. So they were really rattled by their dislodging by their questioning of their role as saviors and then they started, they started responding by incarcerating women, they started responding by criminalising veils, they also tried to mobilise opinion and also pass some acts where women with veil were not allowed within education institutes in India. So that's the response of authority in terms of seeing large women on street large number of women in street.

Christoph Lindner  17:07

And we've also talked as Raktim was sharing with us about the urban rural dynamic and how a change in that dynamic also augmented the impact of the protests. It makes me wonder then about the physical and the digital. So to what extent particularly in a kind of post pandemic world, are we seeing new tools, new tactics being used by protesters that take the protest into digital spaces, as well as physical spaces?

Raktim Ray  17:39

Yeah, I think social media played a very important role here in both the protest and in a very complex way, because the state was also using social media to kind of criminalise these people who were protesting. Simultaneously, protesters also used digital media or any kind of other kinds of social media to highlight their claims to reach to a broader political imagination, and even to get support, which we call as a trans local or trans border support from the diaspora community from people around the world. And one of the incidents where even in London when we look at when these protests were happening, so people actually the diaspora, the Indian diaspora, brought tractors in front of the Indian Embassy in solidarity with the protesters who were in India. So I think in that way, digital media played a very complex role, because the state - one way it was criminalising people through this continuous digital media propagation by the state, which was very much sponsored, and many of the prominent news outlets were actually quite in favor of the government and continuously criminalising people. But simultaneously happening when this is happening in the digital space that protesters also generated their own way of communicating their work, and communicating their demands. And that's why a very interesting thing happened. So in each of these protests site, there is something which they develop, which is a protest site based newspaper, which they call as Trolley Times, which kind of came during this protest, because they felt as many of the popular news outlets are not supportive of their demands. So they kind of generated this Trolley Times, which kind of regularly published and which were kind of in solidarity with the protesters, they were showing what demands the protesters were making. And this was available in the digital media.

Christoph Lindner  19:37

So when you talk about infrastructure of resistance, it suggests to me something structural that can endure from protest to protest. In other words, it's something that a movement could return to overtime repeatedly to have support to have a foundation to have tools with which to be more effective and impactful is that the right way of understanding what you mean by infrastructure?

Raktim Ray  20:02

I think by infrastructure, we mean a network, which mobilises resources which supports the protesters. So that kind of network so one of the example I can give, which was, as many of the farmers were protesting are from Sikh community and Sikh community has a quite a large number of diaspora across the world. So what the diaspora has done during this protest, the way they kind of showed their solidarity with the protesters, many of the remittance channel through which the diaspora send money back to the home, were under government surveillance. So what diaspora did, so they send money to their relatives, to Gurdwara, which is a Sikh religious institution, and they requested them to invest that money to buy food, buy blankets, and buy other essential stuff for the protesters. So this kind of ad hoc nature of the infrastructure, which is very much invisible, in the material world was also kind of an area of interest for us to look at infrastructure differently. And these infrastructure, as I said, these were very, very much invisible. So we looked at infrastructure through its invisibility, because none of these were documented. None of these were from the formal channels, but still diaspora not only supporting the cause, and making any kind of gesture of solidarity, but they actually invested a lot of financial real resources to support this movement. So by infrastructure, we try to kind of look at these networks, which mobilises certain amount of resources in support of the occupation.

Christoph Lindner  21:51

I'd like to talk next about the transnational dimension of your project. So what does it mean? How does it work to support a protest movement across borders? You know, how do you join a protest from another country and other region of the world? How does all this work?

Ulfaque Paiker  22:10

I think social media plays a very, very crucial role in terms of reducing the distance, reducing the distance in terms of people across the globe, if they are believing in the cause of these protests, they become of the part of the protests, though specifically speaking in terms of the anti-CA protest, when the female activist who were behind bars when they were incarcerated, a lot of Facebook conversation post, discussions were happening where women were expressing their solidarity for these women. And in terms of talking about the transnational support one of recent - not so recent, but seven to eight months ago - when the global star Rihanna tweeted in support of the farmers against the internet ban, which was imposed during the farmer protests, it garnered a lot of attention in social media globally, within indignation about how a global superstar is supporting a cause within India that shows the extent to which these transnational solidarity could be forged. But one has to also be cautious of the limitations of these kinds of solidarity.

Christoph Lindner  23:20

So what would some of those limitations be?

Ulfaque Paiker  23:22

Some of the most significant limitation would be that if someone from other parts of the country or the part of the world is tweeting or extending their support to a particular cause in India, they might not be able to completely gauge the dangers involved, the precarity to what extent these people are vulnerable, how to frame their support, and that could lead to a bit of a problem. So that is one of the limitation of these transnational kinds of solidarity along with the benefits of these are the downsides of it.

Christoph Lindner  23:55

Are there other forms of support that you've come across? So we've mentioned already superstars using their their Twitter, celebrity to raise massive awareness? We've talked about members of the Indian diaspora sending money home to buy food and just support protesters in that way. What else have you come across? How else do people from other countries other regions of the world support protest?

Raktim Ray  24:22

I think one of the example which I observed being in some of the protests which were happening in London during that time, were also that was also the time when BLM Movement as well as Kill the Bill protest in the UK were also very much prominent. And when I was also walking along with the Indian diaspora here in London, I found that a lot of people from Palestine Solidarity Camp ,from BLM Movement as well as lots of people from Kill the Bill Sisters Uncut movement also joined these two causes and that also kind of looks beyond any significant particular issue and kind of connect a lot of other issues of state operation together, which can be sex workers' rights, which can be Kill the Bill or right to dissent, which can also be  Black Lives Matter. So all these kinds of different progressive movement showed their solidarity in this kind of protest. And that also changes the grammar of protest, and solidarity, the way we look at, because these are not only symbolic gestures, but I think they are also lots of learnings, and cross learnings from each of the movement which can take from each other. And I think that makes protest that makes any kind of solidarity, much more visible and important.

Christoph Lindner  25:44

This is a really, really important insight, I think, how does that solidarity between movements come about? Does it happen very organically, fortuitously, or does that need to be planned and engineered and your experience?

Ulfaque Paiker  26:02

I think one of the ways in which I can see solidarity across protest specially speaking from within the Indian context, while we've been involved in the protests for the post to four to five years, one way in which I have felt solidarity by was also extending kind of an emotional support. So a lot of people who were expressing their solidarity on Facebook and social media platform, they constantly reiterated the fact that we are not alone in this fight. And maybe the larger issues with respect to gender with respect to democracy, they were exhibiting solidarity and giving us that kind of support in terms of providing us emotional support, that we are not alone in the battle.

Christoph Lindner  26:46

I like that thought of we're not alone. We end each episode of Building Better by asking our guests what we need to do to build better in the future. Given our topic today is protest movements. I'd like to ask you each what you think we need to do to build for better protest movements.

Ulfaque Paiker  27:07

So one of the limits to which I feel grounded with respect to protest is sometimes when people are exhibiting their solidarity, they might not be aware of the precarity, or the vulnerability or the extent to which they can frame their support in favor of people. So we can build better by more communicating more. And by listening more listening more by understanding the local context much better. So I think that these transnational protests, these solidarity can get sharper on common issues as well as specific issues. If they're there are more communication and people listen to each other more.

Raktim Ray  27:42

I think to build better, it is important to understand the importance of solidarity networks. And when we look at solidarity networks, this is also important for us to understand how solidarity networks play an important role in making infrastructure which facilitated this prolonged occupation which we were discussing earlier. We also kind of think that there is a cross learning can happen through developing an archive of resistance. And we are already in the process of creating an archive from an expansion of the project, which we were doing, and that is supported by imagining future project which is based at University of Exeter. Our colleagues at Royal College of Arts are also helping us to develop the metadata infrastructure of this archive, as well as exploring ways through which artistically, we can demonstrate this archive through designing address, reflecting archives through innovative motion artist so Imagining Future, our UKRI project is also in the process of building an egalitarian open access umbrella archive which demonstrate multiple voices like us. And in that process, we are trying to reconceptualise archiving also as an essential process to build solidarity. And we would be very interested to build an egalitarian archive that not only makes us think of archiving in an anti colonial way, but also becomes a transnational repository for building solidarity against its atrocities.

Christoph Lindner  29:06

And with that invitation to build an egalitarian archive. It brings us to the close of our episode today.

Christoph Lindner  29:14

You have been listening to Building Better the Bartlett podcast. This podcast was presented by myself Christoph Lindner, and brought to you by the Bartlett, UCL's faculty of the built environment. It was edited by Cerys Bradley, and featured music from Blue Dot Sessions. I was joined today by Ufaque Paiker and Racktim Ray. If you would like to hear more of these podcasts, subscribe wherever you download your podcasts or visit ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/buildingbetter. And of course, you can follow us @theBartlettUCL. See you next time.

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