Protests turned out to be the most interesting thing to catch while I was in Chile since most establishments were shut down in Santiago owing to the standoff between government forces and the public. People, their lives and how a city functions interest me a lot more than most museums, landmarks and tourist edifices. So, I ended up chatting with the aam janta and protesters in Santiago, while dodging teargas shells and running away from baton-bearing Chilean policemen charging towards us.
It already isn’t easy being an Indian travelling around the world – what with visas, suspicious immigration officers, demands of a simplistic answer for the Kashmir standoff, and a barrage of questions about the inhumane rapes in my homeland. This last week, however, I have had to deal with questions about the ongoing protests and the swift heavy-handed violent government and police response to those protests.
From my conversations with people back home, those on Ground Zero, news reports and social media, I have realised that there are strong similarities between the ongoing protests in Chile and those that have just started out in India.
To start with, no matter where you are, it is quite an Orwellian world we are living in at the moment. Governments and leaders control the narratives, they are rewriting history as we have known it, and when the truth is spoken they are labelled alternative facts. It is a tough time to be young, logical or free-thinking either in India or, at the other end of the world, in Chile, or anywhere in between for that matter.
Two powerful leaders
Both the Chilean president, Sebastian Piñera, and the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, are powerful figures in politics. Chile is the strongest and most stable economy in South America at the moment under Piñera’s leadership and that makes him a successful leader. Modi returned to power on the back of a massive pro-Hindu wave, winning numbers in Parliament that made him the undisputed one.
While the Chilean president is a Harvard educated entrepreneur and billionaire, the story of Modi’s rise from a tea seller to prime minister of the world’s largest democracy has almost acquired a legendary status globally. Both these supremely confident gentlemen are serving their second terms in office.
What Piñera did in his first term from 2010 to 2014 might not interest most Newslaundry readers. Modi’s first term, though, marked several landmark decisions, including the Goods and Services Tax, demonetisation (mere inconveniences to the general public) and, as the final act of the first term, the aggressive standoff with Pakistan (which ensured his reelection). Soon after assuming office for the second time, Modi’s first significant move was to suspend Article 370, ending the autonomy of our only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir. That was swiftly followed by releasing the final draft of the National Register of Citizens in Assam. Both these moves sparked protests, but since both Assam and Kashmir are fairly remote for the rest of India they didn’t really affect the lives of the majority of the 1.35 billion citizens of this sprawling country. Life went on.
For Modi, it was the Citizenship Amendment Act, which directly affects 200 million people and their friends and neighbours across the length and breadth of India that turned out to be the precipitous event. For Piñera, who wasn’t sitting twiddling his thumbs, it was the raising of the metro rail fare by about Rs 1, a decision that impacted the eight million who live in the capital Santiago.
Where the streets have more names
Something snapped among the fun-loving Chileans when the fare was raised. The students in Santiago were the first to protest. They turned up in huge numbers at Santiago’s central Plaza Italia, quite like Delhi’s Connaught Place, in mid-October and protested by banging their pots and pans, and decided en masse to jump over the metro turnstiles to “evade” the fare. Something similar appeared to have occured when the Modi government passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill. Students were the first to protest. Universities, especially Jamia Millia Islamia, became Ground Zero.
The response to the first student protests in both Chile and India was to send out the police with riot gear, teargas and rubber bullets. Images of police brutality spread quickly through both nations and even the world took note. That stirred the rest of the nation to act.
In Chile, protests spread quickly, springing up in places such as Valparaiso, a city in the south popular for its graffiti, beach and the nearby vineyards, and smaller towns as far north as Arica near the Peru border. In India, people started gathering to protest against the new law in all major cities, including Delhi, Mumbai, Goa, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Guwahati.
Chile’s response to the spreading protests was to send out the police and combat forces in battle gear, armed with the permission to use force, batons, teargas, guns and water cannons. In India, it was pretty much the same and the overzealous cops went further and chased people all the way into their homes, dragged them out and assaulted them. In addition, the Indian government, unlike Chile, has regularly unleashed internet blackouts wherever and whenever it perceives a threat.
Children, grandparents, students, working executives, men, and women are protesting in both countries. Their protests are peaceful. Their protest art and posters are creative, well thought-out and powerful. There are artful posters and protest graffiti all across Chile.
But around dusk come out a very different kind of protesters who like to answer fire with fire. They set up roadblocks, start blazes, vandalise government buildings, and deface statues of heroes. They go around with spray cans painting vulgarities, obscenities and wishing the leaders dead on every surface they find.
In Santiago and many cities, this set of protesters has destroyed public property including metro stations, bus stops, banks, and pharmacies. Many Indian politicians love this kind of people, especially around elections. The statues that Indian leaders so love to build are likely to be prime real estate for this particular bunch of people.
As Piñera and the Chilean government found out, neither brute force nor a disinformation campaign (Piñera’s supporters were said to mingle with protesters and create trouble and spread wrong information about gatherings) can thwart a real people’s movement. Meanwhile, Indians have shown all through history (including against the British) that a successful movement can be pulled off without the internet.
It’s been close to 75 days since the first protest in Chile and the public is still out on the streets everyday despite it being close to Christmas in this predominantly Christian nation. With every passing day of protests, more and more people have joined in and added their own issues and grievances to the initial grouses. Police atrocities, violence against women, a better pension system, and even support for vegans were added to original demands of improved salaries and a new constitution to replace the Pinochet-era constitution in force now.
If the Modi government doesn’t act swiftly and reverse the outrageously discriminatory decisions soon enough and the protests continue for a considerable period of time, a disgruntled Indian population, which has to put up with poor pay, poor infrastructure, lack of jobs, violence against women, corruption, police aggression, incompetent governance, flagging economy, internet blackouts, suppression of free speech and many more pressing issues, will most likely make the collective dissenting voice a lot louder than it is today.
Chile’s population is 18.5 million. The number of people directly affected by the citizenship law in India is 200 million. Add to that the millions supporting the 200 million. Just a million protesters brought Santiago to its knees. There’s no limit to what a nation united can do.
All photographs of protests in Chile by Shrenik Avlani.