THE IMAGES ARE uncanny. A flyover is transformed into a swathe of people. Those in khaki lead from the front. If not for their uniforms, from the photographs they could be mistaken for participants rather than law keepers. Flags agitate in the distance. Puppets bob above the crowd. And thousands hold up signs that read, ‘I am Gauri, We Are All Gauri’. Their black headbands read, ‘I am also Gauri’. It is a solemn coming together of people, yet it is imbued with a certain velocity and energy that tells us, ‘We march, we move ahead, we are in this together.’
In December 2016, when the author Pankaj Mishra wrote that we are in the throes of an ‘age of anger’, he meant that authoritarian leaders were ‘manipulating the cynicism and discontent of furious majorities’. This had resulted in the ‘biggest political earthquakes’ of our times. If this is indeed the age of anger, then it is expected that people will take to the streets to vent their ire. Anger is born from a loss of control, and at times the best way to channel rage is to move from the hapless ‘I’ to the robust ‘us’. While the efficacy of protests has been debated ad infinitum by naysayers and believers alike, it is indisputable that to rise up and walk is to make public a private sentiment. It is to find a brotherhood and a sisterhood through a common cause. It is to move from the individual to the collective, and for that moment to belong to something larger than the self. It is to see democracy in action. It is to find, dare we say it, hope in the community.
In Delhi, Jantar Mantar is the ground zero for protests and rallies. Protests of all kinds have been kindled in the looming shadows of 18th century architectural astronomy instruments and the Imperial Hotel. Jantar Mantar serves as host to the country’s many woes and concerns. It provides a platform for genuine distress, a call to arms and even to acts of farce.
If it is here that Tamil Nadu farmers resort to unconventional protest methods, including gnawing at mice, to demand loan waivers, it is also here that activists light candles for Afzal Guru, and the Hindu Sena cuts a three-tier floral cake to celebrate Donald Trump’s birthday. If one day it is the site for anti-lynching protests, the next it commemorates slain journalist Gauri Lankesh. It is one of the few places in the compulsively hierarchical city of Delhi where the socialite and the jawan, the prime-time rabble rouser and the farmer, the human rights lawyer and the anganwadi worker rub shoulders and stand elbow to elbow. These streets at Jantar Mantar have been privy to every kind of protestor—the well and high-heeled gay rights supporter, the dedicated MGNREGA activist who will eat a roadside dosa, sleep on the pavement and bathe at a water tank, the NGO worker marking attendance at causes across the city, the college student following his crush into a dharna, the social media zombie conjuring the next hashtag, the journalist foraging for a story, and of course, the liberal scrounging for significance.
It is worth our while to examine the histrionics of protests. Today when so much of ‘protest’ (if it can be called that) happens in the online world—on social media or through petitions—taking to the streets still holds weight. Physical presence creates both ‘individual agency and sociality’. As Susan Leigh Foster writes in Choreographies of Protest (2003): ‘When individuals choose to participate in these kind of political demonstrations, they commit themselves to physical action, whatever form it takes… As they fathom injustice, organize to protest, craft a tactics, and engage in action, these bodies read what is happening and articulate their imaginative rebuttal. In so doing they demonstrate to all those watching that something can be done. Could this be why they are called political ‘movements’?’
As these ‘political movements’ rise, and then either sputter and fade, or strengthen and sustain, we note how slogans from the past are breathing life into the protests of today. On September 12th, a week after journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh was shot dead in Bengaluru, more than 10,000 people took part in a rally in the city chanting, “I am Gauri”. While Bengaluru might have witnessed the largest turnout, similar ‘I am Gauri’ rallies were held in Mangalore, Udupi, Mandya, Dharwad, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Lucknow, Gorakhpur, Chandigarh, Panaji, etcetera.
In many ways, the ‘I am’ slogan is a perfect example of a phrase that has travelled through history and adopted different meanings in various contexts. Elliott Colla writes in, In Praise of Insult: Slogan Genres, Slogan Repertoires and Innovation (2013), ‘Slogans are performatives in the sense they are deliberate compositions intended not so much to reflect collective will but to create it. But more than that, slogans also reveal something about the contentious processes of meaning-making within movements that produce them.’
The hashtag #IamGauri became a rallying call for accountability, the freedom of expression, unshackled from censure. As the ‘I am Gauri’ slogan spread across the country, the origins of ‘I am’ remained neglected and unknown. But to know its history is to acknowledge the continuum of both injustice and protests.‘I am’ as a phrase has Biblical origins harking back to the Old Testament.
But it was first used as a weapon against the status quo in the early 19th century.
On August 18th, 1823, 12,000 slaves in the British colony of Demerara (in present day Guyana) rose in rebellion, which led to the deaths of hundreds of slaves. In the article ‘I am a Man, Your Brother: Elizabeth Heyrick, Abstention and Immediatism’ (2016), author Julie L Holcomb writes that the Demerara uprising, framed popular and parliamentary debates about the future of slavery. British philanthropist and campaigner against the slave trade Elizabeth Heyrick wrote her first anti-slavery tract, ‘Immediate, Not Gradual Abolition; Or an Inquiry into the Shortest, Safest, and Most Effectual Means of Getting Rid of West- Indian Slavery’ in 1824, espousing the cause for complete emancipation of enslaved Africans.
The cover of the first British edition of Heyrick’s tract shows a chiselled African slave with arms outstretched. A broken chain and discarded whip lie at his feet. A hillock rises behind him and palm trees surround him. The man stares straight at the viewer. His arms reach out not to implore; instead they tell of limbs that are newly free and recently unshackled. The words above him say, ‘I am a Man, Your Brother.’ Below him reads the quote, ‘He hath made of one blood all nations of men’.
While Elizabeth Heyrick died in 1831 and did not see the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, those four words ‘I am a Man’ would go on to have a life of their own and would be voiced by none other than Martin Luther King Jr more than a century later.
The Memphis sanitation strike began in February 1968 in Tennessee. Following years of poor pay, hazardous working conditions, and provoked by the death of workers, hundreds of Black sanitation workers went on strike. (A garbage truck had malfunctioned crushing two workers to death.) Steve Estes writes in his book I Am a Man!: Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement (2005), ‘In Memphis, Tennessee, hundreds of male African sanitation workers marched with Martin Luther King Jr in 1968 to demand union recognition and higher wages so that they could provide for their families. When these men strode through the streets of Memphis, protesting the racist paternalism of city officials, they wore signs that demanded recognition, not only of their union and civil rights, but of their manhood as well.’ The banner that they held up at this march read, ‘I am a Man’.
Slavery has often been understood as a way to ‘psychologically emasculate’ Black men. Denied the power to determine their own lives, forced to work but unable to provide sufficiently for their families, the men often felt diminished. This risked fracturing the Black family structure. King had witnessed first-hand this attempt at emasculation. One day when his father Reverend Martin Luther King Sr was driving in Atlanta, he was pulled over by a cop. The young King heard the policeman tell his father, “Boy, show me your licence.” To which his father replied in defiance, “Do you see this child here? That’s a boy. I’m a man. I’m Reverend King.” King learned early how the power of words can be used to belittle and humiliate. ‘I am a Man’ became a rally call not only to seek economic justice, but also to reclaim agency.
The politics of ‘I am a Man’ would readily translate into an Indian context. All too often ‘bosses’ holler at their staff and help, calling them ‘Chhotu’ or ‘Beta’. Uninterested in learning their names, they christen them with a diminutive title that establishes their superiority and the other’s inferiority. This verbal infantilising is a convenient way for those in positions of power to safeguard their paternal authority and uphold the status quo.
A few years prior to King espousing the cause of ‘I am a Man’, the president of the United States, John F Kennedy, had himself made history with the ‘I am’ opener. His best-known speech might be ‘Ask not what your country can do for you…’ But in West Berlin on June 26th, 1963, President Kennedy delivered a speech just 22 months after the Soviet-supported East Germany erected the Berlin Wall. He said, “Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was ‘Civis Romanus sum (I am a citizen of Rome). Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner (I am a Berliner)!’” Thomas Putnam, director of the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, details the import of this speech in The Atlantic: ‘Kennedy cast a spotlight on West Berlin as an outpost of freedom, and on the Berlin Wall as the communist world’s mark of evil. “Freedom has many difficulties, and democracy is not perfect,” he stated, “but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in.” He confidently predicted that, in time, the wall would fall, Germany would reunite, and democracy would spread throughout Eastern Europe.’ For Kennedy, Berlin symbolised freedom and ‘I am a Berliner’ equalled being a free man.
For 50-plus years, the ‘I am’ slogan has appeared and disappeared in different avatars. In 2011 the world watched the Arab uprisings all agog. The Arabic sign ‘Ana Rajul’, which translates to ‘I am a man’, caught the media’s attention. Here was a declaration of individual identity pitted against authoritarian regimes.
But the Charlie Hebdo killings would infuse the ‘I am’ slogan with a new life. On January 7th, 2015, two gunmen entered the Paris office of the satirical weekly newspaper and opened fire. They killed 12 people and injured 11 others. On January 11th, about two million people, including more than 40 world leaders, met in Paris for a rally of national unity, and 3.7 million people joined demonstrations across France. The crowds rallied together under the slogan ‘Je suis Charlie’ (I am Charlie). The creator of the tweet—Paris-based art director Joachim Roncin—told the BBC that he used the font of the Charlie Hebdo masthead on a black-and- white image that read ‘Je Suis Charlie’ and posted it on Twitter. He said that it was “something that I wrote just for me… I didn’t buy Charlie Hebdo, but it is part of my youth.” For him it was a way of taking a stance against terror and forging solidarity with the millions who condemned the violence.
The ‘Je Suis Charlie’ slogan was used 1.5 million times that day on social media but it received a fair share of flak. Some felt that it valorised the (often racial) editorial stance of the publication. Other believed that while the attacks were condemnable, this self-identification was misplaced.
In some ways, the ‘I am Gauri’ protest line is also problematic. Solidarity is essential to create meaningful communities. But asserting ‘I am’ is not a sign of affiliation. It takes the position of an infiltrator. To announce that we are someone else is to reduce the magnitude of their lives. They go from person to totem. A protest slogan like ‘I am’ holds weight when it refers to a collective, be it an entire gender (I am a man) or country (I am a Roman). To say ‘I am Gauri’ might reflect empathy with a cause. But it also trivialises a life’s work. Holding banners and marching down a street does not make us Gauris. To be Gauri is to know what makes her tick, live her life, wage her battles—which no other person can do.
Leslie Jamieson in ‘The Empathy Exams’ writes ‘Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia—em (“into”) and pathos (“feeling”)—a penetration, a kind of travel.’ We must reckon with the limits of empathy. Empathy can prompt understanding, it cannot lead to ‘being’. We might feel like someone else. We cannot be someone else. To say ‘I am Gauri’ is an act of hubris.
While it is useful to acknowledge the history of protest slogans, we must also caution against substituting it for the protest itself. Saba Dewan, a documentary filmmaker who led the Not in my Name protests, says, “The campaign is not only about the slogan. That is putting too much emphasis on semantics. The issues it dealt with touched a chord somewhere. The protest was about standing up for plain human decency.”
‘Not in my Name’, as a slogan, has its origins in anti-Vietnam War protests, but today, as Dewan says, citizens have claimed ownership of it. If Jantar Mantar was the site of the Not in my Name protest late June, the movement was taken to the people on the weekend of September 10th through a series of community driven events called ‘Nafrat ke Khilaf, Dilli ki Awaaz’. A similar message of community and brotherhood has been spread by Harsh Mander’s ‘Karwan e Mohabbat’, which is a month-long journey across India.
The posterity of protest slogans, the fact that they can be appropriated by successive generations, down the ages, reminds us that the same battles rage on.