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The power of one
Remember the lengths to which a group of women went in Manipur in 2004 to protest the excesses committed by security forces? They stripped themselves naked and held a demonstration with banners screaming, "Indian Army, rape us". The sensation created by this novel form of protest in front of the Kangla Fort, the headquarters in Imphal of Assam Rifles, shamed the government into taking some form of corrective action. The most visible part of the capitulation was shifting Assam Rifles out of Kangla Fort.
Such profiles of courage and ingenuity from across the world have been put together in this book written by two international human rights activists. It is a collection of back stories in which people have found, as the authors put it, "innovative and inspiring ways to challenge violent regimes and confront abuses of power". The timing of the publication could not have been better, coming as it does close on the heels of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and Egypt.
In fact, the stirring story of the Google executive, Wael Ghonim, could well have been included in this book as a Facebook group set up by him, "We are all Khaled Said", had served as a major rallying point on the web for the Egyptians struggling to overthrow the 30-year-old Mubarak regime. For, Khaled Said had been beaten to death by the police for his blogs against Mubarak. In a delicious irony, Ghonim's arrest for his Facebook group turned him into a symbol of resistance at Tahrir Square, which eventually led to the fall of the dictator.
Not all acts of resistance though have met with such stupendous success. Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson have done a brilliant job of picking stories of collective and individual activism that have changed the world - for the better. Since it dwells on a Ghonim rather than a Khaled Said, the book is pervaded with optimism about the potential of what Vaclav Havel famously put as "the untapped power of the powerless". The suggestion is not that every civil society initiative will have a happy ending. It's just that naysayers often turn out to be wrong.
The result is reminiscent of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series of books. Except that while the Chicken Soup books are about personal lives, Small Acts of Resistance focuses on public-spirited individuals making a difference to their societies, sometimes in ways that nobody could have anticipated. The surprise element is most evident in "magic moments of mischief" that changed the course of history.
Take the kinds of mischief played by Poles in 1980 in support of the Solidarity movement to overthrow the communist rule. When the authorities banned Solidarity, the people reacted by boycotting the TV news monopolized by the government. They gave evidence of the boycott by taking their TV sets for a nightly outing, in a stroller or a wheel barrow. The government, though miffed, felt powerless to strike at this mass act of defiance. Going for a walk was after all no crime.
As if boycotting the official TV news was not provocative enough, Poles made no secret of their listening to the illegal Radio Solidarity. In a bid to show their strength, the Solidarity broadcasters asked people to switch the lights on and off in their apartments at a certain point in the programme. At the appointed time, building after building, block after block, was flashing. Short of arresting all the inhabitants of Warsaw, there was little the authorities could do about the political statement made through electric lights.
The stories from India could have however been better researched or even better selected. The breakthrough made in Manipur by women who dared to strip in public is conspicuous by its absence. Surely, it couldn't be because the authors were too prudish to endorse the audacity of that gesture! The reversal of the Jessica Lall verdict in the wake of popular outrage does make it. But, like the recent Bollywood movie on the same case, the book makes out that justice was the result of a campaign done by NDTV. In the process, it overlooked the impact of the combined media onslaught, a candle light demonstration at India Gate inspired by Rang De Basanti and the sting done by Tehelka on star witness Shayan Munshi.
Among the Indian stories, the most moving was a football match which inspired the fictitious Lagaan cricket match. When Mohun Bagan reached the final of a tournament in 1911, it was the first time any Indian team did so. Tens of thousands travelled from all over the country to see Mohun Bagan's historic match against a British team, East Yorkshire Regiment. Adding to the drama, Indian players competed barefoot against their booted British counterparts. And then the Indian team came from a goal down to score twice in the last five minutes. The psychological impact of this victory on the freedom struggle was immeasurable. And so is the contemporary value of many of the stories contained in this path-breaking book on the tradition of dissent.
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