With all that we have going on right here in India, a protest in Gezi Park, in Istanbul, seems remote, unconnected — until you begin to read more deeply and start mapping parallels between the happenings in Turkey and what is unfolding in India. I’ve been meaning to write a longish essay drawing on those parallels and underlining the lessons Gezi Park has for us here, but that will need to wait till I am done with the workshops I have to conduct later this week.
Gezi Park is on my mind today because of unfolding events over the past 24 hours. Yesterday, in Istanbul, the court sprang a surprise when — despite all indications during the prolonged hearing of the case — it acquitted businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala and eight others.
In 2015, an Istanbul court had struck a blow for the rights of the citizen when it acquitted dozens of people who had been arrested for their participation in the 2013 protests in Turkey. The court ruled that the people were merely exercising their right of freedom of assembly.
Kavala was arrested in October 2017 (15 others, including a journalist and an actor, were arrested around the same time) for his involvement in the same events. While the government’s lawyers obfuscated and initially refused to elaborate on the charges, media outlets close to the Recep Tayyip Erdogan government ran stories accusing him of being “a business tycoon with a shady background”; of “having contacts” with a group of terrorists; of being behind the Gezi Park protests and “transferring significant amounts of funds to certain places.” Does any of this have a familiar ring?
A formal criminal indictment was filed only in March 2019, two years after Kavala’s arrest and incarceration in a maximum security prison, It accused Kavala and the other the defendants of being the “masterminds” behind the Gezi Park protests, of “attempting to overthrow the government through violence”, of being agents of philanthropist George Soros — long story short, a kitchen sink of charges long on rhetoric and short on indictable offences backed by hard evidence. Does that have a familiar ring to it?
Yesterday, the court sprang a surprise when, in a judgement that went against the grain of the lengthy proceedings (during which defence attorneys were routinely hindered, including right at the end when they weren’t given the time they sought to respond to the prosecution’s closing statement), it ordered the release of Kavala and eight other co-accused.
The echoes of the applause greeting the verdict had barely died down, however, when Kavala was re-arrested on charges of involvement in a failed 2016 coup. He had spent over two years in jail on charges that couldn’t stand up in court despite the best efforts of the government; he spent a few minutes breathing free air before he was returned to the Silivri maximum security prison on the outskirts of Istanbul. Does that sound familiar?
The Erdogan government in Turkey is the closest modern parallel to events unfolding in India, and for that reason is worth following closely for the many lessons to be learned. One starting point (besides the two books mentioned earlier) is this podcast, where Amit Varma and Pranay Kotasthane discuss the phenomenon of protests in modern-day networked societies and the ways various authoritarian governments are adapting to deal with them. Below, a short reading list of stories from Gezi Park:
Tufecki, whose book I’d mentioned earlier, wrote this urgent, breathless blogpost from the thick of the protests, a post in which the incoherence arising from writing in the moment with limited connectivity is balanced by the knife-sharp immediacy of her observations.
What is most noticeable is that just as in India, there is a proximate cause for the Gezi Park protests (the threat of demolition of the park, a rare space in central Istanbul with trees and space for people to walk about), but that single cause has since grown to encompass a laundry list of grievances against the brutal Erdogan regime. Also worth noting is the self-policing by the protestors, who are aware of the risk of third-party violence tainting their peaceful struggle:
In fact, even the slightest scuffle is in the park calmed down immediately. I observed this first-hand when a visiting youngster, about 14 or 15, tried to pick a fight with an older man claiming that he had looked at his girlfriend the wrong way. Dozens of people immediately intervened, calmed the youngster, took him away, helped his girlfriend, asked her if she was okay, and generally made sure it was all calm again. “Not here, no fighting, not here” is heard as soon as any tensions arise. People are very proactive. This is not a let-and-let-live space in those regards (though it is in many others).
Turkish author Elif Shafak writes of the smiles, the laughter, the pervasive sense of joy that marks the protests in defiance of teargas:
The most retweeted messages are those with jests and puns and wordplay—and graffiti. On a wall in hasty letters: “The rich kids have better gas masks, we are jealous.” Nearby in an alley is writing that says: “Revolutionary Gays Everywhere.” One graffiti complains: “I could not find a slogan yet” while another one says cheerfully, “Welcome to the first traditional gas festival.”
The protests have coined a term. In a live TV interview the prime minister called the demonstrators “çapulcu,” which means “looter” or “marauder” in Turkish. The social media was quick to pick up the word and redefine it as “someone who fights for his/her individual rights.” In the blink of an eye a neologism was formed, half Turkish, half English. The Turkish noun was transformed into an English verb. Now Wikipedia has a new entry: “Chapulling.”
The next day, all over the Internet there were messages using the new word: “I will be chapulling today,” or “Everyday we are chapulling,” or “Tomorrow I shall chapul again.”
Author Elif Batuman atmospheric, ‘been there’ piece for the New Yorker is rich in detail and insight about Istanbul’s penchant for protesting, even if most of those protests turn out to be futile. And then there is this bit about the joy the protestors display, despite the risks, the threats and even the actuality of violent counter-measures:
On my street, spirits seem to be high. Someone is playing “Bella, Ciao” on a boom-box, and I can hear cheering and clapping. But every now and then the spring breeze carries a high, whistling, screaming sound, and the faint smell of pepper gas.
While on teargas, pepper spray et al, this piece from the Guardian about how it became big business is worth reading. For background on Erdogan, and Turkey’s descent into unbridled authoritarianism, there is this 2012 piece by Dexter Filkins for the New Yorker.
Author Claire Berlinski, who was there, wrote this richly detailed account that will remind you of scenes we have been seeing and hearing about from protest sites across India:
And it was glorious — a huge innocent carnival, filled with improbable (I would have hitherto thought impossible) scenes of nationalist Turks mingling amiably with nationalist Kurds, the latter dancing to some strange ghastly species of techno-Halay, the former pumping their fists in the air and chanting their eternal allegiance to something very nationalist, I’m sure. Balloons lit with candles sailed over the sky; hawkers sold every species of Gezi souvenir, and the only smell of pepper in the air came from the grilled meatballs served in hunks of fresh bread and sprinkled with chilli powder….
And then there is Ceyda Sungur, an academic attached to the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, University of Istanbul. Her day job made her more aware than most of the long-term costs of the planned razing of 100s of trees in Gezi Park; she walked out of the university and, unwittingly, into the history and iconography of contemporary protests when this happened. (Also read this account from The Guardian). Here she is (Image courtesy imgur.com):
When I first saw this image, by some odd association of ideas I remembered Marianne, the 13-year-old who at around 7 AM on October 5, 1789 went to the market place at the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, picked up a drum and began thumping out a marching beat, thus setting in motion a chain of events that we now know as the October March, a seminal moment in the history of the French Revolution. (While on this, the pivotal role of women in protests throughout history is the subject for an essay for another day).
Here is what Sungur has become to Gezi Park, and to the history of protests:
One final thought about Istanbul, about Gezi Park — the protests began on May 28, 2013. There has been no resolution yet; the protests continue with undiluted vigour. Keep that in mind when you ask yourself how long the anti-CAA protests can — must — go on. The short answer is, for as long as it takes.
Shifting to our own shores, here are a few stories you should read:
Shruti Rajagopalan‘s take-no-prisoners column for Livemint calls out the Supreme Court for its utter disregard for habeas corpus, in light of a recent speech by Justice DY Chandrachud (full text) affirming the individual’s right to dissent. The nut graf:
He (Chandrachud) invoked the word “liberty” 16 times and “freedom” 14 times. Last week, after six months of detention, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, two former chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir, were charged under its Public Safety Act (PSA), a law that allows detention without trial for up to two years. Worse still, hundreds of others are waiting for their day in court for the ruling on their detention. Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, who expressed enlightened ideas on liberty in his lecture, belongs to a court (with 32 other learned justices) that has not set aside the time to hear habeas corpus cases of hundreds of Indians detained in Kashmir. This apparent contradiction requires further examination.
A Reuters report underlines the risk of the increasing use, by Indian police forces, of facial recognition software to identify and potentially harass those taking part in protests. Back in December, Indian Express had broken the story of how the technology, court-sanctioned for use to help police identify missing children, was now being used to create a database of alleged “rabble-rousers and miscreants”. Express had earlier last year run an explainer on the AFRS system that provides background and context.
While on the police, hundreds of cases have been filed in dozens of cities across the country against anti-CAA protestors. They all have one thing in common — not a single one of the charges has thus far stood up to judicial scrutiny. Here’s the latest example, from Karnataka where the high court has granted bail to 22 people booked in connection with the December 19, 2009 protests in Mangalore and observed, inter alia, that the police investigation “appears to be mala fide and partisan”. The money quote from the bail order, in a case where the police charged protestors with using stones and weapons to attack them:
The photographs produced by learned SPP-I depict that hardly any member of the crowd were armed with weapons except one of them holding a bottle. In none of these photographs, police station or policemen are seen in the vicinity. On the other hand, photographs produced by the petitioners disclose that the policemen themselves were pelting stones on the crowd“, states the Order
In passing, while we celebrate these instances of protestors being released on bail, keep in mind that getting bail is not vindication — the protestors, who as the judge observes here were sinned against, not sinning, still have to go through the whole process of court appearances, which is exactly the reason the police resort to such tactics.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, who had earlier said the NPR exercise would not be permitted in his state, appears to have changed his mind, and his tune: He now says that there is no harm in NPR. Widespread state-level opposition to the Centre’s rollout of the NPR is the only realistic way Amit Shah’s plans can be stymied; if Maharashtra goes back on its initial objection, it weakens a growing coalition of states willing and ready to face down the central government over the issue.
Related, the UIDAI has — on the basis of an anonymous complaint — asked an auto driver (and reportedly, over a hundred others in one neighbourhood) in Hyderabad to prove his citizenship. This is one of the very real fears the CAA/NPR/NRC has instilled in people — that anyone with a grudge can file an anonymous complaint, which the authorities can then use to harass you. For what it is worth, the UIDAI has via news agency ANI issued a clarification which, in the patented fashion of all such clarifications, puts the onus on the media for having “misrepresented” the facts. Sir Humphrey Appleby said it best: “No, Prime Minister, a clarification is not to make oneself clear. It is to put oneself in the clear.”
In Kashmir, police have resorted to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act to register cases against people using proxy servers to access social media. The move is intended to deter locals from telling the world about what is happening within the sealed off bubble that the state has become, and follows on the heels of a video of ailing Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Geelani making it past the state’s firewalls and onto social media. FIRs have been filed against those who “defied government orders and misused social media platforms,” the police said in a statement without, however, explaining why uploading a factual video is “misuse” whereas the government can claim, in Parliament and on international forums, that normalcy has been restored in the Valley.
Quartz, meanwhile, reports that the government’s internet ban has sparked an exodus of students and businesspersons, particularly start-ups, from the Valley. Also from Kashmir comes the news that panchayat polls, originally scheduled to take place in March, have been postponed. “Home Department, Government of Jammu and Kashmir…has advised the Election Authority to consider deferring of the conduct of polls based on credible inputs from the law enforcement agencies,” the notice read. J&K comes under the central government — which, just a week ago, played tourist guide to yet another group of random European Union officials as part of its ongoing propaganda exercise intended to show that all was well in the Valley. And here we are, citing “security concerns” to explain the government’s inability to hold panchayat elections.
Regular readers will recall that I’ve been saying the much-hyped trade deal (it was supposed to happen during ‘Howdy Modi’, but didn’t) was unlikely to materialise during the upcoming visit of Donald Trump to India. Here is the confirmation.
It will likely happen only after the 2020 Presidential elections in November, we are told. What we are not told is that you don’t know who will become the next President, and what his attitude, and that of his party, will be — so can we just agree that the trade deal will not happen in the foreseeable future? As recently as last night IST, Trump had this to say:
“Well, we can have a trade deal with India, but I’m really saving the big deal for later on,” Trump told reporters as he left the White House for a trip to California. “I don’t know if it will be done before the [US presidential] election. We’re not treated very well by India, but I happen to like Prime Minister Narendra Modi a lot.”
Modi happens to like Trump a lot, too (why, is not so clear), as evidenced by the daily stories of preparations to roll out the red carpet. As for instance:
Ahead of President Trump’s visit, who will arrive in India on February 24 and is expected to visit the Taj Mahal in Agra, the Uttar Pradesh Irrigation Department has released 500 cusecs of water into the Yamuna to improve the condition of the river. The water has been released from the Ganganahar in Bulandshahr to improve the “environmental condition” of the river. Yamuna flows adjacent to the boundary wall of the Taj Mahal.
A “cusec” is a measure of flow (one cubic foot per second). “Released 500 cusecs” means nothing as a measure of volume unless there is a time attached to it — “500 cusecs for one hour”, for instance, would mean 18 lakh cubic feet of water.
But never mind that example of the media lazily regurgitating a bureaucrat’s press note without application of mind, the point is, the government is doing everything it can to create a Potemkin facade ahead of the Trump visit. It’s worth remembering that as recently as the Delhi election campaign UP chief minister Bisht, whose government ordered the release of water to “improve the Yamuna’s condition”, was blaming Kejriwal for the sorry state of the Yamuna. Also from UP, this latest example of a state that has totally, completely failed its citizens:
This government has often, and with justification, been accused of lack of attention to detail. Think demonetisation when, among other things, it turned out that the government had not anticipated the need to recalibrate ATM machines when rolling out new notes of a different size. Or GST, whose provisions are still being “tweaked”. But when it comes to the Trump visit, no detail is too small to escape the government’s notice. How’s this?
Ahmedabad is prepping up to host the POTUS and to ensure that the city is clean, the municipal corporation has now sealed three paan shops at the airport circle. Notices have been pasted outside the shops mentioning that if the shop-owners try to remove the seal, legal action will be taken. The initiative has been taken to make sure that all the roads and walls around the Ahmedabad airport remain spick and span.
Elsewhere in UP, Congress leader and poet Imran Pratapgarhi has been fined Rs 1.04 crore fine for participating in anti-CAA protests. Apparently that is his share of the Rs 13.42 lakh it costs to deploy RAF and PAC personnel at the protest site. Note that this is a magistrate, no less, fining someone for exercising his right to dissent — a fundamental right, as Justice Chandrachud said just the other day. Here is your reminder that it costs the country Rs 1.62 crore per day to provide security cover for Narendra Modi.
Seven sailors have been arrested for passing on information to Pakistan.
And finally, for today, read this Vice investigation into the first known use of deepfakes in an Indian election. And be afraid. Be very afraid, because it is suddenly that much easier to manufacture “proof” against whoever the government wants to destroy (Imagine this tech existing say in 2016, when the government and captive media combined to create the totally false allegation that “Bharat tere tukde honge” slogans were raised by Kanhaiya Kumar and others during the JNU protests of that year. It was easily disproved then; today, the “supporting evidence” will be far more persuasive thanks to tech, and the resulting effort to disprove the allegation that much more difficult.