Jantar Mantar in New Delhi is where India goes to protest. Since 2016, I have been meeting and photographing people who come here seeking justice for themselves or for their own. Some of them stand in solidarity with strangers whose problems they identify with. Others demonstrate against government policies. These portraits are part of a long-term project to chronicle the culture of protest and dissent in a public space in India.
Kandaswamy Ramalingam (36), Katayambatti, Tiruchirapalli, Tamil Nadu. For close to six weeks, a 100-odd farmers from Tamil Nadu sat on protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, demanding drought relief funds, waiver of farm loans and the setting up of a Cauvery Management Board. They made headlines for using bizarre props like skulls–which they claimed were of farmers who had killed themselves because of mounting debt–and theatrical acts, including shaving off half their beards and moustaches, drinking urine, cutting their palms, and eating mice. When the Prime Minister couldn’t find the time to meet them, they stripped naked in front of his office. Many suffered different degrees of heatstroke and some were forcibly sent back by their leaders after their health began to fail. For close to six weeks, a 100-odd farmers from Tamil Nadu sat on protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, demanding drought relief funds, waiver of farm loans and the setting up of a Cauvery Management Board. They made headlines for using bizarre props like skulls–which they claimed were of farmers who had killed themselves because of mounting debt–and theatrical acts, including shaving off half their beards and moustaches, drinking urine, cutting their palms, and eating mice. When the Prime Minister couldn’t find the time to meet them, they stripped naked in front of his office. Many suffered different degrees of heatstroke and some were forcibly sent back by their leaders after their health began to fail.
Vrishali Shruti (23), Kurukshetra, Haryana. Associated with the Disha Chhatra Sangathan, a students’ organisation, Shruti attended a protest by Bigul Mazdoor Dasta, a workers’ group, against a court verdict that had convicted 31 employees of car manufacturer Maruti Suzuki, including 13 on charges of murder of an HR manager. Violence erupted at the company’s Manesar plant on July 18, 2012 following disciplinary action against an employee, resulting in a casualty and injuries to 100.
Santosh ‘Murat’ Singh (35), Chittauni, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. In the year 2000, Singh met a Bollywood actor shooting near his village and went on to join his personal staff in Mumbai. He fell in love with a Maharashtrian Dalit girl and married her, which led to a social boycott in the village in 2003. Six months later his relatives gave an affidavit to the local authorities stating that he had died in a bomb blast. They performed his final rites and took possession of his 12.5-acre patch of land. He has been fighting ever since, holding a placard that says ‘I’m still alive’.
Deepmala Nandan (36) and Vijay Nandan (38), Seoni, Madhya Pradesh. The Nandans own a battery manufacturing unit, but a trademark has been denied to them as the name resembles that of a well-established battery manufacturer. They hoped to convince the Office of the Registrar of Trademarks in Mumbai to issue a trademark.
Satish Kajla (35), Bhagana, Hisar, Haryana. A tussle in 2011 over redistribution of village common land between the dominant Jats and the Dalits in Bhagana eventually led to the social boycott of the latter. Kajla, a Dalit from the village leading the protests at Jantar Mantar, alleges that shops refused to sell groceries to Dalits and that they were denied work under the government’s employment guarantee scheme (MNREGA). A fine of Rs. 11,000 (approx USD 155) was imposed on any Jat seen interacting with Dalits, he says. In 2012, 137 Dalit families left the village for Hisar and pitched tents outside the Mini Secretariat, but Kajla soon moved to Jantar Mantar where he has been living ever since. In 2014, four Dalit girls from the village were kidnapped and raped–allegedly by Jat men. In August 2015, on the night that 100 Dalit families converted to Islam during a demonstration at Jantar Mantar, unidentified men attacked Kajla and others at the protest site.
Subiram Debbarma (49) and Sunita Debbarma (38), Khumulwng, West Tripura, Tripura. The Debbarmas travelled over 1,750 km to attend a protest by the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura. Demands were raised to create a separate state of Tipraland for indigenous Tipris, to implement the National Register of Citizens while rejecting the Citizenship Amendment Act, and to resolve the longstanding Bru-Reang rehabilitation issue, among others.
Ramesh Kumar Saxena (52), Delhi. Saxena joined the Delhi Police as a home guard in 1986, but was removed overnight along with many others in the year 2000. Home guards unceremoniously terminated from service between 1991 and 2001 were appealing to the the government to reinstate them and to guarantee employment till the age of 60.
Tarachand Mendhe (61), Nagpur, Maharashtra. Mendhe represented the Humanism Foundation, which wanted the Army to immediately withdraw its plans to shift the 118 Infantry Battalion Territorial Army unit from Nagpur to Bhusawal. The shifting of the unit, established in 1939, could mean the loss of 600 jobs as the unit recruits part-time soldiers from the region.
Bindiya(19), Delhi. A student of pharmacy, Bindiya, who goes by one name, joined pharmacists from across the country in opposing proposed amendments to the Drugs and Cosmetics Rules, which will allow community health workers, accredited social health activists, nurses and midwives to prescribe drugs.
Rama Indra Kumar (66), Lakhisarai, Bihar. Kumar, who holds a PhD in literature from Delhi University, had been sitting on hunger strikes periodically for 23 years now, usually for 24-48 hours, hoping to change the system and to build a new socialist polity that cares for the poor and the oppressed.
Shivlal Tatdhari (65), Kuloth Khurd,Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan. Tatdhari, who retired from Hindustan Copper Limited, is a staunch follower of the Indian freedom fighter ‘Netaji’ Subhash Chandra Bose. Bose had disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1945 and is believed to have been killed in a plane crash in Taiwan. Tatdhari however believes he is still alive and wants the Indian government to investigate and make the facts of his disappearance public. He travels to Jantar Mantar every couple of months to stage a sit-in.
Ravi Nitesh (35), Delhi. A petroleum engineer by profession, Nitesh felt strongly about the growing number of mob lynchings and attacks in the name of cow protection. He was part of a protest that happened in the backdrop of the murder of Pehlu Khan, a 55-year-old dairy farmer from Nuh in Haryana, by a group of 200 cow vigilantes on April 1, 2017, in Alwar, Rajasthan.
Gajadhar Singh (58) and Ranju Devi (45), Jihuli, East Champaran, Bihar. Frustrated with the current political dispensation, Singh and Devi hope to become the Prime Minister of India and the Chief Minister of Bihar, respectively, so that they can bring about change.
Jaswant Singh Janpangi (58), Didihat,Pithoragarh, Uttarakhand. Janpangi, a former constable with the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, claims to have quit his job to fight corruption. He says he fights for the rights of the Raji tribe, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal group of whom only 690 remain as per the 2011 census. Janpangi had been living at Jantar Mantar since 2011, trying to secure justice for two tribal youth who were tried as adults for a crime despite being minors.
Dilip Shah and Kiran Devi (both in their 30s), Howrah, West Bengal. According to the couple, men related to the labour union leader of a jute mill where Shah was employed barged into their house while he was away at work, molested Devi and tried to rape her. The police initially refused to file a First Information Report on the incident that took place in February 2015, but later registered a case upon pressure from the media. Shah ended up losing his job and the family was forced to flee to Delhi in September 2015. A man on the street guided them to Jantar Mantar, which became their new home. After moving here, the couple has had a child, a baby girl they have named Jantri.
Jagjit Kaur (35), Siahar, Ludhiana, Punjab. Kaur had been sitting on protest at Jantar Mantar since January 2013, demanding punitive action against a high-ranking police officer from Punjab whom she accuses of raping and threatening to kill her. The incident happened in 2010, she says, when she approached the police in Sangrur, Punjab seeking action against a man who didn’t repay a loan of Rs.40,000 she gave him. Her tent at Jantar Mantar became her address as she filed Right to Information requests giving her address as Camp No. 7, Jantar Mantar. She later filed a petition in the Supreme Court challening the National Green Tribunal’s orders to vacate Jantar Mantar. “I will die, but I will not leave Jantar Mantar until I am given justice,” she told the media.
Alamdar Abbas (57), Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh. A language pride activist, Abbas is associated with the Bharatiya Bhasha Andolan, which demands that all government affairs and recruitment tests be conducted in Indian languages instead of in English.
Saurabh Kumar Singh (33), Khettapatti, Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh. Singh injured his foot at a stone crusher he was employed at in Mirzapur, but was denied free healthcare as he was a contract employee. Unable to afford surgery, he chose to protest in Delhi instead. Walking about with a plastered foot, he raised slogans against the state government all day from a megaphone that he had bought for the purpose.
Sobat Singh Kathait (33), Delhi. Kathait is a member of a cab drivers union that went on strike and shut down Uber and Ola services demanding higher fares, low commissions and better facilities for drivers.
Kesari Shashi Kumar (51), Doda, Jammu and Kashmir. Turned away from a government job by an officer who told him to take up farming, Kumar went on to plant over 530,000 saplings, an effort that was recognised by the state government on Republic Day. At Jantar Mantar, he protests targeted harassment by the state police after he started raising voice against human rights abuses by them. He also pulls out nails from trees in the vicinity.
Colonel (Retd.) Dilbag Dabas (66), Gurgaon, Haryana. The ex-serviceman was at Jantar Mantar to stand in solidarity with fellow members of the Armed Forces who have been demanding the implementation of ‘One Rank, One Pension’–entailing uniform pension to personnel retiring in the same rank with the same length of service, regardless of their date of retirement.
Mehrunnisa (46), Delhi. A palliative care nurse who was about to take up a job in Saudi Arabia, Mehrunnisa happened to watch a news item on malnourished children in Nigeria and Myanmar. Shocked that children were dying of hunger in this day and age, she decided to come to Jantar Mantar to demand that the Indian government take positive action to help them.
Sandeep Anand (33), Delhi. Anand, who sells wallets at Sarojini Market in Delhi, winds up after selling 15-16–just enough for his daily bread–and heads over to Jantar Mantar. The horrific gangrape in December 2012 in Delhi of a 23-year-old victim referred to as ‘Nirbhaya’ shook him to the core. He has been demonstrating every day since, demanding stricter laws and punishments that deter rape and other atrocities against women.
Shankar Ganeshan (32), Delhi. A Tamil with roots in Madurai, Ganeshan was at Jantan Mantar to protest against a Supreme Court-imposed ban on the traditional bull-taming sport of Jallikattu in Tamil Nadu. The order had led to mass protests across the state, forcing the state government to issue an ordinance to allow Jallikattu events to be held.
Priyanka Rana (39), Faridabad,Haryana. Rana joined a protest called for by the All India Parents Forum for Education, demanding the rollback of unreasonable fee hike and several illegal charges imposed by private schools in Delhi.
Ram Shankar Ojha (60), Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh. Ojha, who retired from Indian Oil, is associated with the Bharatiya Gauraksha Kranti, which demands a complete ban on cow slaughter in India and the allocation of 5% of common land in every village for cattle grazing. Ojha had been bringing cows along to the protest site but the municipal authorities would move them to a shelter and he would be arrested by police for obstruction. Upon release the next morning, Ojha would then get his cows back and head over to Jantar Mantar. This went on for days until Ojha eventually tired of it. He goes to the site alone now.
Nancy Kaul (60), Delhi. A Kashmiri Pandit who had been forced to leave the valley, Kaul was at Jantar Mantar on the anniversary of the signing of the Instrument of Accession by Maharaja Hari Singh, to demand home rule in Kashmir without Article 370. She wants to move back to Kashmir with ‘One Flag, One Rule.’
Raghavendra Dubey (27), Lakhanguwan, Chhatarpur, Madhya Pradesh. Dubey, a merchant, came to Delhi on some other work, but when he figured that he’s got a few hours before his train, came to Jantar Mantar to protest against the agents at the local Aadhaar biometric enrollment centre in his village charging people anywhere between Rs.100 (approx USD 1.4) to 200 (approx USD 2.8).
Sonu Bairagi (48), Aurai, Mandla, Madhya Pradesh. Bairagi demanded compensation and rehabilitation for the land he lost because of the construction of Bargi Dam across the river Narmada as part of the Narmada Valley Project, a hugely controversial project that involves the building of several dams across the river and its tributaries.
Vishwanath Agarwal (64), Barrackpore, North 24 Paraganas, West Bengal. Agarwal was at a sit-in organised by the All India Fair Price Shop Dealers Federation, which demanded better margins for grains, pulses and other food items supplied through the subsidised Public Distribution System, so as to ensure a guaranteed minimum monthly income.