One of the busiest counters at the recently concluded Team Anna protest was the one at which volunteers enrolled. They pulled on caps announcing “I am Anna”, and offered a popular slogan, “I am with Anna”. These volunteers did more than swell the crowd; in fact, they effectively managed the protesters at Jantar Mantar, the protest capital of Delhi.
One group of volunteers made up the Crowd Management Team (CMT). As soon as one stepped in front of the stage, one was “managed” by the CMT. Spotted as a newcomer, I was quickly extended an umbrella. “Only for women,” I was told, “and please make your way towards the women’s section, and please be seated.”
Since I wanted to circulate, not sit, I moved away. Another earnest volunteer approached, to say, “The woman’s section is there. Please go there. You cannot be here.” But I don’t want to go there, I said. “But that is the section for women,” he repeated.
A little later one more volunteer approached, this time with an apple and a bag of water. I declined both offerings. “You cannot stand,” this third volunteer told me, “please sit down. If you stand, others might follow suit. You see, you are coming in the way of the media.” In surprise I asked, was this protest for the public or the media? The volunteer, intent on his job, replied without hesitation, “The media.”
The crowd generally followed orders. A line of people circled the arena to reach the stage in single file, to pay their respects to Anna Hazare and others. A similar sense of order could be seen at the Anna Ki Rasoi (Anna’s Kitchen) counter, where meals were distributed. Street children were trying to sell Anna caps but, perhaps thinking that the young businesspeople would disturb the routine, the organisers told them to wait till the “real protesters” had been served.
During peak crowd hours, CMTs could be seen working to maintain calm and order. Often, however, the crowd was too small to need managing. Early in the week, numbers tended to rise at lunchtime, when many from nearby government offices paid a visit and partook of the free food. Mid-mornings and evenings were lean, particularly when the weather was wet.
The CMT’s work also varied according to what was happening on stage. By the time the last day of the protest rolled around, before Team Anna announced that it would form a political party, few CMTs were present. They offered water, but did not need to practice crowd management. Only a small crowd was gathered.
Some of them could have wandered over to a coincident neighbouring protest, organised by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Here the issues being discussed were more down-to-earth than at the Team Anna event: universal PDS, right to food, abolition of a poverty line-based categorisation of the poor, and so on. Some of these issues were raised by Team Anna speakers, but to very different effect.
When speakers on the CPI(M) stage discussed policy, spoke of ground realities and called for national action, their audience listened with rapt attention. Some listeners even approached the dais to offer comments. Women made their presence felt, and took the stage with confidence, even if they were not among the listed speakers.
Groups of women just arrived from a far-flung rural area would call out to politician Brinda Karat on the stage. Sometimes she invited a group on stage. In Team Anna’s camp, this level of engagement with basic issues, and with people, was missing. So was the participation and presence of women. The crowd at the Team Anna stage responded enthusiastically to rousing generalities, such as when a speaker called for a second national movement and sacrifice for the nation. The crowd loved the cries of “Bharat Mata ki jai!” (“Hail Mother India!”). Details of corruption and “anti-poor” policy, when the Team Anna speakers raised them, failed to evoke much reaction.
On the morning of the last day, a young man with a fine voice had the crowd swaying to songs about the sacrifices of freedom fighters, the ruin of the nation and the need to rise up. The crowd was happy. Before him, Team Anna member Kiran Bedi had held the stage. In her speech, she had tried to explain Team Anna’s vision of the promised political “alternative”. The crowd gave her a lukewarm response.
Bedi sounded headmistressy. punctuating her speech with orders that sounded like requests. For instance: “Would you not like to sit down? It would be nicer if everyone was seated and organised.” Audience engagement momentarily improved when a young woman from among the protesters insisted she had a few words to share. This woman, a trim figure in a green salwar-kurta, made quite a presence. In a confident voice she introduced herself as a teacher in a private school in a village in Uttar Pradesh. She said she had taken leave and come here because she felt it necessary. She said, “We as women are responsible for keeping our houses clean. If we don’t participate in cleaning the nation then perhaps it just shows how much we love our nation.”
After praising Anna’s movement and promising her support, she directed a question at Bedi, as the first woman officer of the Indian Police Service, and at the crowd of protesters: “Why such limited participation of women, in a protest of such significance?”
She, unlike Bedi, got loud applause and a show of hands — though an answer was not immediately provided.