For three decades, the air over Jantar Mantar had always lain heavy, borne down by the weight of sullen expectations. But in the one week since this ‘desi' Hyde Park was cleared out of protesters, following the wrestlers’ protests against Federation chief Brij Bhushan Singh, the heaviness now reeks of a desolate emptiness where hope has been stripped barren.
Since that fateful Sunday last week, when the Republic gained a new Parliament just down the road but lost something, perhaps, even more precious along the way, something fundamental has changed on this tiny, curvy stretch of road. The crackdown on wrestlers' protest not just resulted in Olympians, who are in search of elusive justice being removed, but, literally a total stomping out of all protesters and demonstrations from ‘dissent square’, as some have described Jantar Mantar over the course of the last quarter century.
As THE WEEK toured the area on Saturday afternoon, except for some torn banners and call-to-action posters strewn along, the ‘Dance of democracy’ that the area was symbolic of, all these years, seemed like a dream that died.
A stern warning is pasted on the road’s entry points at both Ashoka Road as well as Tolstoy Marg (an offshoot from Parliament Street) that link this famous stretch, that Section 144, which prohibits public gathering, has been imposed.
That is ironic in itself since the very fact that made Jantar Mantar, the go-to place for public protests and demonstrations, this tiny sliver of a road was the only area within the high-security zone of Lutyens Delhi that did not have the permanent imposition of Section 144. The zone comprises of Rashtrapati Bhawan, Parliament, PMO and the North and South Blocks, as well as surrounding areas filled with national and political institutions, constitutional bodies and state Bhawans.
The only crowd you find now are hundreds of police and security personnel along with multiple levels of barricades, water cannons and the works, all hanging around waiting for protesters who have left, albeit, forced out.
The many pandals, protest signs and assortment of rebels with a cause are missing. A bunch of ten or so ex-servicemen sitting on a dhari, with signboards around proclaiming that they are protesting against the anomalies in the ‘One Rank, One Pension’ implementation, is the only anomaly; as much as the fact that they have been allowed to continue their stir.
Also one dramatic Mumbai lady and her mother, who burst into tears even as phone cameras of some earnest-looking YouTube bloggers whirred. “What’s the point of saying we have a woman President when women are thrown out of their rightful homes?” She laments to the cameras. No one helped her when her mother was thrown out of her chawl by some strongmen, she alleges. After fighting in her hometown for long, she and her mother have come to Delhi, as she feels she has a better chance of being heard by being on Jantar Mantar.
“We’ve cleared out all protesters from this area along with the wrestlers last week,” quipped a policeman fanning himself on the footpath, peering around to see if the staff van carrying lunch had arrived or not.
It was in 1993, about five years after thousands of farmers laid siege to Lutyens Delhi in 1988 and shook the then Congress regime to the core (yes, the 2021 farmer protests wasn’t the first time when farmers descended on Delhi), that authorities unofficially designated the area around Jantar Mantar, an 18th century sundial and observatory situated between the national capital’s Connaught Place (now called Rajiv Chowk) and the Parliament, as the go-to area for holding protests and rallies.
Before that, Boat Club, the open lawns to the left of Rajpath (now retitled Kartavya Path) was where organisations and institutions headed for protests. Some of the biggest agitations against Indira Gandhi in the run-up to Emergency took place here. However, the farmers' siege in 1988 saw not just thousands of farmers staying put, cooking, eating, relieving in the said area, but their cattle, too. And they left only after the mighty Rajiv Gandhi government conceded to their demands.
Authorities woke up to how farmers had virtually blockaded the North and South Block, where the prime minister and the crucial ministries of home, finance and defence operate from. And in 1993, at the peak of the post-Babri demolition era, when strife on the street had reached new proportions, Jantar Mantar was quickly shortlisted as the new 'safe' protest site, being as it was more than a kilometre away from the key government installations.
But powers-that-be does have a way of catching up with the powerless. Over the years, authorities across multiple regimes had voiced their worries over how Parliament marches originated from Jantar Mantar, which was just down the road from the constitutional complex, and the need to find a new spot.
Attempts were also made, including a National Green Tribunal order in 2017 which ordered protesters to be shifted to Ram Lila Maidan citing how the Jantar Mantar area was being polluted by the protesters and locals were fed up with all the noise day in and day out. But this was halted on its tracks by the Supreme Court.
After Anna Hazare shook the UPA government with his first fast against corruption at Jantar Mantar, when it was time for the second one, the venue offered by the authorities was Ram Lila Maidan, a further couple of kilometres away. Many initial anti-CAA-NRC protests took place at Jantar Mantar, though the epicentre slowly shifted to Shaheen Bagh.
And when protesters from Punjab, Haryana and UP arrived in 2021 calling for the repeal of the Farm Laws, they were not given permission even for Ram Lila Maidan, pushing them to Delhi's border in Singhu.
Is it the end of the road for Jantar Mantar as India’s Hyde Park? It remains to be seen if freedom of expression will get a second run on this street of hope. But its cradle as some of the biggest popular movements that redefined Indian civil society in recent years —from India Against Corruption that spawned the Aam Aadmi Party, to retired army men’s fight for equitable pension, to the spontaneous outpouring of grief after the Nirbhaya gangrape, Jantar Mantar gave everyone a voice, and a place where hope seemingly still had a chance. That hope matters, as exemplified by that lone Mumbai woman holding her mother-and-daughter vigil under the scorching sun even now.