It may have surprised many, when Bengaluru set the record for the most protests in a month with 82 protests between December and January. The ‘garden city’ is rarely associated with political activism and is often overshadowed by the likes of Delhi and Mumbai. However, like in the rest of the country, the CAA protests have served as a locus for different groups, ideologies and movements to coalesce.
Inspired by Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, Bengaluru’s Bilal Bagh started on February 8 and is ongoing. Organisers have imposed precautions to keep the coronavirus at bay. On February 29, the City Corporation banned protests at the Town Hall — an epicentre for all protests, especially anti-CAA ones.
However, Freedom Park, which is the officially-permitted space for protests, and many other parts of the city continued to hold protests of various sizes and forms right up until the government banned all public gatherings in view of the coronavirus pandemic.
Far from being an apolitical city, Bengaluru actually has a vibrant history of protest. Historicising protests reveals that they were an integral part of nation-building and city-making process at least since colonial times. It also unveils geographies of protest, the manner in which they came to be and the convergences between different groups and movements.
The geographies and alliances which are part of Bengaluru to this day took shape during the Freedom Struggle. The Freedom Struggle took off in the 1920s, as a result of the coming together of the city’s textile workers, students and nationalist political leaders. The city was divided into two – the old city of the petes to the west, and the new administrative and military base of the British to the east. The city’s protest spaces lay on the fault line between the two – Mysore Bank Circle, Banappa Park and Chik Lal Bagh (now Lokmanya Tilak Park).
60’s to 80’s – The era of PSUs
The years after independence were dominated by the politics of language and identity in the city, as the Ekikarana movement (Unification movement) sought a new linguistic nationalism for Kannada-speaking regions in present-day Karnataka. The movement had begun in the late 19th century in Dharwad, but acquired centre-stage post-independence from the 1950’s, as Kannada-speaking regions attempted to establish linguistic dominance in regions previously administered under the Bombay and Madras presidencies and the Hyderabad princely state.
The state of Mysore was formed in 1956 following the linguistic reorganisation of states, but it was not until November 1, 1973, when Devaraj Urs was Chief Minister, that the state was named Karnataka. In 1956, the construction of the Vidhana Soudha was completed, and it became the primary site of protests in the post-Independence period.
Meanwhile, Bengaluru had become a city of strategic importance to the central government of India, as it offered a safe beacon away from the threat of war in the northern parts of the country. Thus began the era of the PSUs in the 50’s and 60’s.
Heavy public sector industries like Hindustan Machine Tools (HMT), Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL), National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), Indian Telephone Industries (ITI), Bharat Heavy Engineering Ltd. (BHEL), Bharat Electronics Ltd. (BEL), and Bharat Earth Movers Limited (BEML) transformed Bengaluru into a manufacturing hub.
Yet again, Bengaluru turned into a city of workers. While in the colonial period, the workers of the textile mills and of the petes dominated the city, now it was PSU workers.
“Bengaluru was full of PSUs in the 60’s. It was a workers’ city. There were more than one lakh workers and the PSUs were still growing. By 5 o’ clock, we wouldn’t have space to move on the streets! Buses for workers flooded the streets. BEL alone had around 12,000 workers commuting every day, I think” reminisces H V AnanthaSubba Rao, secretary of the KRSTC Union and Karnataka President of AITUC.
Rao has been in the city since 1961 and became a unionist after finishing his engineering in ’63, starting with the LIC trade union. He remembers many strikes and protests by workers in the 60’s and 70’s. The first major strike he witnessed was in 1973.
“I remember in 1973 – it was June 23rd I think – workers took out a rally against price rise. They came to Cubbon Park. It was a peaceful protest and in fact, many came in company buses. There must have been more than a lakh workers! The police lathi-charged heavily and one could see chappals all over the streets. The violence was condemned by civil society and a bandh was held on the 30th. It sent out shivers all the way to the centre”, says Rao.
In the prelude to the emergency, the Indira Gandhi government was dealing with a crumbling economy. A war with Pakistan which cost an estimated Rs 200 crore per week, drought and the West Asian oil crisis – wherein the price of crude oil jumped four times in a matter of days – had led to soaring levels of unemployment, price rise and inflation as high as 22%.
This led to protests and movements in different parts of the country, most notably the student-led Gujarat Navnirman Movement (1973-74) and legendary trade unionist George Fernandes’ transportation strike (1974).
In 1974, Jayaprakash Narayan took over from the Navnirman Andolan and launched a countrywide movement against the Indira Gandhi government. His movement resonated with existing students’ movements and angered workers in the city. He also came to Bengaluru and held a rally in National College Grounds. Protests sprouted across the city after JP’s call for democracy, till June 25, 1975, when in the midst of widespread discontent, Indira Gandhi declared emergency.
Workers’ union rights were taken away, press freedoms were curbed, and emergency meant a ban on public assemblies. However, rather than thwarting dissent altogether, the emergency ended up making Bengaluru a crucial part of the movement, albeit in an ironic manner.
Despite the imposition of emergency, there was a large protest at Mysore Bank Circle on June 26, which was attended by over 100 activists. Many opposition leaders, including L K Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had also come to the city the previous day, when JP had called for a nationwide Satyagraha in Delhi. On the 26th, both of them were arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA), along with prominent socialist leaders.
They were all placed in the Bangalore Central Prison, which has since been turned into Freedom Park – a designated site of protest in the city. In prison, many leaders with contrasting ideologies came together and it was there that the seeds for the Janata Movement were sown.
Many of the leaders were imprisoned for up to 18 months, following which the Janata Party was formed in January 1977 as a united front of all opposition parties, despite their ideological differences. In March 1977, the results of the elections were announced and the Janata Party swept the state with 271 seats.
[This is the first of a two-part series on the history of protests in Bengaluru.]