Opinion Based Blog


Author: MRUNALINI Vengurlekar B.A.LL.B. (Hons.) at NALSAR, Hyderabad. 


The last two years have seen large scale protests across the world, some pushing for legislations and some pining to scrap them. Some were against leaders, some against laws and some against deep rooted discrimination. People flooded onto the streets, shouting slogans and holding banners, doing anything to make their voice heard. However, a lot of these protests were in the news because they took a violent turn. Houses were burnt down, public and private property vandalized, and government servants attacked. Often, protests were associated with political and religious groups and became a contentious subject among citizens. Anti-legislation/ anti-government protests were often labeled as violent by the people in power, and the opposition allegedly funded the same. In India, the exercising of the right to freedom of speech and expression was reduced to a political tool used to one-up the party in power. This is not just the case with India; protests across the world have morphed into weapons for political gain. The last year in India saw multiple protests; the Shaheen Bagh protest, the CAA/NRC Protests, the Farmer’s protests, etc. A thread that ties them all together is that they were anti-government/ anti-legislation, i.e., ultimately going against the interests of the ruling party, BJP; and what resulted was clear: them being remembered as stubborn and anti-national, and their demands unreasonable. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliament address and his use of the word “Andolanjeevi” is the best example of the government’s narrative of dissent in what we call the largest democracy in the world. In the same vein, the atmosphere of discord across the world, and the contrasting narratives around the same raises the question: Do protests represent dissent, or have they paved the way for anarchy?

The Global Protest Wave: What triggered it?

Although there is a lot of complexity in determining the exact reason or trigger for a certain protest, protest triggers can be divided into a few basic categories. Factors vary from being political to socioeconomic, but none are truly independent of each other. Some prevalent causes are listed below; this list is non-exhaustive.

Problematic Bills[1]: It is no surprise to a reader in India that a problematic bill can be the trigger for a large-scale protest. Repeatedly making the rounds in the news, the CAA NRC protests of 2019 were a nationwide phenomenon, spearheaded by the Shaheen Bagh protesters in Delhi. Students across the country stood with the people who would be the affected group from the bill though they would not be affected by it themselves. The reasons for this will be analyzed in the next section. Not only India, but even the Hong Kong protests have been triggered by the extradition bill, which will allow the extradition of prisoners to China. The Pro-Democracy activists in Hong Kong believe that if this law is enacted it will compromise the independence of Hing Kong and increase the Chinese pressure on the political and judicial processes of the county. Hong Kong’s protests were also led largely by students, who were met with hostile retaliations from the state police, as were the students in India. The Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill in the UK also sparked protests, owing to the amount of power it granted the police to silence protests and demonstrations even in the case that they are peaceful. This bill is the classic example of a state not being open to dissent, and cracking down on it via legislation. The Farmer’s Bill in India, claimed to abolish a middleman in agricultural trading, was painted as beneficial to the farmers, but proved to be detrimental to those of Punjab and Haryana. When these farmers rejected this bill, they were met with oppression and the only way they could get their way was by protesting.

Climate: After the increased awareness among the global population in global warming and climate change, there have been public movements for governments to take concrete steps to reducing their carbon footprint and doing their part in reducing the amount of waste they generate and resources they burn. Not only have people stood for this, but there have been protests against the establishment of structures that will compromise on the environment and sanctity of an area, such as dams and buildings. Commercial exploitation of natural resources is not new to us, but entire landscapes are destroyed by capitalist ventures and demonstrations and movements against such moves have been observed, even in India. During the International Mining Conference which was going to be held in Melbourne, several protesters rallied in front of the venue, blocking the delegates for the conference from entering the premises, because they believed that the mining industry’s capitalist greed and exploitative practices were displacing several indigenous communities from their natural habitat.

Separatism: The recent protests in Barcelona were triggered by the demand for a separate state by the community of Catalonia. They want to break off from the Kingdom of Spain, thus establishing an independent sovereign republic. After holding a referendum in 2014, the Spanish government, fearing a result that was unfavorable to him considered this illegal separatism and made the Supreme Court cancel the referendum. However, the referendum was still conducted, and the Catalan Government declared that the it was successfully held and that over 90% of the voters had voted for independence from the Kingdom of Spain with a voter turnout of no less than 43%. This was against the article 115 of the Spanish Constitution, and so independence leaders were incarcerated and protests began against this step taken by the Spanish Government.

Why do people protest?

It seems quite obvious now that people participate in protests because they’re dissatisfied with the way things work. They want change, or they want things to go back to the way they were before an unfair change. Classical theorists made a similar observation. However, several theories emerged later which explained protests and the psyche of their participants from different perspectives. In this section, we will analyse how these theories explained protests.

Grievance Theorists: Classical theorists suggested that people participate in protests to express the grievances that have been engendered by relative deprivation, frustration or perceived injustice. However, Scholars of Social Movements started to analyse the effects of grievances on movement participation and proposed that the question to be answered is not whether people who engage in protest are aggrieved, but whether aggrieved people engage in protest.[2] Within grievance theories, a popular offshoot that was accepted by many was relative deprivation theory. Relative deprivation theory says that people who feel like they are being deprived of something that they see as a basic necessity in their society, (like basic fundamental rights, social acceptance, monetary comforts) organize or join social movements that strive to get the things that they have been deprived of earlier. This seems quite intuitive, for example, the Civil Rights Movement in the US wanted to obtain rights for black people, so they’d be socially and legally equal to white people in their country. The Black Lives Matter protests in the US were for a similar cause; to stop police brutality and racial profiling in the US, so that the country is as safe a place for people of colour as it is for white people. In proposing the first formal definitions of relative deprivation, the sociologist Walter Runciman listed four required conditions:

  1. A person does not have something.
  2. They know other people who have that thing.
  3. They want to have that thing.
  4. They believe that there is a reasonable possibility of obtaining that thing.

However, like with any other theory, there are critics of this too. People have pointed out that the relative deprivation theory fails to explain why some people, despite being deprived of rights and resources, fail to take part in (let alone organize) social movements that are meant to obtain those things. For example, black people who refused to participate in the Civil Rights Movements were given the name “Uncle Tom” which was a reference to the 1852 novel written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Another famous reference from this book that connects the criticism of this theory with a syndrome is the Uncle Tom Syndrome. It’s a theory in psychology that explains a coping mechanism that uses submissiveness and passivity when confronted by a threat. Additionally, an obvious observation is that the relative deprivation theory fails to account for the people who participate in protests even when in the case that it is successful, the thing obtained will not benefit them in any way. Often people might participate in protests and movements because they see reason in their cause, and empathize with the affected group. For example, the participants of the Black Lives Matter protest in the USA were not limited by race. Although racial profiling affects black people the most, and the protest was sparked by the brutal killing of George Floyd, a black man, people from several races and ethnicities and nationalities joined the protest and expressed support for the same. Even white people, who get unfairly good treatment from the police, joined the cause for equality. The CAA-NRC protests in India as well, had students from across the country joining the protests although they were from upper caste Hindu households and the bill did not affect them whatsoever. They saw a problem with the bill, and they saw that people were getting affected. They joined the movement not because the bill would affect them poorly, but because they couldn’t see their country consider religion while granting citizenship and empathize with people who would be affected by the same. [3]

The Efficacy Theory: the efficacy theory suggests that the reason that people protest is that they think it is a possibility to alter conditions or policies through protest. For this to happen, the people must believe that the affected group is capable of uniting and fighting for their issue together, and the political context, according to them, must seem to be receptive to the claims made by the said group. This adds up when studies show that people are more likely to participate in movements and protests when they believe that their participation will help redress grievances of the group at reasonable costs. It is a direct relationship: the more the perceived chance of redressal, the more likely the participation.

Identity: A big part of protest culture and psychology remains to be collective identity. Identity refers to an individual’s understanding of themselves and other people, and seeing where they fit in the picture. Personal identity refers to self-determination in terms of personal attributes, and social identity refers to self-definition in terms of membership of social groups. When the social identity outputs the personal identity of an individual, then the personal identity is defined by the social group and borrows mostly from there. People define themselves in terms of their similarity with the others in their social group. The social identity theory for protests suggests that people protest because they identify themselves with a social group. In their research paper, the authors, to explain politicized identity, say:

“Collective identities must politicize to become the engine of collective action. Typically, politicization of identities begins with the awareness of shared grievances. Next, an external enemy is blamed for the group’s predicament, and claims for compensation are levelled against this enemy”[4]

Identification and Protests: Self-identification remains to be such an important factor in protests for several reasons. Protests are driven by a sense of unity and affiliation among the people rallying for the cause, and this is determined by people’s perception of their identity and where/with whom they stand in the society. This identification with a certain group is leads to the inner compulsion to act as a good and effective member of the said group. Shared identity pushes an individual into working for the welfare of the group that they identify, and participation increases. [5]OBERT LONGLEY, ALL ABOUT Relative Depression mast more likes. https://www.thoughtco.com/relative-deprivation-theory-

Social Embeddedness: What Social Embeddedness means is that it sees an economy and the social world as interdependent. It says that some organisations and institutions and even the whole economy must be seen as results of larger, historically derived institutional or social structures. It explains how despite following completely different principles and operating in what seems like two independent spheres, different surrounding institutions and contexts may interact or conflict with each other. [6]

Violence in Protests: Where the “Anarchy” Narrative is Born

Where do we draw the line between protests and riots? Is violence in a protest justified? What is the difference between a protest and a riot? The Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines a protest as “a usually organized public demonstration of disapproval” (of some law, policy, idea, or state of affairs) while a riot is defined as “a disturbance of the peace created by an assemblage of usually three or more people acting with a common purpose and in a violent and tumultuous manner to the terror of the public”. The US Government’s definition of a riot says that an assemblage of three or more people involving violence or a credible threat of violence is called a riot. Peaceful and non-violent protests can often lead to riots. For instance, the recent Black Lives Matter protests in the US turned violent in many parts of the country. Not only there, but this was mirrored in the Black Lives Matter protests in The United Kingdom as well, after which the conservative government sought to enact the Policing and Crime bill.

Having examined the causes of protests, it is observable that some reasons are more serious than others, not to say that one doesn’t deserve an uprising, but to acknowledge that one reason could be more pressing or far reaching than another; whether in terms of the amount of people it affects, or the kind of people it does. So that leads us to the question of whether it is valid to retaliate violently when the wrong being protested crosses some threshold of severity. While violent protests are usually condemned by most, the Left sticks out in this case, justifying and backing violent protests when they feel the need to. Is this justified? The left found faults in the storming of the Capitol earlier this year, saying that it was entitlement that reeked in the mob’s actions. However, when the Black Lives Matter protests are called into question for turning violent, they see the “utility” in their actions and justifying the same by saying that the violence of the rioters was proof of the violence of the state. This circular logic holds when they’re the party committing the violence, but not the one condemning it. This just shows the hypocrisy of the left as they choose to call out violent riots and claim to be against violence and in the same breath, celebrate and instrumentalise it. Sarah Ditum, in her article called “Why the Left celebrate violence” puts it best:

“It means never having to ask the question “is this violence politically justified?”, because you’ve always already decided that any violence is really the responsibility of the “other side”; and if the other side hasn’t committed anything close to actual violence, you can always upgrade words or even beliefs to the status of “symbolic violence”.

Whatever “your side” does is vindicated in advance, so long as you can make it part of your preferred story. The stories can be flexible here, because they have little to do with principle: the only principle is the pleasure of destruction, the longing to warm your politics in the glow of arson.”

Having said that there is a narrative out there that condones (and sometimes goes as far as to celebrate) violence, it is pertinent to note that more often than not, protests are LABELLED as violent or anarchist to suit the state’s purpose of clamping down on dissenters. The publicity that the CAA/NRC protests got is exhibit A. Most of the digital and print media platforms accused the protesters of being absolutist and uncooperative, and claimed that the protesters were paid to wreak havoc. Student protesters were accused of violence against the police, and were painted as pseudo-terrorists and anti-national. Anybody who chose to support their cause (Deepika Padukone, Farhan Akhtar, Arundhati Roy) faced backlash on social media and were cancelled professionally as well. The government and its backers used what social media calls “what-aboutism” to evade complaints and concerns with their governance, and took a moral high ground to portray the events as having a single correct side: theirs. Even in the recent Farm Bill protests, the farmers from Punjab and Haryana were labeled as “Khalistanis”, which conveniently distracted the population from their cause and suited the state’s purpose. This is not exclusive to India, protests all over the world have been covered in similar light. Media attention to protests tends to be negative, stigmatizing protesters as deviant and depicting protests as violent.[7]


Protests are a necessary part of the democratic process of a country. When dissent is silenced, a country loses its democratic character and begins to morph into an authoritative state. When analysing protests, it is important to examine the source of the narrative it gets, whether it is stakeholders of the move that is being opposed, or the authority abusing its power. Anarchy, while a possibility of a dissenting mob of citizens, is easily avoidable on account of a responsive and accommodative government. There is a clear imbalance of power in favour of the state in a democracy. Despite this, stamping out on lawful dissent has almost as a rule lead to perfectly controllable situations going berserk, citizens losing faith in their governments, and entire countries falling apart. The example of Syria is a relevant one to cite here; in 2011, the citizens of Syria participated in minor anti-government protests, and when the state turned a deaf ear to their concerns, the protests soon became massive in size and strength. The then President, Bashar al-Assad chose to crackdown on the protestors by using censorship, military violence and deployment of troops to get his way. The state’s response to the protests led to the emergence of defections from the Syrian army, which turned the Syrian civil uprising to an armed rebellion, which would down the line become the civil war as we know it today. This goes to show that anarchy or dissent is not a binary, rather it is a part of a process that is essential to democracy, a part of which could be avoided given an approachable government that is sensitive to the needs of the citizens.


  1. INSIDEOVER, https://www.insideover.com/society/what-triggers-global-protests.html , (last visited May 18, 2021).

  2. Jacquelien van Stekelenburg and Bert Klandermans, The Social Psychology of Protests, Current Psychology review, 61(5-6) 886–905.
  3. Robert Longley, All About Reletive Deprivation and Deprivation Theory, (2012).
  4. Jacquelien van Stekelenburg, People protest for many reasons, yet we don’t know how effective they are, LSE Blogs, Mar. 18, 2138hrs), https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/ .
  5. RICHARD YOUNG THOMAAS CARTES, THE COMPLLEXITIES OF GLOBAL PROTESTS, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, (2015).
  6. Anna Schmidt, Embeddedness, Encyclopedia Britannica, (Feb. 15 2019), https://www.britannica.com/topic/embeddedness .
  7. Cory L Armstrong Douglas M. Mcleod et al., Adherence to the Protest Paradigm: The Influence of Protest Goals and Tactic on News Coverage in U.S and International Newspapers, The International Journal of Press/Politics, 127-144, (2012).

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11 months ago

Very well written gg