When artist Shilo Suleiman first arrived at COP28 in December, she was very aware of being a mere 2,000 km from Gaza. Given the UAE’s many restrictions around what can and can’t be said, she had been warned: stick to the climate and don’t bring up the war. But it all changed once she got there.
Fearless Collective, an organisation founded by Suleiman in 2012, propels social justice movements through art and creativity, and as they do every year, had arrived at COP to protest for climate justice. But once there, they ended up forming connections: with the climate alliance for Palestine, Palestinian activists, Sudanese activists and others, and before they knew it, they were protesting against the Gaza war. Of course, they had to be creative about it. “Within the U.N. space, the rules for what can and can’t be said kept changing,” says Suleiman, 35. “One day, they’d say, ‘You can’t use the word Gaza.’ Then they’d say, ‘You can’t use the word ‘Palestine’, you can’t say ‘From the river to the sea’, ‘You can’t talk about ceasefire.’ They kept changing the rules, so that every poster, every banner you were holding could be termed objectionable.”
Fed up, Fearless found a way around these restrictions: they started reciting the names of Gazans killed since the war started. One by one, they’d stand up, recite the name of a martyr, and–inspired by the work of henna artist and fellow Fearless member Vicky Shahjehan–write his or her name on their hand in henna. “This was a sign of solidarity and compassion, but it was also a way to counter the many restrictions that COP authorities had imposed on war-related protests,” says Suleiman.
Stories like Suleiman’s are increasingly common — where rising restrictions and stricter surveillance are creating a hostile environment for protests and protesters at large. But from these restrictions is often born a greater creativity. The last year has seen protesters across the world employing inventive protest strategies: in February, women in Israel dressed up in red and white a la The Handmaid’s Tale to protest against some of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed judicial reforms; in July, tribal groups in Manipur organised a ‘coffin rally’, where they marched from the morgue to the Wall of Remembrance carrying empty coffins that signified the bodies of their dead they hadn’t received; in November, as the Biden administration started briefing the Senate Appropriations Committee on its need for more money to fund the wars in Israel and Ukraine, protesters raised their hands, painted red, while shouting, ‘The Biden government has blood on its hands. Ceasefire now!’
Increasingly, protests are not only viscerally visual, designed to catch and hold attention in an age of social media and virality, but also elusive, to circumvent state surveillance and censorship in an authoritarian milieu. Where, exactly, does that leave us: in a world better off, where creativity is flourishing? Or in a darker, more repressive time, where creativity is the only way to survive?
In the last few years, India has seen a rising number of people booked under laws such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, i.e, the sedition provision, for nothing more than peaceful protesting.
Not just that; the use of close-circuit television (CCTV) and facial recognition technology (FRT) has turned vital public spaces into privacy-violating zones, like when these technologies were used against civilians protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act, or to ID over 1,900 people as rioters during the 2020 Delhi riots. “We’ve reached a phase where protests are criminalised by disregarding the law, by the police, government and courts alike,” says Kalpana Kannabiran, 61, a sociologist and author based in Hyderabad. “This tendency to not see the voice of reason, to have an utter disregard for dialogue across disagreements, is the most worrying because it doesn’t take long for it to spiral into utter normlessness.”
Vinay Sreenivasa, 43, is a Bengaluru-based advocate and member of Bahutva Karnataka, a network of organisations working towards a pluralistic future for the state. The software engineer by profession has been trying to organise a protest against the Gaza war ever since it began, but has been curtailed every time. Their first attempt — to distribute pamphlets spreading awareness about what’s happening there — was met with an FIR. Their second attempt, asking authorities if they can hold a peaceful demonstration against the war in Freedom Park, the spot designated for protests in Bengaluru, was rejected. “In the run up to the assembly elections in the five states, the Congress government was very strict about not allowing any protests around Gaza,” he says. “At the time, Bengaluru for Justice and Peace, left parties CPI, CPM, CPIML and SUCI (C) all applied for permission to protest on Gaza, but were rejected.”
In an increasingly restrictive environment, Bahutva has come up with innovative ways of resisting and working on social change. They have organised Preamble readings at roadsides across the city; they’ve had community food events, where a cross-section people came to eat and share poetry about food, diversity and discrimination; and every month, they hold a community art event called koota, where people read work by the likes of B.R. Ambedkar and Gauri Lankesh, and play musical instruments like the tamate (a hand drum played by Dalits in southern Karnataka at funerals). Most recently, they organised a protest for the right to protest — which culminated in the police roughing up and detaining protesters. “One keeps getting disillusioned, but you always go back because it’s important to fight, especially if you’re privileged enough to be an English speaking, upper class man,” says Sreenivasa.
At the other end of the country, Angana Chakrabarti, 27, is a freelance journalist covering the Northeast. Every time she hears talk of the war in Gaza, she’s sympathetic, but she also wants to scream, ‘What about Manipur?’ “We have a state that is physically divided, the army is camping at the line between the two communities, things are very far from normal,” she says. Chakrabarti has seen radical acts of protest on both sides since the conflict started, whether it is the Meira Paibis, women considered guardians of Meitei society, sitting on the sides of streets all night in vigil against a possible attack; or the call on the Kuki-Zo side to boycott Christmas celebrations, a significant step given most tribals are Christian.
According to Ginza Vualzong, 46, spokesperson for the Indigenous Tribal Leaders Forum (ITLF), a key political association of Kuki leaders, if the situation is urgent, they announce a protest spontaneously; other times, rallies are planned a week or so in advance. For instance, the coffin rally required a lot of planning. “We made dummy coffins of all the people killed in the conflict — at the time there were 100 of them,” says Vualzong. As they passed villages, volunteers gathered by the roadside to give the protesters a gun salute. “It was a silent march, no slogans, no noise. We wanted to show that we hadn’t received the bodies of our dead, and no justice had been done to our people who had given their lives.” December 20 saw a chilling sequel to this protest when, after seven months, 41 Kuki-Zo bodies were airlifted from Imphal, and 46 were brought from the local morgue, culminating in a mass burial of 87 in Churachandpur.
Working with the virtual
Social media has played a vital role in protest movements globally, ensuring the spread of news, moments and images across the world, in a way that both packages the movement and proliferates it. Accounts such as MoTaz on X have kept people apprised of the death and destruction in Gaza through photographs, first-hand accounts and on-ground reporting.
Social media was deployed quite handily during the recent Hollywood strikes, where writers and actors boycotted work and picketed the lots of big studios such as Netflix, Amazon, and Disney for 148 straight days. They were trying to renegotiate their contracts to ensure better pay and safeguards against AI. “There were different themed pickets on different days,” says Vidhya Iyer, 30, a writer who is one of the chairs of the South Asian Writers Committee and was part of the strike. “We had a Star Wars picket, a Beyoncé picket, even a singles picket, where single people could picket and meet somebody they like. It was such a long drawn out strike that you had to make it sustainable for people to come out every day for six months. It was hot, people were losing their livelihoods, so we tried to actively make it fun.”
These themed pickets turned out to be very popular on platforms such as Instagram, with protesters putting up pictures of their costumes, and others sharing ‘picket line bingos’ to show off how they had hit all the picketing spots in the city. “Aesthetics have always been part of protest movements, but the aestheticisation of protests has been a lot more rampant due to social media,” says Umut Korkut, 47, professor of international politics at Glasgow Caledonian University. In the last few years, he’s been seeing an interesting shift: protest movements on social media are increasingly relying on AI technologies to generate visuals, memes and imagery. For instance, since the war in Gaza began, images of bombed out homes and ravaged streets have been circulating on social media. The worst have been images of bloodied, abandoned infants. But as a recent report by the AP pointed out, a lot of these are deepfakes, created using AI.
In May last year, when Indian wrestlers were protesting against then wrestling federation chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, a ‘smiling selfie’ of Vinesh and Sangeeta Phogat after they were detained started doing the rounds on social media. Turns out, it was doctored — the original selfie showed sombre faces and, as Sangeeta later told the BBC was taken when they were ‘uncertain and scared about where they were taking us’. It’s not to say that all such images are fake; rather, that “the link between the event and imagery is not clear anymore because there’s now a mediating factor: AI”, says Korkut.
Irrespective of the disruptive effects of social media and AI on protest cultures, most mass movements continue to have an indelible physicality — which compels people to come out to the streets. And sometimes, out of this presence, creativity emerges quite spontaneously. Independent filmmaker and founder of ChalChitra Abhiyaan, Nakul Singh Sawhney, 41, is in the midst of making a documentary on the farmers’ protests of 2021, where more than 40,000 farmers converged on the borders of Delhi to protest against three farm bills introduced by the BJP government.
At first, he went to express solidarity. “But the sheer scale of the protest was so fascinating that I started shooting it. I realised this has to be one of the most glorious struggles in history. The nature of it has just never been seen before, where so many people came 200, 300, 400, 500 km from their homes and literally built new cities on the borders of Delhi.” Movements like these highlight a slew of other issues in society, says Sawhney. For instance, the farmers’ movement also raised questions of gender, with massive participation of women from Haryana, who were making speeches and performing on stage; on the other hand, the men were cooking, many for the first time. There was also talk of caste, with many landless labourers expressing solidarity with landed farmers.
“Punjab and Haryana farmers sorted out historical differences over water-sharing issues, with Haryana farmers just saying, ‘Woh humare bade bhai hai [they are our older brothers]’. These contradictions may not have been fully addressed but there was conversation around it,” he adds. Sawhney continues to see the protests’ ripple effects in parts of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana; whether it is when riots plagued Mewat in July, prompting farmer unions to stand in solidarity with the Meos; or the two hari chunri panchayats organised this year — all-women panchayats to discuss issues that mattered to them.
“All protest is an act of art and radical imagination,” says Fearless Collective’s Suleiman. If we look at our own history, she says, whether it is Gandhi lifting salt from the sea or the Chipko movement, where women wrapped their arms around trees to stop them being cut down, they’re all a kind of performance art piece. “It just serves to show that art and creativity are not something separate from protests. Art is the first language of protest.”
Their COP28 protest ended with protesters raising their hands, inscribed with the names of Gaza’s martyrs, to recite the poetry of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. No spectators at chasm’s door… and no one is neutral here. And you must choose your part in the end. So I say: I’m missing the beginning, what’s the beginning?
3 creative protests of 2023
“In September, I painted a seven-storey-tall mural in Kolkata along with the trans masculine community. I’m queer, and I wanted to change the script for masculinity — which is always cis masculinity. Why can’t it be trans masculinity, which embraces softness, care, and all things not seen as traditionally masculine? The process was collaborative: trans men in my workshop talked about how they want to be seen, and then photographed themselves. The photos were used to come up with the mural.”
— Nandini Moitra, 31, artist
“Art is a very intrinsic part of protests in the U.S. For instance, at every protest around the Gaza war I’ve been to, they hand you a keffiyeh [traditional headdress] to wear in solidarity with Palestine. In another case, they used a projector to display a massive Palestinian flag on a Starbucks storefront — a chain whose funds go to Israel. And recently, there was a sit-in on campus, where people were silently working in the library and academic buildings, but the backs of their laptops all had A4 sheets with slogans and pictures. It was an amazing way of infiltrating space.”
— A 26-year-old student of graphic design (who wishes to remain anonymous) in the U.S.
“In November, there was a protest against the Gaza war on Church Street [Bengaluru]. We knew the police would detain us if we mentioned the word ‘Palestine’. So we brought pictures of watermelons instead. Even our slogans were like, ‘From the rind to the seed, the watermelon will be free.’ There must have been around 200 people. We managed to evade the police initially, but ultimately, they detained some protesters and even filed FIRs against some of us.”
— Aratrika, 28, member of the All India Students Association (AISA)