Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Feb 06, 2021
Lessons in agitation politics: From practice to theory and back
Towards a 21st century protest playbook

Question: What’s common to the following protests?

  • Violence around the Farmers’ Protests in New Delhi
  • Insurrection Violence in Washington DC
  • Cancel Culture across the world
  • Deplatforming Adversaries
  • Black Lives Matter in the US
  • Me Too across the world
  • Occupy in the US
  • Arab Spring in North Africa

The answer: The use of a sophisticated protest playbook that global activists have adopted and which governments need to read.

Protests have been and continue to be an integral part of democracies. Over decades, society has painstakingly snatched the right to protest from the three pillars of democracy — the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. Across the world, Executives have made spaces for them, Legislatures have enacted laws, and Judiciaries have ruled on them. Democracies are today bound together by offering, even encouraging, dissent. Thus powered, protests are not only here to stay, they are here to help democracies navigate the invisible spaces of aspirations and articulate those tiny voices in a manner that the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary can take note, lest they be smothered in the massive tread of democratic processes.

In the 21st century, the nature of protests is morphing at the speed of a tweet. From being voices of the unheard and the invisible, agitations are becoming a career, creating well-funded organisations, giving rise to a new industry led by protest entrepreneurs. Enabled by technologies, they are accentuating the faultlines of making, executing and interpreting laws. Driven by ideologies, they have become fodder for politics to feed on, the ground-up consolidation of people being just the first step towards delegitimising the State.

While a far more peaceful 21st century has its own discourse of discontent, new technologies to express them, and innovative ideas with which to accentuate them, the essential playbook is more or less the same.

Logic as an idea is fighting a losing battle. For instance, if those protesting against the three farm laws were to read them, they would be forced to rethink their stance. Neither the MSP (minimum support prices) system nor the extant APMCs (agricultural produce market committees) structures have been touched. Noise is taking control of the narrative. The louder the shout, the greater the conviction seems to be the discourse, almost as if TRP-chasing TV channels are playing out in real life on protest sites. And violence has become a thousand-armed punisher. The tractor, a tool of creation, has been weaponised; it is not only hurting humans but killing logic and feeding noise.

As the farmers’ protest dominates India, there is a protest playbook in action. This playbook has its roots in 20th century violence. While a far more peaceful 21st century has its own discourse of discontent, new technologies to express them, and innovative ideas with which to accentuate them, the essential playbook is more or less the same. This essay brings together three expressions from three continents with three contexts, parts of which are finding new resonance in democracies around the world, from the US (Black Lives Matter) to India (protests against Citizenship Amendment Act and farm laws) to North Africa (Arab Spring). These are from Carlos Marighella in Brazil, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, and the Irish Republican Army in Ireland. Finally, it captures the practical playbooks and powers it with Gene Sharp’s theory of protest. Essentially, this is a reading list for both protestors and governments alike.

Playbook 1: Carlos Marighella in Brazil

What we are observing in 2021 India has its roots in 1969 Brazil. In his 61-page pamphlet, Mini-Manual of the Urban Guerrilla, Carlos Marighella offers the “proletariat” a guidebook to follow a political goal that only “attacks the government, the big businesses and the foreign imperialists, particularly North Americans.” Sounds familiar? It is. Marighella’s Marxist-Leninist philosophical leanings had one goal — to overthrow the established order. Parts of the Marighella playbook are being repeated in New Delhi. Here’s an excerpt from a chapter titled, ‘The War of Nerves.’ It applies to both, the protestors as well as the government:

In psychological warfare, the government is always at a disadvantage because it imposes censorship on the media and winds up in a defensive position by not allowing anything against it to filter through. At this point, it becomes desperate, is involved in greater contradictions and loss of prestige, and loses time and energy in an exhausting effort at control which is liable to be broken at any moment.

As far as protestors go, the idea is to delegitimise the government. Rumour-mongering or spreading lies is only one of several tools. The tragic death of a farmer wreaking havoc with his tractor trying to break down barriers but overturning instead is one such instance. The immediate reaction by well-known celebrity journalists was that he died due to a bullet wound. This, despite videos clearly illustrating the contrary. If the idea was to discredit the police and through it the government, it worked for the first few hours. It was only in the aftermath that the truth emerged. Such false narratives in the middle of high tension, without confirmation, show how far the efforts to play the war of nerves has gone and how deep its echo chambers are. Excerpts from Marighella:

The objective of the war of nerves is to mislead, spreading lies among the authorities in which everyone can participate, thus creating an atmosphere of nervousness, discredit, insecurity, uncertainty and concern on the part of the government. The best methods used by urban guerrillas in the war of nerves are the following:

1. Using the telephone and the mail to announce false clues to the police and government, including information on the planting of bombs and any other act of terrorism in public offices and other places — kidnapping and assassination plans. etc. — to force the authorities to wear themselves out by following up on the false information fed to them;

2. Letting false plans fall into the hands of the police to divert their attention;

3. Planting rumours to make the government uneasy;

4. Exploiting by every means possible the corruption, the mistakes and the failures of the government and its representatives, forcing them into demoralising explanations and justifications in the very communication media they wish to maintain under censorship;

5. Presenting denunciations to foreign embassies, the United Nations, the papal nunciature, and the international commissions defending human rights or freedom of the press, exposing each concrete violation and each use of violence by the military dictatorship and making it known that the revolutionary war will continue with serious danger for the enemies of the population.

Weaponisation of propaganda by the urban guerrilla is part of a well-thought through tactic. In the 20th century, the tools were the press, mimeographed copies, loudspeakers, graffiti and suchlike. In the 21st century, technology has replaced them. In the farmers’ protest in New Delhi, the deep planning includes, as an activist’s now-deleted tweet shows, a “Twitterstorm”, a call for “on-ground action near the closest Indian Embassy”, “hashtags”, a call to tag Prime Minister Narendra Modi, other heads of state, and multilateral institutions such as IMF, WTO, FAO and World Bank, “Zoom sessions”, making and sharing videos “preferably in landscape mode”, and holding posters. The idea is not to change all the people all at once; a few loud celebrity handles is enough. The list is so detailed that it would make Marighella proud:

The coordination of urban guerrilla activities, including each armed action, is the primary way of making armed propaganda. These actions, carried out with specific objectives and aims in mind, inevitably become propaganda material for the mass communication system.

But the urban guerrilla must never fail to install a clandestine press, and must be able to turn out mimeographed copies using alcohol or electric plates and other duplicating apparatus, expropriating what he cannot buy in order to produce small clandestine newspapers, pamphlets, flyers and stamps for propaganda and agitation against the dictatorship.

The urban guerrilla engaged in clandestine printing facilitates enormously the incorporation of large numbers of people into the struggle, by opening a permanent work front for those willing to carry on propaganda, even when to do so means to act alone and risk their lives.

Tape recordings, the occupation of radio stations, the use of loudspeakers, graffiti on walls and other inaccessible places are other forms of propaganda. A consistent propaganda by letters sent to specific addresses, explaining the meaning of the urban guerrilla’s armed actions, produces considerable results and is one method of influencing certain segments of the population.

Even this influence — exercised in the heart of the people by every possible propaganda device, revolving around the activity of the urban guerrilla — does not indicate that our forces have everyone’s support. It is enough to win the support of a portion of the population, and this can be done by popularising the motto, “Let he who does not wish to do anything for the guerrillas do nothing against them.”

Playbook 2: Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana

Shifting to the African continent, the underlying propaganda strategy remains the same — violence — but its intellectual origins lean towards truth. The first Prime Minister and President of Ghana, socialist-nationalist Kwame Nkrumah, for instance, advocated similar violent methods to gain freedom. As far as his propaganda strategy went, it was based on honesty, as this excerpt from his 1968 book, Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare: A Guide to the Armed Phase of the African Revolution, shows:

Our propagandists must leave no problem untackled, no mistake unexposed. Truth must always be told. It is a proof of strength, and even the hardest truth has a positive aspect which can be used.

To conclude, propaganda must:

a. prepare for the organisation of popular insurrection

b. spread dissension and subversion amongst the enemy’s ranks, and undermine morale

c. expose the enemy’s propaganda, and attempts to misinform and mislead

d. spread information, intelligence etc.

These basic tasks constitute the necessary prelude to action, the condition for the smooth unfolding of our struggle, and its final guarantee of success — the achievement of a Union Government of Africa.

Under the subhead “Political instruction” related to women, Nkrumah essentially uses the image of vulnerability to prepare the background for violent action. In the farmers’ protest, the overriding image the world see is of “poor” farmers. This, even when cavalcades of luxury SUVs are proudly showcased by clearly ultra-wealthy farmers/middlemen. Nkrumah:

Propaganda techniques. The following tasks can be usefully fulfilled by women in the bases:

i. the production and reproduction of leaflets

ii. the distribution and explanation of newspapers, news-sheets, slogans and instructions to the local population.

iii. dramatisation of repressive incidents; the organisation of victim’s funerals with a political dimension; demonstrations of passive resistance; the production of placards, banners and other insignia.

Playbook 3: Irish Republican Army in Ireland

Moving North, Ireland has another model. Issued by the General Headquarters in 1956, A Handbook for Volunteers of the Irish Republican Army: Notes on Guerrilla Warfare observed that propaganda of the movement must be popularised, as part of “good education”, a sliver of which is “countering the enemy’s (the United Kingdom’s) propaganda.” The crying farmer leader in India, who couldn’t win the election, was able to demonstrate a tenacity to stand, through which he managed to get hordes of farmers from Uttar Pradesh to join the “struggle”. He was also able to shift public opinion. This Handbook seems prescient:

Information must be factual to build up confidence among the people in the national movement. What it must do is this:

1. Give the people tenacity to stand up to the enemy by showing them the struggle is worthwhile and necessary. They must be made aware that the national struggle will be victorious in the end-but that the end depends on them.

2. Get world public opinion behind the just fight of the people.

3. Undermine the enemy’s morale and his propaganda by exposing his methods and by constant emphasis on the unjustness of his cause.

4. Be the spiritual mainspring of those actively engaged in the national movement so that they understand the need to destroy the enemy and his power forever.

As far as methods go, the psychological warfare in what Marighella calls a “war of nerves” was devised a few years earlier by Nkrumah. Using the media to demonstrate that nothing less than a repeal of the laws will be acceptable, while laying siege on New Delhi for two months and indulging in violence on India’s Republic Day, the impression being thrown was that farmers will win, the government will lose. The Handbook:

The main channels of information available to the guerrillas are newspapers, leaflets, radio, word of mouth. Other methods may be worked out and new ones invented. For example: Painting of slogans, proclamations and manifestoes and so on.

All the means of winning the confidence of the people must be utilised. The ideas of the movement must be so popularised that no one is in doubt — least of all the enemy — that it will win eventually.

This information service must function continuously to get maximum results. Among the things it must do are:

1. Show weakness of enemy position and propaganda used to bolster that position.

2. Show what is wrong with political and social order.

3. Suggest remedies and how they can be brought about.

4. Be in touch all the times with thinking of the people.

Playbook 4: Gene Sharp in the US

Around the time that Carlos Marighella was employing military tactics in Brazil, Kwame Nkrumah was fighting in Ghana and the Irish Republican Army in Ireland, an American political scientist was putting together the theory of protests. The one difference that places him away from the other three is that his focus was on “nonviolent action”, for which he founded the Albert Einstein Institute in 1983.

Sharp’s contribution to the theory of protest, and point of difference from the practitioners of protests, is unique on two counts—it comes from a non-Left, non-Marxian intellectual paradigm; and it is a nonviolent examination of protest politics. From the hub of the world’s oldest democracy, he has pulled out 198 methods of nonviolent action. These have been classified under six heads, each having sub-heads and finally methods:

1. The Methods of Nonviolent Protest and Persuasion

2. The Methods of Social Noncooperation

3. The Methods of Economic Noncooperation: Economic Boycotts

4. The Methods of Economic Noncooperation: The Strike

5. The Methods of Political Noncooperation

6. The Methods of Nonviolent Intervention

Individually and collectively these ideas have found their way into Black Lives Matter in the US and farmers’ protests in India. Under social non-cooperation, for instance, one of the three subheads is “Ostracism of Persons”. This includes social boycott, selective social boycott, Lysistratic nonaction, excommunication and interdict. The protest ecosystems of today use some of these techniques very effectively. Ideas such as capturing institutions and ‘deplatforming’ adversaries or the rise of the ‘cancel culture’ are expressions of this method.

Generally, violent action is seen to come from the State on helpless nonviolent protestors—the dominant signature on violence over time and across geographies belongs to the State. But in the case of the ongoing farmers’ protests, the violence asymmetry stands reversed, with farmers indulging in violence and the police being helpless victims. This farmer-led violence has pulled all the steam out of their movement. Sharp has an explanation — designed for protestors but in this case in the government’s favour:

Nonviolent action is designed to operate against opponents who are able and willing to use violent sanctions. However, political struggle by means of nonviolent action against violent repression creates a special, asymmetrical conflict situation. In it, the nonviolent resisters can use the asymmetry of nonviolent means versus violent action to apply something like the Japanese martial art jiu-jitsu to their opponents. This throws the opponents off balance politically, causing their repression of the resisters to rebound against the opponents’ position and weaken their power. By remaining nonviolent while continuing the struggle, the resisters can improve their own power position.

Farmers rejecting any call for negotiation with the government (the Executive) and sticking to their ‘repeal the laws’ stance is one thing. Them rejecting a Supreme Court committee (the Judiciary) is another. Counterintuitive as it may sound, together they are part of what is known as political non-cooperation, which includes “selective refusal of assistance by government aides, general administrative non-cooperation and judicial non-cooperation. This may be unconscious, hence part of Sharp’s theory; or it could be conscious, hence the action emanating from his theory.

Reading the playbooks

Transposing the 20th century protest strategies on 21st-century India, there are lessons to be gleaned from the ongoing farmers’ protest in New Delhi.

Advantage farmers:

1. Victimhood has been successfully weaponised by farmers. The “poor” farmer image stands strong and is now doing the rounds across the world.

2. Global and Indian influencers and celebrities have been successfully used by farmers to amplify their cause.

3. That they have been able to do so without the celebrities bothering to read the laws shows how strong this global ecosystem is.

4. Farmers have been successfully able to turn fiction—that is, the three laws will end MSP and APMCs, and thereby harm poor farmers—into fact, is a big win for farmers. That the government hasn’t been able to reach out to the rest of the farmer groups across India (the current agitation is led by wealthy farmer-middlemen of Punjab and Haryana, with a few from Uttar Pradesh), continues to power the protestors.

5. While farmers have refused any talks with the government, the narrative has been set that the government is not talking.

6. They have rejected the Supreme Court committee to look into the matter. This has found resonance among the ‘poor’ farmers narratives.

Advantage government:

1. The government seems to be better prepared to handle this protest. By repeatedly inviting farmers for talks and not using the force of law on them — despite all provocations by farmers and their support system — it has shown a unique resilience.

2. In a huge self-goal, the violence by farmers that left almost 500 police personnel hospitalised has changed the perception battle in the government’s favour.

3. That the government offered to place the laws in abeyance for 18 months, during which negotiations could happen, showed an accommodation. That it was rejected by farmers is showing the latter in poor light; they have lost moral support.

4. The only head of government who has supported farmers protest is Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; no other leader has ventured into this issue. Curiously, the same MSP that farmers are now demanding be legislated by law, is a subsidy Canada opposes in WTO.

Protestors are at sea on how to move forward. The government is unable to move further, as all spaces for negotiation have been closed by farmers under the “repeal” rhetoric. The casualty: 20 years of discussion, debate, committees, commissions, reports that nobody wants to read. While at it, it is amusing to see ‘experts’ going on TV to hold forth on the issue without even reading the laws. This is a post-truth world that needs reform. The playbook of violence needs a rethink. Ideas of the 20th century are yearning for a 21st -century upgrade. Institutions need to move with the time. And the burden of change is on us citizens.

Until then, it would do both good — the protestors and the State comprising the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary — to read these playbooks of protest. Neither dissent nor protests must die—they are an important part of India’s rich and deep democracy. But when lines are being drawn around them, when issues of nationalism are getting embedded in them, when cases of sedition are being employed to control them, it might be a good idea for both parties to start reading and understanding what’s really going on through these four playbooks of protest.

The 21st century playbook of protest is still being written.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Gautam Chikermane

Gautam Chikermane

Gautam Chikermane is a Vice President at ORF. His areas of research are economics, politics and foreign policy. A Jefferson Fellow (Fall 2001) at the East-West ...

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