First Tunisia, then Russia, and now India. The pattern is becoming familiar: A single event so shocks the moral conscience of a nation’s people that they connect spontaneously through social networking to protest in the streets for weeks, even months.
For tens of thousands of Indians, it was the Dec. 19 rape and later death of a female university student that drove them to challenge their government through peaceful protests.
For many young, urban Russians, it was the fraudulent election of Dec. 4, 2011.
And by now, the world knows of the Tunisian vegetable seller who ignited the pro-democracy Arab Spring by immolating himself Dec. 17, 2010, after being humiliated by a dictator’s police.
These are not the usual protests in which organized groups, such as today’s unemployed Greeks, are led by political leaders to demand something for their own benefit. Rather, these recent demonstrations are what Tunisian scholar Mustapha Tlili calls a new “moral community” – or a moment when people unite quickly via the Internet in response to a galling incident that crystallizes a greater cause, such as a popular demand for dignity, equality, or honesty in the way a society is run.
Two successes of these conscience-led protests are the young democracies in Egypt and Tunisia. Russia’s protests, however, largely ended, with only minor efforts now to form a political force. Meanwhile, the protests in Syria have descended into armed conflict with an estimated 60,000 casualties – a toll that itself is worthy of pricking the world’s conscience.
What makes one protest succeed and others not? The current one in India is the latest test of what it takes to turn a protest driven by collective conscience into a healthy result.
While the specific demands of protesters in New Delhi and other cities is for a fundamental change in the way women are treated, especially after a rape, the demonstrations are also driven by wider frustration with India’s democracy. They come on the heels of similar protests in 2011, led by Gandhian-style activist Anna Hazare, that were focused on widespread official corruption. Those protests brought only minimal change.
To sustain a cause of conscience often takes an incorruptible leader, a commitment to nonviolence, and good organization. The 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests in the United States, now a distant memory, are an example of what happens with poor organization. Syria’s protests, which were initially nonviolent, lost their moral unity when the Assad regime’s violent crackdown pushed some protesters to turn to guns.
Unlike China, where almost daily protests at a local level are contained by a ruthless state, India has an opportunity to show the world that peaceful protests of conscience, coming after a morally repugnant event, can be effectively channeled for permanent reform. The rise there of Internet-savvy urban youth, inspired by similar protests worldwide, may be able to pull it off.
But they must hold fast to that uniting moment in which each person’s conscience was moved to reassert a moral good in the face of a terrible event. The triumph lies in victory of that common good.