When Protest made the State: How the Government Stole the Anti-Rape Movement

Sen, Paromita, Foreign Affairs - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Mershon, Carol, Department of Politics, University of Virginia

What are the consequences of politicising the concerns of marginalised populations through mass demonstrations? I investigate this question due to the recent upsurge of protests surrounding previously marginalised issues, witnessed globally - ranging from protests around sexual violence, to immigration, LGBTQ issues and voting disenfranchisement. However, little work has been done to investigate the long-term consequences of these mass demonstrations on the very populations they purport to represent. In an investigation of mass demonstrations against rape in India, I find that mass demonstrations can mobilise a wide coalition of constituents. While policy advocacy of a minority issue is often organised and led by advocacy groups, a mass demonstration can elicit policy interest on a policy issue in a much broader coalition of constituents. However, while a policy interest is evoked, we see divergence in policy preferences due to the broad based nature of the new coalition. Given the diversity of policy preferences, government actors can select the policies that support the status quo or policies that serve their own interests. This is in direct contrast to policies that are promoted and pushed through by activists and advocates, through the bureaucratic process. Activists and advocacy groups must push through legislative policies in incremental steps over extended periods of time – a "slow boring of hard boards" (Weber 1965). I therefore find that when the policy agenda is shaped by activists, and over a long period of time, the policy outcomes are narrower in scope and breadth, and in tune with activist principles - as a result of activists retaining control over the policy agenda. When the policy agenda is shaped by a broader constituent base, and by extension their elected officials, it becomes relatively easier to co-opt the policy agenda from activists. This co-optation typically results in catering to the interests of the majority as opposed to the minority/vulnerable. This therefore results in either inadequate policy or in some extreme cases, policy that is antithetical to the interests of the minority/vulnerable community at the heart of the policy debate. I draw on a variety of rape cases in India and evaluate the long term consequences of either mass demonstrations that arose in response to them, or advocacy campaigns that were waged on behalf of the survivors. Specifically, I find that governments use the threat of rape as raised by mass demonstrations to curtail the rights and liberties of specific segments of the population in India. This curtailing of rights is not always deliberate or conscious, but the consequences are uniquely felt by marginalised populations. This project therefore calls upon us to more systematically analyze the consequences of partaking in mass demonstrations to better understand when we may be doing more harm than good, and to mitigate damage that we may cause.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Social Movements, India, VAW
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