In India, lone protesters take center stage
Machindranath Suryavanshi assumes a place of pride in New Delhi’s designated protest zone. People here know him as "Juta Mar Baba" — a saint-like person who throws shoes.
Back in Latur, his home in the western state of Maharashtra, Suryavanshi once fed his family by working as a grocer.
Now, on this uneasy city street, he sees a lot.
In March alone, police records show 141 registered protests, mostly by labor unions, farmers' and tribal groups. During parliamentary sessions, the numbers are much higher.
But when the crowds leave and life, for some, returns to normal, a few protesters, like Suryavanshi, remain.
In a stretch of about a third of a mile of pavement exists an ever-shifting community protesters. Their meals are supplied, for free, from a Sikh temple. They live on the pavement, dedicating their lives to affecting change.
Over time, the protesters have compiled stacks of applications to ministries and government offices. Some of the correspondence is effective. Suryavanshi shows off dispatches he and other protesters have received from the government. All the letters and other documents sent by government officials to the protesters are addressed to the same place: Dharna Sthal, Jantar Mantar Road, New Delhi-110001.
"People come to me from all over India, from down south like Tamil Nadu to Uttarakhand which is up north,” Suryavanshi said as he reviewed requests people send to him in an effort to have their grievances heard.
Suryavanshi has now been a near-constant presence in the protest zone for five years. At 60 years old, his skin has turned pale, but his gravel voice still stirs the public conscience.
For Suryavanshi, it all started when a government officer didn't give him a document proving that he has a legal right to his property.
"They demanded a bribe," Suryavanshi said.
Suryavanshi started with a hunger strike, but couldn't maintain it. Even so, he eventually won back his land. But by then, he said, he realized that he had to fight for a cause, and not just for himself.
Dressed in faded shades of white with a Gandhian cap, Suryavanshi acts as a Right to Information activist of sorts. He moves the establishment in New Delhi with his letters of inquiry and if need be, letters of warning.
Suryavanshi said his efforts enabled one man, Manoj Kumar, to get his ration card, which was stuck in bureaucratic limbo.
“I take joy in helping the aggrieved,” Suryavanshi said with a thick Marathi accent.
Another protester, 75-year-old Ramadekela Kushwaha, sits a few yards away. He said he was once a farmer, but he came to New Delhi in search of justice. Now, he hands out a yellow-tinged thin flyer with his name and a permanent address somewhere in Rajasthan.
The flyer claims that he runs a small political outfit aimed to unify the farmers from all over India. Kushwaha said he specializes in filing public interest litigations.
The plights of these lone protesters were pushed into the spotlight in early April, when Anna Hazare, 72, began a hunger strike to demand the passage of a stringent anti-corruption law.
Hazare called his campaign the "Second battle for India's independence." And India's middle classes, driven by a media frenzy, rallied along with him.
Suryavanshi said that he had never seen such a diversity of people in the protest zone.
“They were those who never felt even a syllable of repression,” he said.
The vast majority of protesters left the zone after Hazare's campaign ended. But a few stayed behind.
Pradeep Rawat was one of them. Now, he often visits with Suryavanshi and other protesters. He even started a Twitter account in Suryavanshi's name.
Now, other protesters are building online profiles.
Ashok Sahyog, a self-proclaimed theater activist, regularly updates his Facebook profiles with petitions he files.
Each protester has a different tale.
Ramaindra Kumar greets everybody by saying, "Hail socialism!". Like other permanent residents on Jantar Mantar Road, it seems that everybody knows Kumar, from the police to the shopkeepers. Some express pity, and others scorn him.
Kumar said he is on a partial hunger strike for world peace and international social order.
“I eat only at night," he said.
Asha Dubey, 42, is the only woman among the protesters. She said she's been here for the last 15 years.
She said she was sexually assaulted by an executive engineer when she worked at an electricity company.
“I was implicated with false charges," Dubey said. "My salary was withheld. They even influenced the judicial probe into the case."
She says she is famous because the media has covered her campaign.
A local tea seller said a 90-year-old protester used to visit the protest zone every day at 7 a.m., but that he hasn't been seen for the last month. The other protesters don't know why.
The other protesters discuss the missing man, but they know that he'll be forgotten in the course of time, as they know they would be forgotten if they left the protest zone. Instead, they look up at the dying sun and hope that, tomorrow, their voices will be heard.