Voices of Defiance
Stories of our generation’s global push for change
News clips of triumphant faces marching in a large city square dominate Western perceptions of political and social activism abroad. But first-hand accounts tell much more. Two young activists, one here at Claremont McKenna and one across the globe in Bahrain, share their unique experiences in recent democratic movements.
Ratik Ashokan, a CMC freshman from India, relates the frustration and hopelessness that plague protesters. Sarah (pseudonym), an expelled Bahraini student, reveals the personal consequences of vocal opposition to repression. Together, their stories of unified ambition and self-sacrifice convey our generation’s collective power and inspire meaningful action.
Ratik on India: The Limits of Reform
Freedom is about conquering our own worst qualities. It is the ability to control our selfish instincts so that we can stop being controlled by them. Ironically, freedom requires constraints. This is a message that Ratik Ashokan, a 17-year-old CMCer and India native, took away from the Anna Hazare movement in India this past spring.
As an influential social activist and leader, Hazare has instigated a large-scale nonviolent movement against corruption in India. On April 5, he began a nine-day hunger strike to pressure the Indian government to enact an anti-corruption law as part of the Jan Lokpal Bill, which fights corruption, compensates protests of citizens, and protects whistle-blowers. If passed, the law would be used to investigate cases regarding complaints of corruption against politicians and bureaucrats without prior government approval.
Indian youth, including Ratik, were inspired. “Although Hazare is a respected figure and social worker, I think he had no focus on the movement. In fact, he took on this large project all on his own without a definite strategy. He tried to outwork the system but instead he should have worked within the system. If you are an intelligent person, use the system to your advantage.”
Having attended one of Hazare’s protests, Ratik believed that the movement was targeted more to the lower and middle classes. “It was interesting. It was a bit pretentious for me because I come from an upper class family.” When asked whether the move- ment did affect him in any way socially, politically, or economically, despite his socio-economic class, he characterized the issue as a people’s movement. “I am definitely affected. We all want an equal life. Politicians bribe each other, our tax money isn’t used for the sake of the people, and slums around Mumbai still exist to this day.”
With around 5,000 protesters supporting Hazare in August, small changes began to appear. However, Ratik still sees much room for improvement. “We are driven by a sense of frustration, not justice,” he said. “Many of us lost hope, including myself. I doubt anything will change, because this sense of idealism is lost among the people. However, it is encouraging that people are taking the initiative.”
On August 20, thousands came to Ramlila Maiden in New Delhi to support Hazare with the fast. However, critics have scrutinized Hazare and his advisers for not reaching a compromise with their protest campaign and debilitating India’s parliamentary process. Ratik agrees with the critics who believe that change in India should be based on smaller scale initiatives that are run by the people and for the people.
Sarah on Bahrain: Consequences of Rebellion
Sarah is a 20-year-old expelled student from Bahrain Polytechnic, one of Bahrain’s leading public higher level institutions in Graphic Design, Information Technology, and Business Management. During an interview via Skype, she told a story of possibilities. With profound conviction in her eyes, sincere pain in her voice, and immense faith, she began with, “I lost a lot. I lost my education, friends, credibility, and my voice.”
The Kingdom of Bahrain is an archipelago of 36 islands that resides next to oil tycoon Saudi Arabia. Bahrain has had its share of political tensions as part of the Arab Spring and labeled its February Revolution “Youm il khadhab,” the Day of Anger. On February 14, 2011, Shia and Sunni citizens marched toward Pearl Square and peacefully protested against violations of civil rights, the suppression of freedom of speech and media, and the lack of housing and employment opportunities.
Once considered a 70 percent Shia-majority country, Bahrain is ruled by the minority Sunni Royal Family whose prime minister, Shaikh Khalifa ibn Salman Al Khalifa, has been under close criticism because of sectarianism. For the past 20 years, the government has provided fast-track Bahraini citizenship to between 200,000 and 400,000 Arabs from Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt. The vast assimilation of Sunnis has created a demographic imbalance and has considerably marginalized the Shia Muslim sector. According to many, these newly naturalized Sunni citizens enjoy unfair advantages in employment, education, and housing arrangements. Many have argued that this contemporary political conflict traces its roots to the time of the Prophet Muhammad, whose death prompted fierce debate over his successor. Shias sided with Imam Ali (Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law), while Sunnis supported Abu Bakr (a respected companion and father-in-law to the prophet). The split persists today.
Aggression and anger rose in March and April in many Shia areas around Manama, Sitra, and Budaiya. “They are angry; I am angry. I am one of them,” Sarah explained. “I remember going to the Dawar [Pearl Square], and all of us Sunnis and Shias would sit, sing, believe of a better tomorrow under the extreme heat. We thought we were invincible.”
Soon, the royal family’s special guards, police, and neighboring military countries such as Saudi Arabia had intervened in the Square and ordered to break up the peaceful sit-in. To the police’s dismay, many protesters stood their ground and refused to leave. In the approaching months, a normal life to Bahrainis would include censorship and blockage of websites, tear gas, rubber bullets, and torture. Additionally, there have been abductions of major political activists including the kidnapping of Ebrahim Sharif, a Sunni leader of the National Demographic Action.
“My family encouraged me to go. I did. I don’t know when my father will come back home, but I do know that it is a cause worth fighting and sacrificing for. I want us to live freely and justly. I blog, I write, I still have Facebook, and those are my first steps towards winning. Communication to the outside world.”
Soon after her activism during the spring of 2011, the Bahrain Independent Commis- sion Inquiry investigated Sarah’s involvement in the protests and her daily posts on Facebook and Twitter. “They started nicely then misled me and encouraged me to give out names. I made names up because I knew they had a strategy. They repeatedly asked me about my Facebook posts and my initiation within the protests.”
On June 12, 2011, a week after her investigation, Sarah was expelled from school.
“I believed in the truth and the ugly reality, and I was expelled because of expressing it. At that moment, I started to question my sense of nationalism and the true essence of my identity. After losing my voice and education, I felt numb. I thought of alternatives. But reality has hit me, when no one was willing to hire me for work because I was expelled for a cause I believed in. Some colleges have blacklisted us expellees from applying to their schools. Later on, the chief investigator promised that I would go back to school. He never fulfilled it.”
Sarah, along with 63 other expelled students from Bahrain Polytechnic, are striving to find a way to live their lives to their full potential without an education. The Bahraini youth’s faith and willingness to fight for an egalitarian future ensures them a purpose-driven life.