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At New Delhi’s speaker’s corner, raw democracy in action

On a chilly January afternoon in india’s capital, about 100 people gather to watch a traditional dance by pink-clad bare-armed teenage girls hailing from a little district with big aspirations.

The performance aims to stir interest in the long-running demands of the Greater Coochbehar People’s Association which wants Coochbehar — a former kingdom in pre-independence india — to split from West Bengal state.

“Linguistically and culturally we are different,” said association senior leader Babua Barman as he stood outside the tent his group had erected in the central New Delhi area officially designated for protests.

“West Bengal wants us natives to die of starvation or leave the land. When we speak our language they call us illiterate hicks.”

The performance, a splash of colour and music on a quiet day, was one of several protests underway in the indian capital at a spot that may be the city’s equivalent of the famed Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park.

The intersection of Parliament Street with an 18th-century observatory called Jantar Mantar is where indians come from around the country to air grievances big and small in what Nobel literature laureate V.S. Naipaul called “A Million Mutinies Now”.

The protests range from separatist desires to pleas for housing and anti-Americanism, reflecting the broad range of concerns in a country with dozens of languages and geography that spans jungles, plains, some of the world’s tallest mountains and thousands of kilometres (miles) of coastline.

it is here that supporters of Booker prize-winning novelist Arundhati Roy gathered in 2002 after the writer was sent to jail for contempt of court for criticising the Supreme Court for failure to help tens of thousands displaced by the big Narmada dam project in western india.

Tibetan refugees gathered at the site to protest against Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit in November.

And it was here that 200 young men held placards saying “Bush is a murderer” and “Bush should hang” in a January protest against the execution the previous month of former iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

– A raw form of protest in the world’s biggest democracy –

While the concerns are a raw form of protest that allows indian democracy to function, some observers see the herding of marginal groups to one site under heavy security a stone’s throw from parliament as a facade.

“You do your rally and you go back,” said Harsh Sethi, consulting editor of the social issues journal Seminar, explaining that the site was earmarked for protests largely to prevent traffic jams closer to parliament.

“So you shove them some place or other where they are close enough to journalists who can take their photo and they do their thing.”

Some of the protests are unlikely ever to draw meaningful attention, such as one by sports teams from the northern hill state of Uttaranchal who want more support for volleyball.

“The media is taking our protest very lightly,” admitted Uttaranchal Volleyball Association member D.S. Karki, who was protesting what he said was the biased manner in which players were selected for national championships.

“They don’t understand that someone who goes for a national championship can get a job in the army or the police or a scholarship. it can change his life.

“Our state is very up-and-down so you cannot play cricket or football. But you can play volleyball even in a very small area,” he added as his six fellow protesters listened.

Only half a dozen people manned the stand for government workers who demanded they be given the cooperative housing flats they paid for four years ago, but which they say they have not been allocated because of mismanagement.

“i am living on my pension. i took a loan to buy this flat. i am making the monthly payments. Why don’t i have a house?” asked M.N. Sharma as he manned the forlorn stand.

– When celebrities protest, everyone stops to listen –

The presence of a celebrity at Jantar Mantar can give any cause a boost, said a former researcher at Sarai, a New Delhi-based centre that documents the indian urban experience.

The site has a dias in the shade of a few trees near the capital’s main commercial hub of Connaught Place.

“A protest march down Parliament Street becomes an indulgently personal venting of simmering frustrations - ‘Jesus Lives’ scrawled on the walls of the Vatican,” Anand Vivek Taneja wrote in a piece about Roy’s 2002 jail stint.

“Unless, of course, someone like Arundhati Roy joins the march.”

Political scientist Niraja Jayal said that without influential backing, the protests alone do not bring change.

“Protest does not bring about policy shift, it is to draw attention,” said Jayal, of New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. “These causes have to be sponsored by other parties, opposition in parliament, before they are responded to by government.”

But for the Jantar Mantar protesters, it is an outlet that should be taken seriously.

“This is a democratic system. We are placing our demands before the government,” said the Coochbehar Association’s Barman. “This is the right place for doing it.”

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