GOA, India—A week ago, I was eating masala dosa for breakfast in a little restaurant in Goa when commotion erupted outside. The sound of men yelling and rocks hitting the glass of the restaurant windows broke through the usual restaurant buzz. A dozen police attempted to get control of the rock-throwers using bats and sticks, shoving them into the back of a police vehicle while journalists pushed to get a shot of the action with their cameras. A crowd of people had gathered around to watch.
The waiter who peered out the window alongside me just shrugged. “Would you like more chai?”
I found out later that the rock-throwers were members of Shiv Sena, a far-right political party in India that was one of over a dozen groups that organized a nationwide strike to protest rising fuel prices controlled by the Indian National Congress party. The strike—or bandh, the hindi word for “closed”–effectively managed to halt all economic activity in India for the day. Buses stop running, schools closed, flights were canceled, stores were shut. It looked like my long-weekend trip to Goa might last a bit longer than planned.
While the experience was alarming, it was also impressive. The organizational power of Indian political parties to act in the face of a perceived injustice is tremendous. A political objection to fuel prices cost the economy approximately a day’s worth of GDP. This scale of political involvement and coordinated mobilization is unthinkable in the United States.
In Panjim, the normally bustling capital of Goa, the streets were deserted. The popular Portuguese beach settlement on the coast of the Indian Ocean had become a ghost-town overnight. But the young Goan woman with whom I was staying believed she could find an open restaurant. We drove through the empty capital until we found a small breakfast place that appeared to be open. A line of police officers with machine guns guarded the entrance.
I was not aware that I was making a political statement (albeit minor) by eating in a restaurant that refused to close on Monday. I did not realize that my consumption of dosa and chai countered the opposition parties’ efforts to temporarily paralyze India’s economic engines. But these stalwart supporters of Shiv Sena certainly viewed restaurant patrons as adversaries, and decided that storming the restaurant might teach us non-compliers a lesson. The bandh, a theoretically peaceful tactic of civil disobedience, had turned violent on this street corner in protest of the Congress party and its leader Sonia Gandhi (who coincidentally shares the last name of the pioneer of peaceful civil disobedience. . .).
Yet the Goans I spoke to the morning of the bandh were unfazed. They met my awe, with a certain amount of annoyance. “Here we go again. . .” was the line of the day.
And sure enough, the restaurant episode was anticlimactic in the end. The attempt to storm the dosa joint was quickly thwarted. Nobody was hurt, the attackers were carted away quickly, the crowd outside dissipated within an hour. And eventually even I stopped gaping at the street where the police and protestors had collided, and returned to my breakfast.
Zoe A.Y. Weinberg’13 is a Crimson News writer in Currier House.