Satyagraha and the Ambassador

Partha Chakraborty-

Partha Chakraborty

Partha Chakraborty is an Indian-born immigrant; a naturalized US Citizen since 2018. Educated in India and at Cornell University, Partha is currently an entrepreneur in water technologies, Blockchain, and wealth management in the US and in India. The views expressed are his own.


In a famous 1999 strip, South Park creators let it loose on our neighbors up north. “It seems everything’s gone wrong // Since Canada came along”, the lyrics go. Canada (“They’re not a real country anyway”) is responsible for everything wrong – from Stan joining the Klan to Eric turning rude to couch potatoes getting rounder. Hence “We must blame them and cause a fuss// Before someone thinks of blaming uuuus”.

These days the blame game aims at a more targeted group of people, but for reasons just as broad and nonsensical.

For over two weeks now a ragtag group of truckers and other protesters have parked themselves on the streets of Ottawa and other Canadian cities. In another occasion, it could be called a Carnival of sorts. There are people of all hues – Whites, Blacks, Sikhs, Chinese, and others, families and children. There are bouncy houses, campfires, tents and pop=up kitchens. There are block captains keeping peace and doling out coffee, blankets and donuts, but no identifiable leader, or even a team. They are waving the Maple Leaf as far as you can see, per eyewitness accounts.

And they are honking. Loudly, incessantly and in unison. If you are a resident in a nearby highrise, it is fully expected that you will have nightmares about it, not to mention umpteen inconveniences in going about your daily routines. Mercury dipped to 4 degrees and the city threatened cutting off the fuel supply to force them out. Residents and supporters trekked in to keep their supplies, and heaters, on even if the Mayor threatened them with consequences. City declared an Emergency to no avail. No case of violence was reported, even if it was a deliberate show of willful non-compliance with diktats from above.

On February 7, protesters gathered on the Canada side of the Ambassador Bridge, connecting twin cities of Windsor and Detroit, both hubs of automobile manufacturing in respective countries. The bridge is the busiest border crossing between the two nations and a lifeline in days of just-in-time delivery. As truckers blocked the roads, traffic almost completely stopped, assembly lines clambered to a stop, shifts were closed, workers lost wages. Lawsuits were filed, and after losing a case, truckers mostly moved out. A few incalcitrant protesters were hauled out and Ambassador Bridge is fully back in business as we speak.

Anger at these protesters, who have started calling themselves “Freedom Convoy”, took shilling to new heights. They were called antisemites, which is surprising because one of the few identifiable leaders, BJ Dichter, a spokesman for the movement, is a Jew. They have been called anti-vaxxers, and ipso facto anti-science, even if over 80% of these protesters call themselves fully vaccinated. Still, that may have some relevance, because truckers’ protests did start with draconian rules of self-quarantine and isolation put in rendering their profession all but impossible. Freedom Convoy members are clearly not white supremacists, as Rupa Subramanya points out in an essay (What the Truckers Want ) that a vast number of people, including families, are not white. It does not help that there are a few Swastikas and Confederate flags in a sea of Maple, but they can be counted by the fingers of a hand. Protesters seem to be totally indifferent to the opprobrium heaped on them and are happy to let their honks bark in a carnival.

This afternoon Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has so far refused to even meet these protesters even if they are – literally – at his doorstep, announced that he will invoke Emergency Powers to give him extraordinary latitude in dealing with the unrest. Drafted to handle an urgent and critical situation of temporary nature that “cannot be effectively dealt with under any other Law of Canada”, “Canada’s Emergencies Act allows the government to give itself special, temporary powers meant to ensure safety and security during a national emergency.” “(T)hose powers can include preventing people from traveling to and from a specific area, requiring some essential service providers—for example, tow-truck operators—to render services, and restricting public assembly under certain circumstances.” – says The Wall Street Journal. Further, “Mr. Trudeau said the government isn’t calling in the military, nor is it suspending fundamental rights as guaranteed in the country’s constitution.”

All of that to handle at most twenty thousand people crowding on the streets in a Carnival-like atmosphere in freezing winter and honking incessantly.

I have lived through Emergency in India. Even if I do not have direct memory of it, vivid stories are etched inside my cranium – including one relating to how my dad had to cheat death in the hands of ruling party goons who had full protection of the Police with Emergency powers. Needless to say, emergency did not end well for Indira Gandhi, and a vast number of the country did not shed a tear when she was gunned down herself. Countless examples of (wannabe) autocrats abound who create, manipulate and unless Emergency Powers of their countries.  Too many to ignore even one additional attempt of extrajudicial powers bestowed on a ruling cabal, wherever it may be.

Very likely Trudeau will be nowhere close. But the fact that he had to choose to deploy the Emergencies Act means that he has lost this round and he knows it.

To me the Freedom Convoy is a grassroots example of Satyagraha, the idea of non-violent and deliberate acts of civil disobedience that Mahatma Gandhi championed and used to great impact in India, influencing Reverend King and Nelson Mandela and others around the globe later on. In many ways, Ambassador Bridge protesters are even more pure of intent. First, they were, and are, leaderless and organic. Second, they did abide by a Court ruling on the Ambassador Bridge and largely dispersed. Third, they are peaceful thus far –peaceful in its true sense, not in a “fiery but largely peaceful” interpretation.

Just like it happened in India, the rulers are invoking extraordinary powers to deal with them. And just like in India, this shall be the nail in the coffin, politically, for Trudeau in a short term.

When that happens, he hasn’t got anybody to blame but himself.