Politicians, especially of the Congress ilk, are known to be partial to white. On Friday, the party, going through one of its darkest periods, went all black, in its bid to raise the pitch against the Modi government over price rises, unemployment and GST.
Sonia Gandhi sported a black blouse and a black-bordered sari, Priyanka Vadra a black salwar suit, and Rahul and many other Congress leaders wore either black shirts or kurtas. A day after spending eight hours with the Enforcement Directorate during a raid at Herald House, Leader of the Opposition Mallikarjun Kharge stood out amongst all, with his black kurta topped with a black turban.
At a time when the Opposition complains of being blacked out by the government inside Parliament, and by institutions outside, the Congress protest certainly drew attention.
Sources said the idea to wear black was by AICC general secretary in charge of organisation K C Venugopal. Along with Rajya Sabha MP Shaktisinh Gohil, he then shared the idea at a meeting of Congress MPs in Parliament on Thursday.
An MP said that, unfortunately, all of them were not present at the meeting. “We conveyed the decision to as many people as we could. But we forgot to put out a message.” As a result, many MPs, especially men, who did not have a black shirt rushed to go shopping for one in the morning.
One MP, sources said, went to two upscale markets before finally managing to pick one at Lajpat Nagar. He came wearing a white shirt to the protest and quickly changed to black at the Congress office in Parliament.
Yet others, such as Jairam Ramesh, made do with a black armband.
While the presence in the heart of Delhi, in such numbers, of leaders in black – surrounded by desperate policemen trying to stop them – was a sight, black as a symbol to needle the authority in power has been around for a while.
Just Thursday, the Kerala High Court sought answers from the state government following a PIL challenging the detention of persons for reportedly just waving black flags at Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
The plea also sought an inquiry into the conduct of police officers who allegedly took into preventive custody two transwomen on June 11, who were dressed in black, on the suspicion that they were planning to stage a protest at a Vijayan event. The Opposition claimed the authorities had put an unofficial ban on all things black. Vijayan denied the claims on several occasions.
But if the Vijayan government, which is increasingly facing attacks over “high-handedness”, has reportedly become touchy over black now, others have accused the authorities of being extra-sensitive when it comes to Narendra Modi.
In December 2017, there were reports of people wearing black upper garments not allowing entry into a Modi public meeting. In January 2018, an order was issued in Jharkhand prohibiting black “shawls, trousers, shirts, coats, sweaters, mufflers, socks, ties, bags and shoes at a Modi event, fearing the possibility of a black flag being waved at him.
On March 6 this year, those attending a Modi rally in Pune were reportedly asked to avoid any black masks, socks, and in some cases, shirts.
As recently as July 4, two Congress workers were arrested on the charge of releasing black balloons near the Vijayawada International Airport as a chopper carrying the PM was taking off.
Black flags were also put up by farmers in Punjab to mark six months of farmers’ protest during the agitation. Anti-CAA protestors in Assam observed a ‘black day’ on December 11, 2021, to mark the second anniversary of the passage of the Act in Parliament, and waved black flags and banners denouncing the “unjustly imposed” Citizenship Amendment Act.
In 2018, after police firing in Tuticorin left several protesters opposing the expansion of a Vedanta unit dead, DMK MLAs dressed in black demanded the resignation of then Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami.
The same year, pro-Tamil groups protesting over the Cauvery issue showed black flags to Modi when he arrived to inaugurate a defence exhibition near Chennai.
Among the first to use black as a symbol of protest was the radical Black Panther Party in the US, which adopted a full-black uniform, including a defining black beret in the late 1960s.
In 2019, the Chinese government, which lets few gestures pass muster, ordered courier companies to halt the export of “yellow helmets, yellow umbrellas, flags, flagpoles, poster banners, gloves, masks, black T-shirts, metal rods, fluorescent tubes, bludgeon clubs”, as per a South China Morning Post report. This was after huge protests in Hong Kong against an extradition Bill, by islanders predominantly dressed in black clothes believed to have been sourced from mainland China.
Hong Kong residents have long resorted to black to express their dissent against all-powerful China, whether the 2012 protests against the amendment to make the Chinese curriculum compulsory in the island’s schools, or the pro-democracy marches in 2017.
In 2018, black as a protest also appeared on the red carpet when many actors wore it to put a spotlight on the Times Up movement, which drew inspiration from Me Too.
Speaking to The New York Times, Dr. Erin Vearncombe, assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said, black clothing “remains a hugely significant form of oppositional dress”. “It signals everything from independent thought to outright defiance and revolution.”
Incidentally, Congress has also been at the receiving end. In 2012, those wearing black pullovers, cardigans, jackets or shawls were reportedly not allowed at a Rahul Gandhi rally in Ferozepur.