There is a heady feeling in the air that we have a licence to defy and disrupt, and force our rulers to make concessions on our terms
On Monday, a new reality impinged on our minds: because of the three-day long confrontation between the police and the angry citizens in the very heart of sarkari New Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was forced to shift the venue of his talks with the visiting Russian President, Vladimir Putin, from the grand Hyderabad House to his modest residence on Race Course Road. There could not have been a greater symbolic triumph for the vendors of street power.
Yet let us make no mistake about this. The ugly and unpleasant standoff between the police and the largely spontaneous protesters over the weekend is only a precursor of things to come. Collectively, we seem to have unthinkingly bought into a narrative of empowered indignation in which “anger” against “authority” is deemed to be just and justifiable and any means to vent that “anger” is rationalised as socially acceptable and politically correct.
‘Connoisseurs of chaos’
The gruesome brutalisation and rape of a 23-year-old woman suddenly stirred us out of our complacency. What is more noteworthy is that the protests, at least in the first two days, saw an unprecedented and voluntary participation by upper middle classes, citizens, men and women. Interestingly, there were no leaders, no organisers, no professional crowd managers; and, at first glance, it seemed this participation was facilitated by the new tools of social media as well as by the promise of a summons to a non-political gathering. Access to new technology-induced connectivity has imparted to its users and consumers a new sense of democratic entitlement. The confrontation at Rajpath between the police and the citizens has alerted the traditional guardians of order as also the new “connoisseurs of chaos” (to borrow poet Wallace Stevens’ title) to the possibilities of mischief inherent in the new technology. And this potential should be both fascinating and frightening.
To be sure, crowds have always been a part of our public life and political mobilisation traditions. And, crowds do occasionally degenerate into lawless mobs. However, since the days of Chauri Chaura, whenever public leaders staged a celebration of dissent they had assumed the responsibility to see to it that things did not get out of hand. Those days of responsibility and restraint are way behind us. Increasingly, as political leaders and parties have vacated the ramparts of moral respectability, the onus of maintaining the distinction between orderly crowds and marauding mobs has shifted to the “authorities”. Political parties no longer seem to have sufficient control over their supporters and followers and, in any case, all the imaginary and physical sites of anger and protest have already been taken over and occupied by non-political actors and formations which have no stake in observing the conventional rules of the democratic game.
In any fast changing society and economy, resentment and anger against an insensitive “system” is bound to find an expression; and, in our current discourse, empowered citizens are made to feel that they have a licence to defy, disobey and disrupt. A crowd is seen to be an ipso facto morally superior gathering in its collective democratic representativeness and hence is deemed to have sanction to resort to unorthodox methods of protest against presumably corrupt and crumbling power arrangements.
And, now, when the crowd gathers there are television cameras. Our liberal sensitivities are naturally offended as powerful moving images of police lathi-charge, teargas, and water canons get beamed into our drawing rooms. No less stirring is the sight of ordinary citizens bravely standing up for this or that “cause,” demanding “justice” and insisting on instant solutions. Every story becomes a battle between good and evil. Any attempt, say, to contextualise police action is instantly put down and derided as justification of khaki high-handedness.
We seem to have arrived at a new, deeply democratic moment in our republic. There is a heady feeling in the air that we can make our “rulers” squirm, smoke them out of their comfort zones, disrupt and dispute their monopoly of defining content and substance of national aspirations and dreams, and, indeed, force them to listen to “our demands” and make concessions on our terms.
One precedent begets another. Once the polity and its authorised executives panicked over a televised fast at Ram Leela grounds and agreed to sit across the table with “civil society” to frame laws, an unhappy precedent was set. If new laws could be secured on the streets, it was only a matter of time before mobs would demand “justice” at Vijay Chowk.
Orgy of revulsion
The current orgy of revulsion among the middle classes over the rape incident should be seen as a continuation of an unfolding social milieu. Our popular culture — especially Bollywood movies — has for some time now created an illusion that crowds can legitimately demand and secure instant justice (a la Gangajal). In our popular imagination, we have constructed this myth of the intrepid policeman (Dabbang) who single-handedly takes on the “baddies” against heavy odds. This cultural strain is emotionally satisfying because we do have a collective itch to see that the law-breaker is put in his place, whatever the means.
For instance, inaugurating the All India Police Science Congress in June 2006, the then President, Abdul Kalam, insisted on administering the following oath to his captive audience of policemen: “I am proud of being a member of this police force of high tradition. I will always be citizen friendly and promote peace everywhere. I will be lightning and thunder with all law-breakers. I will protect the elderly, women and children against any type of crime. I will be a role model for conduct and discipline. I will lead an honest life free from all corruption. My life is my Nation.” Lightning and thunder? Really? President Kalam could well have been thinking of Amitabh Bachchan playing Inspector Vijay in that box-office hit movie, Zanjeer.
Danger of police raj
Just as the anti-corruption movement these last two years has sought to seek a solution to a complex problem by wanting to put in place an all-powerful Jan Lokpal with power of life and death over every public official, there is now a clamour for an intrusive police presence in every walk of life. We seem to be in a mood to put a policeman in every bus, a CCTV in every taxi, a posse of cops in every nook and corner of the city. The all too powerful temptation to rush to enact harsh laws and their harsher enforcement can only end up with police raj with all its un-pretty ramifications.
It is imperative that our leaders do not panic into conceding too much to the “anger”. Curative powers of the crowd can help us rediscover notions of accountability but we must be sceptical of all allurements of anarchy. Our reputation as a constitutional system dedicated to a rule of law and as a society committed to lawfulness has been built over decades of collective effort, cutting across party lines, and this cannot be allowed to be squandered away at Vijay Chowk, especially now that professional disruptionists and hooligans have edged out the genuine citizens.
It is tempting to suggest that stringent laws and stronger police presence alone would help roll back habits of violence against women. A major pre-requisite has to be a culture of dignity and respect for women. And this is too exacting and complicated a task to be left to be achieved only by the governmental fiats and legislative decrees. However grave the provocation, let us caution ourselves against seeking authoritarian solutions for democratic maladies. Above all, citizens have a collective obligation to see that the excesses of democracy do not drown the Indian state and its already frayed capacity to produce wholesome order.
(Harish Khare is a veteran commentator and political analyst, and former media adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh)