The ill-conceived ban on the latest Kamal Hassan film stays in place, with the court asking the filmmaker to find a compromise solution rather than insisting that his fundamental right to expression be honoured.
If we go beyond the issue of this particular film, we find that the position of retreat in the face of threatened protest and unrest has been the default position of the administration, not just in Tamil Nadu, but elsewhere in the country as well. Every time the administration fears that it might be faced with a potentially messy situation, it chooses to defang the legal elements of the situation rather than the illicit elements that could make it incendiary. Thus, when the rape protests began, the first reaction of the people in power was not to soothe raw nerves or send out some kind of positive message. Instead, they chose to first block access to main roads and squares where the protestors would have gathered. And when protestors attack and destroy works of art in an exhibition, the attackers are not stopped or punished; instead the exhibition is dismantled. This is a cop out and this is what the administration does time after time.
Even as women across the nation agonise over the fact that public spaces are denied to them, the Mumbai police recently announced that it would book couples found alone together in isolated places. The police claimed that the move was for the couples’ own protection, to shield them from criminals and harassment. It was only after strong public criticism that the department backed off, saying that it would not book such couples but instead step up vigilance in isolated spots to protect them.
The incidents illustrate the instinctive reaction that we see repeatedly from our law enforcers — a meek acceptance that there will be crime and the solution lies in citizens retreating indoors or surrendering their liberties. In other words, our crime fighting departments endorse the view that off-grid spaces and timings will be owned by anti-social and criminal elements and the man or woman on the street must not contest this. It means that people cannot take the protection of a law enforcement agency for granted but must appease, stay out of the way of, or otherwise accommodate lawbreakers.
The ordinary, everyday steps that city administrations take continuously underline this attitude. Take Chennai’s beaches, one of a handful of escape avenues left in an increasingly crowded city. By 10:00 pm each night, cops come around to shoo people away from the beaches and send them home. You could be a married couple listening to music in a car parked on the side or a bunch of friends celebrating a birthday. It does not matter; the police will force you home. Their argument is that it is for the citizens’ own protection. But people would rather have a police force that can spare a few men and women for night duty on the beach, extending active protection, rather than one that is effective only in prohibition.
On New Year’s Eve, the city’s beaches and some key roads are shut down entirely. Again, the argument is that this prevents hooliganism. But it also prevents genuine celebration and a spot of innocent fun. Is our police force not competent enough to monitor large crowds once a year? Times Square hosts one of the world’s biggest street parties on the 31 of every December. How does the New York police force manage crowds and prevent flare-ups?
It is every citizen’s right to assemble peaceably. It is the administration’s duty to ensure this right. It is inevitable that troublemakers will always try to vitiate the atmosphere and it is the administration’s job, using its police force, to keep these elements under control. When the administration chooses to prevent the act of assembly itself, under the guise of preventing disruption, it is guilty of failing its primary responsibility.
If a section of the Muslim population claims to be offended by portions of a film or book, the group has a right to assemble in protest. They must be heard and their views recorded. It is up to the administration to ensure that the protest does not turn violent. Meanwhile, the film must be allowed to screen and the book to be sold. Instead, we have the rather fantastic situation where a city’s administration chooses not to discipline the groups that threaten the violence but penalises the law-abiding film-maker or writer instead.
If we break down this stance to the smallest instances of its practice, we discover just how widespread the menace is and how little citizens fight it or even recognise it. Let’s look at just two examples. Did you know that Chennai’s public parks are out of bounds after 9:00 am in the morning? Come evenings, they open again at 5:00 and shut down at 9:00. So, if you had visions of a quiet lunch on a park bench or an after-dinner stroll, you can’t get it in our peaceful city. The police argument? Parks can become dens of anti-social activity and, therefore, must be kept closed for the most part of the day.
The second, perhaps even more absurd, example of the ‘prevention is the best cure’ school of administration is the fact that city flyovers are shut off at night to prevent accidents. First implemented after a speeding motorcyclist rode off the side of a flyover at night, it stays in practice long after, despite many reckless drivers managing to fall off the sides even during the daytime.
The administration’s duty is to maintain law and order under all circumstances. Where is the accomplishment in maintaining peace by banning all activity? Where is the glory in allowing a loony fringe to dictate the terms of public order? As citizens, we are being forced to surrender ordinary freedoms to ensure a peaceful city, but this is not a peace for which we can congratulate the police force.