What Kejriwal should have done

The Delhi Chief Minister’s lack of response and status quo-ist stance led to further spread of violence

Updated - March 05, 2020 01:40 pm IST

Published - March 05, 2020 12:05 am IST

Policeman standing in front of vandalised shops following clashes in Bhajanpura, Delhi, on February 24.

Policeman standing in front of vandalised shops following clashes in Bhajanpura, Delhi, on February 24.

That we should be at a loss for words is understandable. It should be no surprise if ordinary citizens were struck dumb by the brazenness with which the violence in Delhi was instigated, then perpetrated, and the participation — active or passive –— by those who are sworn to protect us. However, there is little explanation for the verbal caution exercised by those who claim to represent citizens — MLAs and MPs, foremost among them Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.

It was on the strength of the word, after all, that they rode into power. They gave tongue to promises of battling corruption. They know how to frame services — water, electricity, education, women’s safety — as a matter of rights. They are not ignorant of what ails us, or what the remedies might be. How, then, should we interpret the lassitude of the political response in Delhi?

How they failed to act

On the strength of the same tongue, Mr. Kejriwal could have prevented or minimised the loss of life and property in Delhi. When politicians affiliated with rival parties were making threats, he could have activated his cadre and motivated them to stand guard. Hours after goons were reported burning parts of northeast Delhi, he remained silent. He could have stepped in, with the security that is due to him as Chief Minister. It was inevitable that the violence would recede. If the police refused to listen, his Ministers could have organised citizen patrols. They have the support of millions, after all. If even one per cent of these supporters had been encouraged to organise themselves into patrol groups, the violence would have been contained.

If he could not do even this, Mr. Kejriwal could have made a speech in any public spot that was not on fire — perhaps during that infamous visit to Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial? He could have said that citizens have the right to work hard to improve their own economic status without having their homes set on fire merely because they followed a particular religion. He could have said that peaceful protest is an inalienable democratic right. If he had said it before, or even after winning the State Assembly, it may have given pause to millions of people who were being told repeatedly that protesters deserved to be attacked simply for opposing the policies of the Central government. After all, Mr. Kejriwal himself has, in the past, done everything in his power to topple those elected to Parliament.

Speaking up for the oppressed

When he saw footage of CCTV cameras being smashed to prevent the recording of evidence while students were attacked in libraries, he could have said that his government would, anyhow, make sure that the guilty were punished. He could have said that his government would ensure that mosques are re-built, and that interfaith meetings will be held every single day until the community can find its way back to harmony. He could say, even now, that we must resist ghettoisation, for it can only lead to a greater gulf between communities. He could say that ghettoisation is not just the outcome but the purpose of such violence, that it is venom in the body of our republic.

He could say to doctors: treat riot victims gently, and do post mortems honestly. He could say to teachers: counsel children so that they may not be drawn to future acts of violence, and may learn not to discriminate. He could say to members of Residents’ Welfare Associations: for India’s sake, stop discriminating. He could even ask that meetings be conducted in every colony to discuss the imperative of citizenship, and understand why so many Indians are feeling vulnerable.

There is a long list of things that need saying, urgently, but beyond taciturn appeals for peace — and those worded in miserly fashion — nothing has been said or done that demonstrates true leadership. The crisis in Delhi, and all over India, is that our leaders appear to think that their role is limited to winning elections. When they speak, they weigh their words against the weight of public opinion. They act as if they were a mirror for potential voters, however ill-informed, self-serving, narrow-minded the latter be.

The notion that a leader is someone who ‘leads’, in thought and in deed, seems to have collapsed. There is no Gandhi or Nehru, Ram Manohar Lohia or Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi — men willing to risk the displeasure of caste groups, their own party members, or the fury of a mob. There is no Amrit Kaur or Aruna Asaf Ali either. Can we imagine that any one of these leaders would have sat around tweeting ‘peace’ during last week’s events in Delhi? Would they have drawn a polite curtain of silence over the behaviour of the police force?

Failing to walk the talk

A leader is not a status quoist. A leader gives direction to public morality, gives voice and shape to new ideas that challenge an ailing system. In India, the only leadership in evidence lately has been to the far right of the political spectrum. There, we see leaders, some of them voicing dangerous ideas that run counter to democratic values like equality and freedom of speech. The parties belonging to the rest of the spectrum, including broadly centrist parties like the Congress, have watched, waiting to see whether or not voters buy into the rhetoric, and often followed suit instead of leading in a different direction.

Those who claim to be leaders of a new sort of politics are not leading people into the sunshine of universal love and brotherhood. They are not leading any marches. They are not going door to door, demanding that people give up hate. They are not writing to their voters, explaining the dangers posed by legalised inequity, reminding them of the world’s history of apartheid, of racism and resistance. They are not acting on reports that document widespread bigotry in the police force, so they may challenge and address it through institutional means. Instead, they are repeating exhausted tropes such as demanding answers in Parliament, when it is already clear that it does not help stem violence.

Therefore here we are, stuck with a polity where electricity may be cheap, but acid is freely available for use against dissenting students and religious minorities; where CCTVs stand aghast and rioters record their own crimes on high resolution mobile phone cameras; where data packages are cheaper than books and online rape threats abound; where the bodies of murder victims lie rotting in drains in the national capital and citizens are encouraged to take pride in a clean India.

Annie Zaidi is a writer of essays, stories, poems and scripts for stage and screen

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