In this silly political season clearly protests are the flavor of the week. The cause célèbre is immaterial. It is all about registering ones dissent, the louder the better. Success is measured in terms of causing maximum dislocation and discomfiture to people. Curse all you want, but remember your freedom ends at the tip of the others nose!
In a week when India celebrates its 70th Republic Day drumbeating Unity in Diversity witness the spree of violent protests, torching buses, pelting stones and vandalizing property across cities against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Underscoring the discourse is becoming increasingly rabble rousing, abusive and devoid of any substance.
Union Capital Delhi a classic example. A self centered city with its own eco system is experiencing protest over the CAA for over a month and it is still too early and unclear when it will end. It is immaterial that the ‘sit-in’ at Shaheen Bagh, an arterial road is causing massive inconvenience to the public with traffic jams and shut local shops, even as the Government accuses the Congress of fanning the dissent to serve its parochial political ends.
Turn North, South, East or West the story is the same. In fact, no day passes without a strike somewhere. Be it a mohalla, district or State. Wherein demonstrations or bandhs have not only become everyday occurrences but also an integral part of our psyche that most people consider it as a holiday! Despite innumerable court rulings banning them.
As protests become a rhythm of daily life in India, it raises a moot point: What role do they play in our functioning representative democracy? Are strikes actually expression of freedom or are they means of suppressing fundamental rights in a democracy? Why do protestors resort to this measure? Is the cause valid? Is the State being unjust or unreasonable?
Importantly, will sit-ins on roads be the new grammar of Naya Bharat’s protests? Is it the new political paradigm of dissent? To keep its flock together? Ignominy of becoming irrelevant? Or political considerations?
Gone are the days when it took months or days to plan a protest. In today’s digital media world, it is easy to organize dissent. Remember the outpourings in the Nirbhaya case started with a SMS or the “people power” which came out in droves against the endemic corruption during the UPA II regime.
Besides, it is easy to identify classic protestors who believe in the cause but there are others who join as they have nothing better to do and not a few who join the free ride as it is ‘fashionable’. While not a few are interested in “épater la bourgeoisie” (shock the bourgeoisie) than in coming up with viable solution for the cause they are protesting against.
Further, some simply shrug off protests as “sab chalta hai attitude, this is Mera Bharat Mahan at its rudest and crassest best.” Many assert ki pharak painda hai. Indeed, India has travelled a long way from Lokmanya Tilak’s “Swaraj is my birth right” to “proest is my birth right.” Today, every other section of the society plans strikes as a matter of routine to stall anything that spells change from the set routine.
Interestingly, protests rose by 55% from 2009 to 2014, an average of 200 protests every day nationwide with literate States leading the charge. In all, there were 4,20,00 protests over these five years. The sharpest rise came from student-led agitations (148%) followed by communal 92%, Government employees grievances 71%, political 42% and labour 38% according to the Bureau of Police Research and Development.
Pertinently, Parties and their affiliates accounted for 32% of protests and the percentage went up to 50% when their student bodies and labour unions were added. Karnataka reported the most 12% and Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra together accounted for more than 50% of all protests. Under-developed UP and Bihar totaling 25% of India’s population collectively accounted for less than 1% of agitations during 2009-14. Assam reported the most protests in the Northeast: 17,357.
Scandalously, the Bharat Bandh to focus attention on labour reforms, cost taxpayers about Rs 18,000 crores, the Jats agitation cost over Rs 34,000 crore, and the Cauvery river row in Karnataka Rs 22,000-25,000 crore according to ASSOCHAM.
As India marches ahead, are protests the right recourse? Certainly, the Constitution guarantees one the right to protest, but it does not guarantee one the right to infringe upon others rights. Unfortunately, our strikers fail to realize that strikes negate the basic concept of democracy. These are just a camouflage for non-performance, self-glorification, to flex their might and muscle, to gain sympathy or wriggle out of working hard.
Remember, democracy is neither mobocracy nor a license to create bedlam. It is a fine balance between rights and duties, liberties and responsibilities. One’s freedom pre-supposes another’s responsibilities and liberty. Importantly, protests cannot set things right and at the same time it cannot create any psychological impact or pressure on the minds of those people who are sitting at the helm of affairs.
Unless protesters have a viable alternative to offer, continuing a strike could lead to chaos and tyranny of the mob. Alongside, losses in terms of human casualties and damage to the economy and businesses. Paralysing the State, black-mailing corporates, industries to get attention and policy reversals only exasperates the public and inconveniences them, cuts off the money flow, shoos off investors and endangers their own jobs.
Clearly, the time has come to take a leaf from out the US law, wherein there is no Constitutional right to make a speech on a highway or near about, so as to cause a crowd to gather and obstruct the highway. The right to assembly is to be so exercised as not to conflict with other lawful rights, interests and comfort of the individual or the public and public order.
In the UK, the Public Order Act, 1935 makes it an offence for any person in uniform to attend any public meeting, signifying his association with any political organization. The Prevention of Crime Act, 1953, makes it an offence to carry any weapon in any ‘public place’ without lawful authority. The Seditious Meetings Act, 1817 prohibits meetings of more than 50 persons within a mile of Westminster Hall during the sittings of Parliament.
Undeniably, there is no harm in peaceful protests. Yet unending dissent without any credible political goal in view, only threatens to undermine the legitimacy of Indian democracy: For, it offers no viable alternative and only the chilling prospect of chaos and oppression by angry hordes. The message has to go out clearly that no person or group can threaten violence, and if they do, they lose their democratic right to be heard.
The writing on the wall is clear. The need of the hour is to stop giving into strong-arm tactics and change the dynamics of a protest and replace it with a new social contract. The right of the citizen is paramount. The question we all need to ask is: Can we afford protests at all, leave aside for what purpose it may have been called? At some point we have to stand up and bellow, “Bandh karo ye natak!”