Protest is a democratic right. But violent protest is not. Widespread violence during protests in India in the last few years should be a cause of concern. Whether it was agitation against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) or the three farm laws and more recently against the Agnipath Scheme introduced for recruitment of other ranks (ORs) for the three wings of the defence forces, there has been arson, vandalism and damage to public property.
Anarchy cannot solve any problem. Problems are solved only through dialogue. The Central government did not repeal the three laws related to agriculture because of violence but because it understood that it failed to communicate the benefits of the reform to the people it was meant for. The Indian Freedom Movement led primarily by Mahatma Gandhi is known for its non-violent ways. We all know that Gandhi called off the Non-cooperation Movement over violence in Chauri Chaura, a small town in eastern Uttar Pradesh, in February 1922. A mob of freedom fighters set fire to the police station in the town, killing 26 policemen. Gandhi abhorred violence and he announced suspension of the movement over the arson.
Gandhi only believed in using two tools for public movement – truth and nonviolence. During the biggest public movement in post-Independence India, Jayprakash Narayan or JP as he was popularly called gave a clear message – hamla chahe jaisa bhi ho, haath hamara nahi uthega (no matter what is the type of attack, we will never raise our hand). Recently, during the Anna movement, people held the Indian tricolour and roamed the streets of cities and towns but seldom got violent.
A few years ago, more than 60,000 farmers marched 200 km from Nashik to Mumbai but without any damage to property or any inconvenience to common people. Due to Board examinations, one of those days, they marched during night. India is full of such examples where people have led agitations for days on end without any violence.
Violence during public movements is a sad commentary on the ideals of Gandhi. Agitations, protests, sit-ins are democratic instruments of conveying displeasure or disagreement with government policies, laws or any other development. Political outfits also use these instruments. But when these tools of public outcry become violent, the very purpose of the movement is lost.
In electoral politics, the political party that gets people’s mandate to government forms the government. Then there is the Opposition. The Opposition acts as the watchdog, making the government accountable and ensuring that it is not doing anything against the public interest. If the government introduces a policy or a law, which the Opposition or the civil society deems to be detrimental to the public interest, the Opposition or the civil society have every right to raise their voice against the changes. In fact, that, essentially, is the purpose of having an Opposition in a democracy. But the protests, demonstrations, agitations, sit-ins must be conducted within the ethical boundaries of the Constitution.
India is known for its democratic values. As the country enters 75th year of Independence and celebrates Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, it is sad to think that we have failed to create an ethical framework for protests which has no place for violence. Shouldn’t there be a code of conduct for protesters, demonstrators and agitators? Shouldn’t there be a clear dos and don’ts list for them?
How can damaging public property, obstructing government servants in discharge of duty, lobbing stones at security forces, snatching their official weapons etc. be justified as a form of protest? We have seen in the last few years that protesters have often resorted to these immoral techniques in the name of freedom of speech and expression. True, every Indian has the fundamental right of freedom to speech to expression but within certain restrictions. You cannot hold the state to account, or cause disturbance in the maintenance of the law and order in society. That clearly is nobody’s fundamental right.
Recently, during the protests against the Railway Recruitment Board, there was widespread vandalism in large parts of Bihar and some parts of eastern Uttar Pradesh. The youth, angry with certain decisions of the RRB, vent its anger on trains and railway stations. Similarly, during the protest against the new recruitment policy for the defence forces, the youth of the country took to violence and set trains ablaze and damaged other public property.
Such violent behaviours have and should not have any place in a democracy. We should all understand that the public property that we damage has been created with our own money. Major chunk of government revenue comes from taxes. And, everyone in this country – and not just that income taxpayers – pays tax. Even when you buy a small matchbox, you are paying some tax. So, damage to public property is an erosion of every Indian’s money. Do we want to do that? Would you burn your house if you disagreed with a municipal law? Public property is also our own. Let’s learn to protect it.
Before the Independent Indian turns 100 in 2047, we should have a clearly laid out code of conduct for protests and should completely shun violence. Only then we can walk with our heads held high for being an Indian.