The right of people to dissent does not mean taking the law into their hands | Analysis – analysis
The worst riots in the capital in decades have been mercifully contained, although with the terrible loss of dozens of lives. It can hardly be a coincidence that after boiling under the surface for two months, amid sporadic incidents, violence suddenly broke out on the day that the president of the United States (US), Donald Trump, visited Delhi. It is another matter that the visit proved to be a great success, with significant progress in the bilateral relationship of the two largest democracies in the world.
Worryingly, even in such circumstances, partisan narratives in conflict continue to prevail, when what is desperately needed is objectivity and moderation, but also clear red lines and a firm and resolute application of them. But that is easier said than done.
While it is easy to criticize the Delhi police, it is worth reflecting on their situation. First, there is the fatigue factor of having to be continuously nervous during two months of protests, during which they were repeatedly attacked with stones, not to mention that they were shot and thrown at them acid.
Then, whether they chased the stone throwers from outside Jamia Millia Islamia to the university’s library, or refrained from entering the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University when the vandals rioted there, they faced reproach. Third, in this era of greater alert to possible human rights accusations, their dilemma in choosing between severe proactive steps and waiting for the general public to accept the need for repression must be a difficult road to navigate.
It is no exaggeration to say that the police were being physically and psychologically abused everywhere. Meanwhile, while the Supreme Court (SC) refused to intervene in public interest litigation (PIL) against police action in Jamia, saying that maintaining law and order was the first priority, it was much more ambiguous in the extended agitation in Shaheen Bagh.
The SC commented that the agitators did not have the inherent right to block roads and inconvenience the public. But he refused to approve an order, letting the police decide what to do, while reserving the option to decide later if they made the right decision. While the turmoil continued, the court even sent mediators instead of making a judgment. Finally, with many of his rows injured and a stoned one, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if the police were demoralized and undecided.
One aspect that stood out during the last weeks was the apparent polarization in the media. When some journalists who sympathized with the government were mistreated by protesters in Shaheen Bagh, not everyone in his fraternity condemned him. But that sad situation closed the circle in recent days, when some of those considered anti-establishment also faced physical assaults at the hands of another group of violent protesters.
Similarly, incendiary statements by protesters, activists, celebrities and various politicians across the country of Shaheen Bagh gave partisan responses. This tribalism, of responding to each development through a “we against them” prism, of course, is not exclusive to India. And although those on the left allege more vociferously against their opponents, it reigns throughout the political spectrum. In fact, in recent decades, it has become the norm in democracies around the world.
That is why President Trump’s visit to India saw politicians and some in the media, both in India and the United States, react in remarkably partisan terms. Unfortunately, even the largest opposition party in India, which had prioritized this relationship while in government, criticized Trump’s visit. And for no good reason, from an Indian perspective, apart from the chemistry he seems to have with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
And therein lies the crux of the matter. The more the prime minister’s importance has grown, the more they seem determined to oppose him at all costs, regardless of the principles or consequences. Nothing else can explain his rabid opposition to the Citizenship Law (Amendment), or the CAA, whose principle has been defended by all major Indian leaders, from Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to Manmohan Singh, the last non-BJP prime minister.
It is cynical when most of Modi’s political opponents recognize privately that the CAA itself does not discriminate or pose any threat to any Indian citizen, of any religion. Some have objections to the possibility of a National Registry of Citizens (NRC), although there is still no formal proposal for it. If there were one, they could, of course, oppose it, go to court, turn it into an electoral issue and even shake it.
But the anti-CAA agitation, which deliberately tricked many Muslims into believing that they would be deprived of their rights, is, at best, wrong and evil at worst. Of course, we all have the right to dissent. But that dissent must not include taking the law into our hands, such as tearing apart public property, blocking public roads and attacking people, or we must recognize that our opponents have the same right to do the same. It is time to think that the Indians were based on principles, and not on personalities, likes and dislikes.
Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda is vice president of the Bharatiya Janata Party and former member of Parliament.
The opinions expressed are personal.