Protest by all means, but no violence

It requires no great acumen to predict the loss of public property when a bandh, hartal or a public protest of any kind is declared in this country. Public transport vehicles including buses, trains and sometimes private cars and two-wheelers are set ablaze, vandalised or damaged in stone-throwing. The net effect: they are destroyed or rendered unusable. While it is the democratic right of every Indian to protest against a perceived injustice, the question is whether damaging public property serves the purpose of any agitation. It is simple logic that after the protest, it is the hapless taxpayer who has to shell out the cost of repairing the damaged property. 

Despite the existence of a law that threatens punitive action against those damaging public property, which also includes that owned by private persons, there has been no let up in what has become a normal practice.  In this context, the move by the government to
amend the Prevention of Damage to Public Property (PDPP) Act, 1984, is a welcome deterrent. Among the suggestions being considered to prevent damage to property are a hefty increase in fines to the extent of paying out market rates of the damaged property and a 10-year jail sentence for the culprits. Leaders who issue the call for protests will be made fully accountable for any damage that the agitators can cause including having to pay the fine and go to jail, if convicted. The amendments under consideration are the result of the recommendations of a Supreme Court-appointed committee headed by Justice K T Thomas which was set up to overhaul the PDPP Act and make it effective against those who target public property in the course of an agitation.

The proposed amendment in no way acts against those who would like to protest but only against those who indulge in violence. A section of politicians has expressed apprehension that the amended act may be used to curb the people’s right to protest but that does not seem to be the case. On the contrary, such an amendment will serve to ensure that the focus of a protest is not lost  and full attention is paid to the demands. More often than not, large scale violence tends to derail the legitimate purpose behind an agitation and the institution being targeted uses the opportunity to divert attention from the real issues. The amendment to the PDPP Act will hopefully, therefore, serve more than its intended purpose and we can look forward to a period of protests that are within the parameters of a democratically acceptable method of airing grievances in public.

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