Is dissent equal to riot and violence?

A Majoritarian Discourse

It is interesting to note how any discourse that expresses reservation or dissent against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has become synonymous with supporting rioting and violence. The faceless and abusive trolls slam even articles written by well-meaning and learned people peacefully on the media or on social media, with a single refrain (in addition to the verbal abuse): “So are you justifying the burning and violence on the streets?” It is a different matter that if you look at the violence lurking behind these verbal comments, one would almost wonder if these would not be the very folks on the streets lynching anyone who does not think, eat, dress, or pray to the same gods as themselves. 

Unfortunately, even the Prime Minister, in his speech to the nation all but equated the incidents of riots and violence with the broader dissent against CAA. Why else would he completely reject the voices of some of the most intellectual, learned and peaceful in our society that are asking the government to at least take a second look at the Act?

Let us be very clear. The PM is right in that no sane person can argue that violence and rioting have any place in a democracy. Those who indulge in the destruction of public property and loss of innocent lives need to be dealt with without mercy.

But will a sane person argue that riots and violence will never occur in a democracy? They do, even in the best of democracies. But preventing situations that could lead to lumpen elements, criminals, scandal-mongers and other agents provocateurs exploiting even legitimate social unrest for their own loathsome agendas is the job of the government. So is managing such situations when they do happen, rather than lump genuine protesters with the troublemakers and grind them all under one mill.

Sadly, even the PM’s speech would have one believe as if the two categories are one and the same. But are they?

As ordinary citizens, don’t we know that often, it is our political parties – the opposition and ruling parties alike – who deploy rowdies and goons to pelt stones, burn tyres, block roads and damage public property? Ordinary citizens have little incentive to riot, especially when for most of us in India, even day-to-day living is a challenge. We do not have an affordable public health system that works; we do not have an inexpensive educational system that works; police is available only for the protection of the rich and powerful, and so is the judiciary; enforcing any rights – even contractual rights – is virtually impossible; we do not even have reasonable roads to drive on or side-walks to walk on; our municipalities keep our townships and villages festering on heaps of garbage; 40% of our population lives on less than Rs 100 a day. Small-time vendors and entrepreneurs have had to battle the fallout of demonetisation and GST implementation; others have to run from pillar to post to link one’s PAN Card with one’s Aadhaar Card, because some government clerk added or deleted a dot before or after an initial or misspelt a name. Where is the time and capacity for the common citizen or student, whether they agree or disagree with CAA, to engage in riots and risk arrest, and be at the mercies of a largely corrupt and brutal police?

Are we to seriously think that it is beyond the pale of imagination that the violence we have witnessed was the handiwork of, say, any of the political parties or coalitions opposed to the ruling party, wanting to embarrass the ruling party in the name of CAA? Or, going by our political history, is it any less in the pale of possibility that the ruling party itself may be behind some of the violence, staged to give all anti-CAA protesters a bad name? And they are succeeding – as we see today – by smearing all protesters with the same brush. Or, can we absolutely rule out the hand of the police themselves behind at least some of the burning of public property in order to justify their disproportionate use of force upon protesters?

Given the Indian reality, I would say, any of these is far more likely than the possibility of any spontaneous rioting by citizens protesting against the CAA, even if they can be identified by what they wear.

We are being assured by the Prime Minister that there has been no discussion on a nation-wide NRC “right now.” Does that mean there would be such a discussion later? Wasn’t nation-wide NRC among the BJP’s poll promises? Hasn’t Home Minister Amit Shah said repeatedly over the last two years that a nation-wide NRC would be completed before 2024? So, whom do we believe — the country’s PM or the HM?

And now, before the embers of the discourse on CAA and NRC have even been doused, we have another confounding variable flung into the narrative—the National Population Register (NPR), overlaying the Aadhaar, National Census, CAA and NRC.

One wonders, where’s the need for so many disaggregated sources of data? After all, there is a fair degree of overlap between the data covered by the National Census and the NPR. So why can’t the NPR be subsumed under the National Census with some minor tweak, saving the country and the citizens much expense and fatigue?

After 40 years of fairly trouble-free movement in and out of the country’s airports, last week  suddenly, my routine laminated copies of Aadhaar, driving licence and original corporate identity cards were all rejected at the Bengaluru airport, with the CISF constable insisting on “original document.” Really? And risk losing one of the original documents during travels, only to run from pillar to post all over again? What’s the country coming to that a citizen has to carry original identity documents upon one’s person at all times?!

(The writer is Director, Schulich School of Business, India Programme)

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