Citizens peacefully assembled to protest against the West Bengal government will now on be watched by the police and technologies of surveillance, apart from the videography. If, in the opinion of the State, public or private property is damaged during a protest, the West Bengal government can now compel the protestors and even the residents of the locality to pay damages in cash or face anything up to a 10 year jail term.
These changes to the special provisions of the notorious and repressive 1972 West Bengal Maintenance of Public Order Act expand and extend the powers of the State to coerce the public into cowering indoors. By creating an Orwellian world, where virtually everyone and her neighbour has been co-opted as a look-out by the State, the freedom of assembly, with the implicit sense that such assemblies will be peaceful, have just became that much more problematic in West Bengal.
Everyone, however peacefully they may be registering their protest could now become a potential insurrectionist or arsonist, because the special provisions of the 1972 law are aimed at controlling “subversive activities endangering public safety and tranquillity.” In the eyes of the state government, whoever is opposed to the changes is suspect–of being intent on destroying public and government property. “We will not let this happen,” declared Mamata Bannerjee in the state assembly. It was a warning to critics and the opposition, that whoever objects to the law will henceforth be considered the enemy.
If in the opinion of the State, the protest revealed signs of disturbance that could be construed as damage, the amended law can impose penalties. Explaining how this will be done, the Mamata Banerjee government said smart technologies of surveillance will add to the precision with which information will be collected and used to identify wrong doers.
The role of the police informer (Tiktiki or lizard), surveillance by the Dadas (Big Brothers) of the dominant political party is a familiar trope in West Bengal’s aggressively competitive politics for at least the last 100 years. It has in some ways been responsible for the intensely anti-establishment culture of the opposition. The slogan that captures it best is one that inspires demonstrators to “Break and Crush the Black Hand of the Oppressive State.”
In 1972, the special provisions were crafted when West Bengal was at its most politically turbulent, with the Naxalites, the Communist Party of India Marxist and other Left parties embroiled in violent confrontations against each other. Bloody factions fights were routine within the Congress, and torching of buses and trams, government offices, snatching of police rifles were regular events.
The Congress government in 1972 was not a popular one. The credibility of the election that installed it in power in West Bengal was suspect. The law was the brainchild of chief minister Siddharth Shankar Ray who later advised Indira Gandhi on the Emergency. Ray could not dream of communities being asked to police themselves over potential protests because back then, in the opinion of many, there was an “undeclared emergency” in the state. He also knew that the Congress was not popular enough to expect the community to police its political rivals. In striking contrast, in 2017 the Mamata Banerjee government is by all objective indicators at the peak of its popularity, controlling 211 seats in the 294 member state assembly.
So why did the Mamata Banerjee government need to dig out an old law that was buried under a mountain of dust to repress protest and opposition, public mobilisation and political demonstrations? The amendments come barely two weeks after two incidents in which angry locals in Bhangar in South 24 Parganas and Aushgram in Burdwanthat countered strong arm tactics by land sharks protected by the local Trinamool Congress leadership and aided and abetted by the police. The resistance turned violent, ending with two deaths, numerous injuries to locals as well as police personnel, torching of police vehicles and ransacking of a police station. The government’s amendments seem to be an act of retaliation, a bid to force shut down not only agitations, but all forms of protest, including public demonstrations of dissent.
The apologetic demonstrations by the CPI M, the Congress or even the insignificant presence of the CPI ML Red Star in Bhangar, cannot have rattled the Trinamool Congress to the point that it felt compelled to squeeze the opposition out of the very small space it currently occupies as part of the politics of democratic and peaceful dissent. Minor mutinies by angry locals against Trinamool Congress’s mafias in places like Bhangar and Aushgram ought not to matter for Mamata Banerjee. Her extraordinary connect to people and her capacity to mobilise the masses put her on a political plane where there are no rivals.
Just as democratic politics cannot defend the right of protestors going on the rampage and damaging or destroying public or even private property, it cannot use intimidation of all potential protestors by imposing a penalty for participation or even sympathising with an agitation. In changing the rules by which politics is conducted in West Bengal, the Mamata Banerjee government is further jeopardising the idea of respect and tolerance and difference in a democracy.
Surveillance, the use of videography, when crowds of protestors collect has been contested over and over again as undemocratic and coercive. It is a chilling reminder of how surveillance is being deployed by governments run by the Bharatiya Janata Party in places like Rajasthan, where a police case has been filed against Nivedita Menon for her alleged remarks on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir and earlier by the Narendra Modi government on the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus against students, Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya for their alleged seditious “anti-India” slogans. It is of a piece of branding all dissenters as anti-national.
The police profiling of the ordinary citizen as a ‘preventive measure’ via the Integrated People Information Hub that takes surveillance to the next level in Telangana is equally menacing for what is a fundamental right – to assemble and protest. The underlying assumption is that the intention of political mobilisation for protests is not peaceful; in other words, conflict, violence, destruction of public property are signs that there is an emerging insurrection. Such assumptions are odious.
In West Bengal, vandalised property has been for the most part deemed as collateral damage, a metaphor for the failure of democracy to peacefully engage with dissent. In the political culture of West Bengal decorous democratic debate can quickly slide into conflict, because in the eyes of every opposition, the State is always anti-people. Jyoti Basu was unafraid of leading movements that he knew almost beforehand would end in confrontations with the police. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya as chief minister alienated his comrades by declaring that disruption to everyday life because of organised protest was unacceptable; that he continues to apologise for his misstep, is evident in the recently published memoirs, Phire Dekha (Looking Back). Mamata Banerjee herself has led and presided over confrontations with the police in her heydays as the stormy petrel of West Bengal. Her Writer’s Building gherao movement in 1993 resulted in 13 deaths. Her rage over being denied entry into Singur in 2006 produced carnage inside the state assembly over which she presided.
Confrontations are almost inevitable in a polity where violence against the state or the opposition has acquired a certain glamour. Formally condemned by political parties, their capacity to restrain angry demonstrators from burning buses and trams, attacking public property, breaking windows and for the past 10 years, vandalising police stations, colleges, other public places, is limited. No side ever restrained its cadres from getting into a fight. Distinction as a political cadre has come with being arrested by the police, getting beaten up and brawling with the opposition.
As much as the opposition, the police in West Bengal too has acquired a reputation for violence and allowing itself to be compromised by political patronage that is not conducive to sensible management of protesting crowds. The usual police reaction of suspicion and hostility towards protestors is a carryover from colonial times, against which every party that has been in the opposition has railed, but failed to curb when voted to power.
Expecting that “tranquillity” ought to be the normal in any functioning democracy is a contradiction in terms. To suspect protest instead of celebrating differences, dissensions and public mobilisations of opposition moves Mamata Banerjee’s government closer to autocratic intolerance and a disregard for democratic values. It pushes her inexorably closer to the intentions of the original law, which was a throwback to the colonial era, when protesting people were considered enemies of the sovereign. It provoked the opposition then to describe the situation as an undeclared emergency and in 2017 the addition of monetary penalties and surveillance has prompted the opposition to declare it as “Black Law.”