Storms Brewing Outside My Drawing Room

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If the violence of the Jat agitation did not knock on my door, some other riot would have. For governments have shown that they will only heed mobs gone berserk; it’s the peaceful protests they want to crush.

Rohtak: Shops ransacked by Jat protesters demanding reservation, in Rohtak on Sunday. Credit: PTI

Shops in Rohtak ransacked by Jat protesters demanding reservation, on February 21, 2016. Credit: PTI

“The city is engulfed in smoke. We are scared to leave our homes. Today, we hid our cars because anything that is on the road is being burnt or damaged…” Speaking in a shaky voice on the phone, Ms. Singhmar continues: “Stores have been looted and a mall nearby has been burnt. We can constantly hear glass breaking, people shouting and gunshots being fired.”

The curfew and ‘shoot at sight’ orders in the city, […] have ensured that people remain indoors. “We are confined to our homes… Petrol pumps have gone dry and there is shortage of LPG cylinders,”…

The city, meanwhile, is virtually cut-off and mobile phones work erratically. SMS and Internet services are also down for the past five days. “We haven’t been able to get any groceries for almost a week. We don’t know how long we can manage…”

What is worrying the locals is that anti-social elements are having a free run of the area. Incidents of vandalism, looting and damaging public property have become common and the police and military personnel are not visible to inspire confidence.

…the agitation is leaderless. “It has, in fact, deviated from the real issue and become a chaos-causing agent. Youths have hijacked the agitation. They fuelled the chaos by expressing lack of faith in the khap and sangarsh samiti leaders and mobilising the younger population. The government underestimated the situation and now it has gone out of hand.”

This is no fiction. It is an excerpt from a report in The Hindu on Sunday (February 21) describing the situation brought about by the Jat agitation in Rohtak (Haryana), which is some 70 odd km from Delhi.

Seventy km! How long do you think it will take for the marauding band to reach me and you if, like me, you too live in the National Capital Region? Don’t be so sure of the valour of the dozen guards outside your building complex. I have personally seen them run away, and I can’t really blame them. If you are old enough to remember 1984, your afternoon beer might feel a little less refreshing today.

Am I being an alarmist? Who knows, I guess only time will tell. I wish to make a specific point though, if you will indulge me:

  1. As events of the last 20, 30 or 40 years have shown, rioters always get away with impunity. Many who have publicly burnt the flag and the Constitution, led violent mobs, destroyed public property, defied court orders and such like have often gone on to become our political leaders.
  2. Powerful and connected people can do anything — threaten and abuse (verbally and physically) undertrials, journalists, even a Supreme Court-appointed team — on camera and get away with it. Very likely, even get a boost in their political career. If this is what happens in New Delhi can you imagine what might be happening in the interiors of the country? I suspect ‘they’ could very well rape a woman on camera and post it on YouTube as a trophy. And nothing will happen to them. Yesterday some people attacked AAP leader Soni Sori in Dantewada by throwing ‘acid’ on her face. Are you waiting for official action against the miscreants? Dream on.
  3. However, the unprecedented challenge posed by a bunch of college students debating – debating — inside an academic institution takes the country by storm. Big ticket journalists use doctored videos to rally lynch mobs to summarily damn some students who are sloganeering. Perhaps you don’t see this exactly as I do, but I hope you would agree that there is zero evidence of any actual violence or lawlessness. Let us be the devil’s advocate for a moment and say that a law was broken. Then all that was needed was to simply present the students in court and allow the ‘law to take its course’ as they say. Why incite mob frenzy? Who benefits from the frenzy? Aside from TRPs, that is.

So I ask myself, why is it that we ignore instances of actual and public violence as described in points 1 and 2 and so much else that hits us in the face every day — from farmer suicides to khap-induced lynchings to sanctioned rape — but get all riled up by the incident mentioned in point number 3?

Why? Do you have a theory? I have a tentative one and once again I seek your indulgence to hear me out. Do you remember what happened when a peaceful protest was allowed to go on endlessly? It eventually led to both the BJP and Congress being routed in the Delhi elections (incidentally that involved some JNU ‘types’ too).

No politically savvy government (Manmohan and Sheila Dikshit’s Congress was obviously not savvy) will allow a peaceful protest to go on. The formula is simple: Criminalise all peaceful protest, quickly. Successive governments have done this repeatedly all over the country (if someone hasn’t already written a book about this, one is due). Once dissent and protest are criminalised, the middle class can happily go back to their TV and their beer and the politicians can go back to selling their country to the highest bidder. Some more beer, please, while the next violent movement brews.

The upshot of this, as I see it, is this: If the violence of the Jat agitation did not knock on my door this time, some other will – eventually. Because our governments (successive ones) have, on our behalf, told the people that they will only listen to mobs gone berserk. And then governments will co-opt their leaders into national politics. Looking back it seems clear that this is not a one-off thing. It is a pattern likely to repeat endlessly.

So what options are comfortable people like me left with? Seems to me that we have four options:

  1. Don’t get involved. Drink beer, watch TV, go shopping (hopefully the malls will be up and working soon). And tell yourself that this storm too shall pass.
  2. If you have mountains of extra cash, then get involved. Invest in organisations of varying political hues and profit from the patronage, regardless of the ups and downs.
  3. If you have the courage, then engage politically. Depending on your personal ethics, that would mean a choice between becoming the mob (instead of being its victim) or — if you are stark raving mad – standing up for the victims. Good luck with the acid attacks.
  4. Say goodbye. Leave while you can. I know a few middle class Indians who left after 1984 and 2002. As a pre-emptive measure you could leave at once, if you can afford to. The trouble is that, as far as I know, all ‘decent’ countries make it very, very hard for Indians to get in.

I have taken a day off today to think (the local administration in Gurgaon has suggested that we should try to stay at home instead of ‘loitering around’; many schools are closed too). So let me know if I have missed something.

Ajay Jaiman runs a digital production house and consultancy called Impellio.com. The opinions expressed in the article are personal.

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