What Farmers Have Learnt From The Anti-CAA Protests: Blackmail Using Street Power Can Work
Mob protests and street violence will become the norm unless the police-investigative-judicial system is capable of handling them without excess violence.
Right now, the state lies prostrate while the mobs have the power to blackmail governments.
The disconnect between Dalal Street and Main Street could not be starker. The stock markets are celebrating the likely return of growth from this quarter onwards even as Delhi is battling both Covid-19 and thousands of farmers camped on its borders, where a deliberate effort is being made to scuttle the most important agricultural reforms undertaken by the Indian state ever.
If the Street wins this battle, Dalal Street will have nothing to celebrate. Every reform can be rolled back through mob action.
This is not to deny that farmers may have genuine concerns over what will happen to MSPs (minimum support prices) once the mandi system is forced to compete with large contract buyers of farm produce. Commonsense tells us that this competition among buyers can only benefit sellers, once the latter get organised. But the agitating farmers have been led up the garden path both by political parties and vested interests. If even half the efforts put into organising protests had been expended in organising farmers into strong producers’ outfits which can bargain on equal terms with contract buyers, MSPs would not even be needed.
But no. The protests are about using farmers’ anxieties to destabilise an elected government and its reforms agenda. The passive-aggressive protest method that was employed to devastating effect during the anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protests, from Jamia Millia to Shaheen Bagh, is now being used again to blackmail Delhi into kowtowing to the mob and repeal all the reform measures. If the Centre succumbs, this will become the norm in future protests where committed groups or communities will use street power to overawe the government into conceding their demands.
The anti-CAA and farmer protests have exposed the weak nature of the Indian state, where the only way it can combat mob blackmail is the use of excess force (lathi charge, teargas, even rubber bullets), which will then be used to create further protests till the government of the day caves in. What we are seeing is the threat to governance come repeatedly from mobs taking to the streets. If this continues, even the courts will not have the courage to tell what they said to the Shaheen Bagh protesters: protest in designated areas, but not in public places where the rights of ordinary citizens are trampled jupon. Mobocracy will win.
Whatever it does in the farmers’ case, the Narendra Modi government has to think through its future response to street-level blackmail.
It is interesting that the Supreme Court yesterday (2 December) directed the government to install CCTV cameras in all police stations and places where the probe agencies interrogate suspects and arrested people. While this is a good suggestion intended to prevent the use of third degree methods, one wonders why the same level of transparency cannot be brought to the courtrooms and judges’ chambers, where hearings and cases are recorded and can be rechecked for bias or bribery at a later date.
However, that is another story. What the Supreme Court has done is give the government an idea about how it must deal with future street-level blackmail tactics. Since protesters tend to use social media and doctored videos to make the police seem like initiators and perpetrators of violence – which could certainly be true in some cases – there is an equal need for policemen trying to prevent mobs from doing damage to present their own videos of what actually happened. It is not only police stations that should be provided CCTVs, but policemen and officers dealing with mob violence during protests must wear body cameras so that they too have a record of what really happened. In some US cities, bodycams are the norm for policemen; it is time India did the same.
Having cameras in police stations and on their person will ensure that both policemen and protesters behave properly. Both of them should know that what they say or do can be recorded and brought up as proof to explain why the police had to use force in a certain situation. Equally, protesters can question whether the police were too heavyhanded while dealing with relatively peaceful people.
Shaheen Bagh should have been cleared using body cams where patient policewomen physically moved the protesters out of public spaces and into designated areas where the dadis could not inconvenience the public. While it may be legitimate to disrupt some public spaces in order to draw attention to problems, a prolonged refusal to move to designated areas can only be seen as mobocracy in action, even if it relatively free of violence.
Mob protests and street violence will become the norm unless the police-investigative-judicial system is capable of handling them without excess violence. Right now, the state lies prostrate while the mobs have the power to blackmail governments. Police beating up protesters is not democracy; but a police force that can do nothing to prevent mob violence and disruption is no help to democracy either.
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