Tremors following an earthquake often cause more damage than the original shock. This seems to be the emerging pattern in the context of demonstrations expressing dissatisfaction and dissent with the government’s policies and the blatantly partisan manner in which ‘law and order’ are restored. At the outset, it must be made clear that what follows shouldn’t be misconstrued as support for violent protests and provocative hate speech spewing venom by those who provoke and spearhead explosive confrontation between communities.
In the age of digital media, real-time coverage of developing situations is available to citizens. People are eyewitnesses to unravelling events. There is little scope for leaders or workers of parties in power or in opposition to find an escape route by claiming that they have been quoted out of context or the video has been doctored. Spinning to change the narrative follows later.
Riots are ugly things and should be controlled sternly. This doesn’t give the law enforcement agencies the licence to give short shrift to standard operating protocol and due process. In case after case from different parts of the country, distressing news has surfaced that preventing riots is no longer the priority of the government. Apparently, it has decided that swift and exemplary punishment can be the only deterrent. This is unfortunate as the law of the land guarantees equality before the law and the accused is presumed to be innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Increasing polarisation along religious or caste lines combined with draconian laws that allow preventive detention on mere suspicion has turned humane jurisprudence on its head. Bail can be denied on the grounds of an accused suspected to be a security threat or an associate of terrorists. These laws have not been read down by the Supreme Court (SC) nor have the appeals for relief on humanitarian grounds by the detainees cut much ice. Some have languished in jail for years.
As if this were not enough, bulldozers have appeared on the scene. Anyone suspected of aiding or abetting rioters runs the risk of his house or shop being razed to rubble. Uttar Pradesh pioneered this form of policing and others have adopted this practice. The apex court has more than once advised the law enforcement agencies to tread with caution and follow all legal guidelines before demolition is undertaken.
What happened in the wake of stone-pelting in Jahangirpuri can only be termed chilling. The demolition squad continued its work even after the SC had ordered a stay. Dramatic scenes were witnessed as CPI(M) leader Brinda Karat stood in front of a bulldozer waving a sheaf of papers that communicated the SC order to the North Delhi Municipal Corporation. In an era when India boasts of its digital prowess, it’s difficult to believe that the officials engaged in removing illegal encroachments on government land had no clue about the urgent hearing and the orders passed in the SC! The Solicitor General would like the honourable court to believe that this was routine eviction and had no connection with recent riots. The learned law officer’s credibility has been dented in the past so no one was surprised by his statements. However, several disturbing questions remain to be answered.
Why were these squatters and encroachments allowed to fester like sores for so long? Why is it that targets of demolition are concentrated in sensitive violence-prone neighbourhoods? One must confess that the judiciary has also failed to protect the fundamental rights of the citizens. It thunders in stentorian tones but doesn’t seem inclined to punish those who are deaf to its pronouncements. And, why and how could certain star anchors be allowed to report from grand zero perched on the ringside seat on a bulldozer?
The bulldozer in India of 2022 is threatening to become the dreaded symbol of stifling dissent like the tank on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. It sure beats the mounted police of colonial times to strike terror in the hearts of protestors. Unfortunately, bulldozers leave behind them a painful trail of devastated lives—innocent victims caught in the crossfire between miscreants, agents provocateurs and the police. Those fanning flames of fire with hate speech are seldom brought to book. Rehabilitation and compensation are forgotten. Social harmony is irreparably lost.
Former Chief Justice Gogoi has decided to chip in. He has opined magisterially that in a democracy, freedom of expression has a central role. At the same time, he has added the caveat that no one should cross the Lakshman Rekha. Now, who marks out the Lakshman Rekha? Certainly, this can’t be left to the whims of those in power. Nor can one take Sri Gogoi seriously since he chose to be a judge in his own case when he was gracing the SC Bench. His own disregard for natural justice has eroded his credibility totally. Other learned honourable judges have made baffling pronouncements. If this continues, ‘obnoxious’ may soon become synonymous with ‘criminal’ with lethal consequences for the accused. We tremble and wait with bated breath. Is there Life after Stay?