With protests intensifying in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the Cauvery river water-sharing dispute, both states have seen widespread destruction of public and private property.
Scores of vehicles, including state transport buses, were torched in Bengaluru as the city erupted in violence over sharing Cauvery water with neighbouring Tamil Nadu. A mob hurled stones and vandalized shops and establishments at a bus station for Tamil Nadu-bound buses, while a fleet of more than 30 buses belonging to a private operator was reportedly set on fire.
In Chennai, a group of unidentified men reportedly hurled a petrol bomb at New Woodlands Hotel, an Udupi restaurant.
Destruction of public property is common during agitations led by organized mobs.
Mint reported that the Jat agitation in February has dealt an estimated blow of ₹ 18,000-20,000 crore by way of loss to public and private property and halting trade, industry, small business and transport, according to the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Assocham).
How do we fix responsibility for damage of property during agitations?
Following the Patel agitation in Gujarat last year, the Supreme Court has decided to lay down a law for fixing accountability for the damage caused to public property during agitations.
“You cannot burn the country’s or its citizen’s property. Agitators cannot take the country at ransom," the court had said while hearing a bail plea by Hardik Patel, a political activist from Gujarat who campaigned for the inclusion of the Patidar caste in the other backward class (OBC) category.
Patel has been charged with sedition for inciting violence in the state that led to loss of life and property.
In 2009, taking a serious note of various instances, where there was large-scale destruction of public and private properties during agitations, bandhs and hartals, the apex court initiated suo moto proceedings to lay down the law making those responsible liable for their acts.
The court formulated two committees—one headed by former apex court judge K.T. Thomas and another by advocate Fali S. Nariman—which included representatives of the home ministry and the law ministry.
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One of the recommendations made by the committees was to amend the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984, or the PDPP Act, to include provisions to make the leaders of the organization that calls for the direct action guilty of abetment of the offence.
“As long as there is no clear identifiable leader calling for violence and incitement, it will be hard to pin responsibility as mob mentality ensues. Unless someone is found glaringly violating police orders, then the leader of the group would be liable," said Alok Prasanna Kumar, senior resident fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.
The issue of identifying the leaders has been a matter of debate.
Advocate Kapil Sibal, who appeared for Hardik Patel in the apex court, said that although Patel was the face of the agitation and called for action, he cannot be held responsible. He had told the court that the protest quickly spiralled out of Patel’s control and individual protesters took to the streets themselves destroying property.
A three-judge bench of the apex court laid down guidelines in 2009 based on the committee’s recommendations which the court is currently revisiting in the case of sedition made against Patel.
The ministry of home affairs had proposed to amend the PDPP Act in 2015 to deter protestors from violating public property, but the proposal is still in the pipeline.
“It is the government that has to show strong will and make use of technology to prevent loss to public and private property," said Sandeep Shastri, a political analyst and pro-vice-chancellor of Jain University in Bengaluru.
“In a mob, people are emboldened as they think their identity is protected and they aren’t individually responsible. If police pull out video recordings and make vandalizers pay, it will surely send out a strong message," he said.
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