After the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) was passed by Parliament three weeks ago, opponents of the discriminatory statute took to the streets. States responded with internet shutdowns, bans on protest meetings, unprovoked baton charges, assaults inside educational institutions, indiscriminate arrests, and the use of live ammunition. Supporters of the CAA call these measures appropriate responses to violent agitators targeting public infrastructure. Images of vandalized vehicles, played on loop on a number of news channels, have turned the burning bus into a fetish within pro-CAA circles.
The celebrated actor Kangana Ranaut, an avid admirer of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, tarred all critics of the amended law with the same brush when she said, “In our population, only 3-4% people pay tax, while others are dependent on that tax. So, what gives you the right to burn buses, trains and to create ruckus in the country?" While Ranaut was castigated for her fallacious understanding of tax revenues, the sentiment she expressed is widely shared. Karnataka’s advocate general Prabhuling Navadgi argued before a bench of chief justice Abhay Oka and justice Pradeep Yerur that curtailing the fundamental right to peaceful assembly by pre-emptively activating Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code was justified because, “the final concern of the state is safety of public property".
This is a deeply misguided attitude. While no destruction of property should be disregarded, the highest duty of any government is securing the lives and liberties of citizens. The state has a monopoly on legitimate violence in modern democracies. An important measure of a nation’s freedom is the extent to which that monopoly is used in the service of citizens’ rights rather than as a tool of oppression. Admittedly, calibrating a response to agitations is a challenge. Dealing harshly with peaceful protest signals a tendency towards authoritarianism, but letting violence spread and destroy public order would be abdicating the government’s responsibility.
How, then, are we to judge the veracity of competing narratives about the anti-CAA protests? More specifically, how should we view the government’s role in Uttar Pradesh, where a disproportionate number of deaths has taken place, 20 at last count? Was Zahir Ahmed quietly smoking a beedi near his home in Meerut when gunned down, or was he part of a rabid mob? Was Anas Hussain of Nehtaur hit in the eye by a rioter’s bullet as he stepped out to buy milk for his seven-month-old son, or was it police firing that took his life? Was the constable who shot the studious IAS aspirant Mohammed Suleiman in the chest at point-blank range acting in self-defence or in cold blood? Was the lathi charge warranted that turned a Varanasi demonstration into a stampede which crushed 11-year-old Saghir Ahmed to death?
The police maintain that all fatalities in UP were caused by crossfire between security forces and agitators carrying weapons of their own. In support of this account, there is at least one video showing a civilian brandishing a revolver during a march. However, the lack of casualties on the police side is striking, as is the fact that no gun has been recovered from any of the people supposedly killed in armed confrontations. The police version sounds a lot like official accounts of extrajudicial killings, which always involve the victims firing first, but never accurately.
Looking at the country as a whole, it is worth considering whether apprehensions of violence became self-fulfilling prophecies in areas where Section 144 was enforced as a deterrent. If an administration criminalizes all public meetings, it is obliged to crack down on contraventions of the order. Since radical activists and hoodlums are predisposed to defy bans while ordinary citizens are inclined to comply with them, any use of force on the part of the police is likely to be met with fierce retaliation in such a situation.
The idea that some administrations provoked retaliatory violence is bolstered by the conspicuous difference between rallies held in states which prohibited protests, most of them BJP ruled, and those like Maharashtra and Telangana, which did not restrict free assembly. I went to a meeting at Mumbai’s August Kranti Maidan on 19 December which was so jam packed that any aggressive act by law enforcement could have led to disaster. Instead, the police were at their friendliest, politely directing the throngs to the correct entry and exit points and even providing a supply of drinking water. At the end of the evening, there were no burned buses and certainly no dead bystanders, only a wonderful sense of comradeship among a diverse groups of dissenters that included many youngsters transferring their activism for the first time from social media to a physical venue.
Even in places where tensions have run higher than at August Kranti Maidan, the anti-CAA movement has engendered no ransacking and looting, except, allegedly, by men and women in uniform. Nor have the current protests stimulated more arson than comparable agitations in the past. Emphasizing again that no violence is to be condoned, it is worth cultivating a sense of proportion, for there is an extreme fringe to any mass uprising. Just a year ago, 99 Kerala State Road Transport Corporation buses were burned on a single day during a strike called by the Sabarimala Karma Samithi. If this seems an unfair example, given the state’s historical affinity for vehicular conflagrations, consider the Patidar and Jat agitations of recent years which targeted transport of all varieties and, in the latter case, even disrupted Delhi’s water supply. In each of these cases, the public at large received the news with disapproval that barely rose above the level of indifference.
As a final illustration, take a campaign that resonated with the middle class and temporarily converted a number of well-off Indians into activists: the reaction to the brutal gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in Delhi. On 22 December, 2012, Raisina Hill turned into a battleground, with protesters breaking down barricades and police employing tear gas and lathi charges. By the end of the day, 72 people were injured, half of them police personnel. Eleven vehicles, including six public buses, were damaged. Yet, the focus at that time was entirely on the administration’s heavy hand, with almost no reference to the destruction caused by the marchers.
All of this makes me suspect that well-to-do Indians have no deep attachment to public property. It is not that the majority cares for buses more, but that it cares for people less. Certain people, that is: those Prime Minister Narendra Modi said could be identified by their clothes.
Girish Shahane writes about politics, history, and art.