By Bharat Karnad
The breakdown of law and order in Haryana, reflected in the indiscriminate but deliberate destruction of public and private property by agitating Jats should trigger thinking about whether a reversion to British-era methods is necessary. Political protests in India inevitably lead to buses and public facilities being torched, roads and rail tracks being dug up and “mindless” violence perpetrated by some socially enraged group or the other. It is ironic that the wealthy kulak, land-owning classes in various states (like the middle caste Jats, Patidars in Gujarat, Kapus in Andhra, etc) are seeking quotas in government jobs, whereas job reservation originally was designed to right social inequities of long-standing in a caste-fragmented society. Except with the original injunction in the Constitution restricting quotas to only 10 years being indefinitely extended guaranteeing certain aggrieved sections employment in a time-wise open-ended fashion. With the job market bleak, and GOI unable to rev up the manufacturing sector, more people are looking to the state for work rather than trusting in private enterprise, individual talent and toil to make something of themselves.
This quelling of personal initiative is the insidious effect of rooting Nehruvian socialism in a milieu; the British had for the purpose of legitimizing their alien rule prepared the ground for — the cultivation of government as ‘mai-baap sarkar’. CR Rajagopalachari (Rajaji) and his small cohort of right-of-centre ideologues, who formed the Swatantra Party, had warned this would happen and advised Nehru in the Fifties to refrain from invariably plonking for statist solutions for all social and economic problems. Piloo Mody, Rajaji’s more effervescent colleague, in the Seventies pilloried Indira Gandhi for further extending the reach of the state.
The point about Nehru’s socialism is that it introduced the notion of strikes before there was a properly installed and functioning manufacturing sector, leave alone an organized labour movement. It gave rise to the labour aristocracy of the relatively few in the workforce, periodically holding the state to ransom. But the strikes were never peaceful: possibility of violence and destruction of public property was always imminent. It was but a short step before such organized sector shenanigans were emulated by socio-political empowerment movements seeking quotas, etc. The threat of hooliganism is accepted as par for the course for any agitation, and has now become part of the woof and weave of confrontational politics as mainstream politics and politicking. This trend is an internal security threat because adversaries can sponsor and nurse agitations to keep the State and its agencies preoccupied and off-balance.
It is the sort of hooliganism, unique to South Asia, that needs to be put to an end to by appropriate punitive laws. Here the British-era measures recommend themselves. Often in riot-affected areas where the local people indulged in mindless destruction of public and private property; the colonial administration would extract financial compensation from the leaders of the agitation that went haywire by, for instance, expropriating their land and property and then auctioning these off, imposing special taxes, to finance restoration of law and order and as restitution for damage and destruction of public and private property. It is time laws were enacted to once again make this possible.
Of course, this won’t happen because usually there is a political hand behind all such public acts of sustained violence. In Haryana, the previous chief minister, Hooda and his henchmen, are supposed to have prompted and overseen this agitation in order to embarrass and weaken the newly elected BJP govt. In any case, all political parties want to keep this option in reserve to call up when in opposition.
The Courts in Kerala had some years back charged the political party that had led an agitation which resulted in destruction of public amenities, and imposed financial cost on it. Not sure what happened to that case, or how things have since panned out in that state. But north India where violence is resorted to at the slightest provocation is deserving of more stringent laws that will not only punish agitators with heavy-handed police treatment but make leaders, social groups, such as caste panchayats, political parties, and movements responsible for any violent and destructive actions.
Imposing costs on big social groups will have a salutary effect that no amount of pleading for peaceful protest can.
Bharat Karnad is a senior fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. He was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy’, ‘India’s Nuclear Policy’ and most recently, ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’.
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