Fickle mobs, dangerous games

Smita Prakash“Desh ka yuva yahaan hai, Rahul Gandhi kahaan hai?” rant the air. There were many catchy slogans, shaming politicians and expressing solidarity with the victim of last week’s gang rape on Saturday. Implausible as it sounds, anger against the rapists had turned into anger against the establishment. And this outpouring of grief and anger was done in the heart of the capital, opposite the President’s House, Parliament and the Prime Minister’s office.

But there was nobody to hear them. Parliament was not in session, government offices are closed on Saturday and the President was immune to the pleas of thousands of young boys and girls yelling at the top of their lungs, “Justice, Justice”. What they meant was “Laws, Laws”. Change the law, and hang the rapists were the demands incoherently expressed by young Indians there. Chief Minister Sheila Dixit and Lt. Governor Tejinder Khanna were travelling, and some movers and shakers of Delhi were hosting weekend and Christmas parties.

Students stage a protest in support of the 23-yr-old girl who was gang raped in Delhi
Demanding justice: Students stage a protest in support of the 23-yr-old girl who was gang raped in Delhi last week 

Saturday’s demonstrators were categorised as ‘lumpen elements’ simply because they did something as anarchic as demonstrating loudly and robustly. But the real lumpen elements, those who were going to use public anger to cause bodily damage and damage to public property, were sure to follow. They did on Sunday.

There is anger over women being unsafe in public spaces and Saturday’s demonstrators were expressing it in an unsophisticated manner, which peeved the ruling elite. Sometimes it isn’t enough to be rule-bound when the other person is grieving and angry. Of all people, politicians should understand the need to listen and engage. They didn’t and left the space for rowdy elements to hijack the agenda.

Over the weekend newspapers and newschannels have tried to educate the people that it’s not possible to hang all rapists. Very few countries do so and it is not an option in our country where one rape happens every half hour. It raises the evidentiary bar very high. With our poor rate of conviction, the death penalty for rape cannot be a deterrent. Death penalty may be appropriate if there are aggravating circumstances like the one in Delhi or in cases of child rape. This does not mean that all rapes are not heinous, but the law observes that the death penalty is to be awarded only in rarest of the rare cases.

The demonstrators at Rajpath didn’t want to know such details. Initially they were just teens, who probably needed a compassionate leader, preferably an iconic youth leader, to come forward and express solidarity with them, with the victim battling for her life, with women who want the streets to be safe for them. Was that too much to ask? Apparently yes. They got tear gas and a lathi charge in response.

Not all those who came to Rajpath and Ramlila Maidan were apolitical. But why should they have been? The right to protest is inherently political. Why shouldn’t the opposition join the protests, whether overtly or covertly? Didn’t the Congress party do it during the anti-reservation stir in 1990? V.P. Singh did not speak to the students who were immolating themselves all over the country. His smugness that the stir would peter out was compounded by reports provided to him that Congress party was covertly backing the protestors. When he did at last come on Doordarshan to address the nation, he had lost the battle of perceptions. And the middle class messiah had lost the middle class. Years later when he was battling blood cancer, I asked him if he regretted what happened then. He looked straight into the camera, tears in his eyes and said, “Yes”. But it was too late.

Omar Abdullah, Chief Minister J&K tweeted: “I made the mistake of not being seen or heard in the summer of 2010 when trouble first started. I wish my mistake had been learnt from.”

On Saturday too, nobody met with the protestors till the rage had boiled over. There were many fuelling that rage and the combustion took place on Sunday. The government had the option of ignoring dissenting voices dismissing them as being motivated (as if that is a cuss word) or listen to them and take wise decisions. A smart government does the latter. The other possibility was whether someone deliberately allowed this demonstration to become violent so as to lose the fickle support of the media, both traditional and social media and the public.

In two days, sympathizers of the rape victim, an ordinary crowd, turned into a lynch mob attacking policemen and destroying public property. There was sabotage, genuine emotion was twisted to an ugly end. Repulsive politics yet again.

Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash 

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