Originally Published 2011-11-29 00:00:00 Published on Nov 29, 2011
The attack on Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar at a function in New Delhi, where a kirpan-wielding individual popped up to hit him, should be viewed not as a stand-alone case.
'Disaffection', criminal acts & democracy
The attack on Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar at a function in New Delhi, where a kirpan-wielding individual popped up to hit him, should be viewed not as a stand-alone case. Instead, it should be a cause for greater concern. The attack on Pawar, as one could recall, was preceded months earlier by a journalist throwing shoe at a media briefing by Union Home Minister P Chidambaram. Other leaders at the national and State-levels too have been targeted in near-similar ways, including BJP leader L K Advani. A chappal was thrown at him during a rally in Uttar Pradesh, followed by, weeks later, an aborted bomb-attack at Madurai in Tamil Nadu. Suresh Kalmadi, the main accused in the 'CWG scam' case was also not spared.

In this context, for the political Opposition to rile the Government and Ministers of the day for their purported 'non-performance' inducing the anger of the people at large has to be taken with a lot of salt, considering that the tables could turn - and also be turned against - them, now or later. At least a section of the political Opposition in the country had forcefully condemned the chappal-throwing incident against Advani. As was only to be expected, the Opposition, as also the ruling party, condemned the pipe-bomb incident targeting him in Madurai, the second such episode of the kind, after the 'Coimbatore serial blasts' of February 1998. That both incidents occurred in the relatively peaceful Tamil Nadu would imply that motives and modus need not always justify an act that is otherwise criminal in intent and content.

The man who assaulted Sharad Pawar only slapped the Minister, according to media reports. It is doubtful if the critics of Pawar and of the Indian political and administrative systems would have said the same thing if the Minister had been attacked with the weapon which was in the possession of the assaulter. It is equally doubtful if these critics would have the very same arguments, if other individuals or groups of individuals from such other sections of the society had other cause for concern and hatred towards such other politicians. For instance, the 'Ayodhya demolition' could still whip up sentiments and justifications of the kind in other people, who could then seek to target other politicians.

All such acts and justification for such acts, both from the political class and others, are reprehensible and unpardonable. Suffice is to point out that the 'Indira Gandhi assassination' and the 'Rajiv Gandhi assassination', not to forget the 'Mahathma Gandhi assassination' flowed from such sentiments of individuals or groups who felt aggrieved by the actions of these leaders, one way or the other, for one reason or the other. The fact that, in the case of Mahatma Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, the assassins had hidden themselves under the garb of ordinary civilian admirers of the leader concerned, should not be overlooked. In the case of Indira Gandhi, they were from her personal security detail.

The reported reaction of social activist Anna Hazare, asking his people if it was "only one slap" for Pawar, also needs to be considered with the seriousness it deserves. News reports quoting Anna Hazare claim that he did not mean it in the sense that his query or observation was understood or misunderstood. According to Anna Hazare, he was only asking people of Pawar was only slapped and had been saved from violent assaults of any kind. The damage however had been done. It is now difficult to ascertain if peaceful protests like Anna Hazare's anti-corruption drive may not have prepared the mood of the people to become crusaders themselves, and in ways they understood and could be expected to act, thus. Gandhiji's visionary trait stands out when one considers his unpopular decision to call off the non-cooperation movement after the 'Chauri Chaura incident'.

The comparison however should end there. If nothing else, police investigations into the past of Harvinder Singh who assaulted Pawar before TV news cameras, alone would determine if his purported grouse had nothing beyond and beside the issues that he professed when apprehended. The fact that the same youth had attacked former Telecom Minister Sukh Ram only a week earlier should make it clear that his case needed further investigation - in terms of his politics, criminal mindset and/or mental health. With elections due in many States in the country, and also for the Lok Sabha subsequently, such attacks on ministers and other political party leaders could well demand greater security during campaign time. In turn, this would only take these leaders further away from the people, not closer to them - something that a youth leader like Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi has been attempting to encourage, but only with a mixed bag of success and failure.

It is often argued that non-violent protests should not be stymied in a democracy. True. However, the question is that if non-violent protests too could promote disaffection in democracy and democratic institutions, then what should the State do? Encourage the protestors, or be indifferent to their protests in terms of preventive action on the law and order front, or come down heavily on the protestors. In Tamil Nadu, where the protests against the Koodamkulam nuclear power project has remained mostly non-violent, and is confined to relatively small number of protestors, the State Government, in its wisdom, has been acting 'decisively' or 'harshly' against the protestors, as the case may be.

In possibly among the 'rarest of rare cases' in post-Independence history, the State Government has slapped some of the strong penal provisions on protestors who took to the seas in boats on the 'World Fisheries Day' on November 21, and allegedly tried to trespass into the project site from the other end. Among these penal provisions are Sections 121 (waging or attempting to wage war or abetting waging war against Government of India), punishable with death or life imprisonment, Section 124-A (exciting hatred towards Government of India), for which the maximum sentence is one of life imprisonment, and Section 153-A (promoting enmity among different groups of people), for which the maximum penalty is six months in prison.

It needs to be remembered that not very long ago, the Tamil Nadu Government had sympathised with the case made out by the anti-project protestors. The State Cabinet, at the instance of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, passed a resolution, urging the Centre to review the Koodamkulam project, that too in the light of the reservations expressed by the protestors. Peaceful as the protest has been, the protestors have still been able to provoke the State Government into taking tough legal and criminal action against them. It is easy to dismiss the State Government's decision as over-reaction or biased or unwarranted. Yet, as the one person wearing the shoe, the State Government alone is qualified to view and review the ground realities, peaceful as the protestors claim their actions to be but sowing seeds of alienation and disaffection in the people, otherwise.

In the mid-Seventies, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took exception to socialist veteran, the late Jayaprakash Narain (popularly known as JP), calling upon the security forces not to obey 'illegal orders' of the Government. This was cited as among the reasons for the proclamation of emergency on the night of 25 June 1975. The Government argued that JP was sowing seeds of discord, discontent and disaffection in the masses. Justified as the Allahabad High Court might have been in holding Indira Gandhi's electoral victory in native Amethi constituency in Uttar Pradesh as null and void, the political protests seeking her resignation were couched as much on the JP kind of call to the State apparatus as on the political morals to which the Opposition then attached great respect.

Democracy is about elections and change of governments through those elections. It is not about sowing seeds of discord and discontent in sections of the population against their rulers or other political leaders. The West, in some cases, may have had different yardsticks for different circumstances - some for themselves and the rest for others, particularly 'Third World' democracies. In the former instance, 'supreme national interest' and its safety and physical security would reign supreme. In the case of the rest of 'em all, democracy and its various tools have often been used to sow dissatisfaction first, and disaffection, not very long after. India's may be an exceptional case. But individuals such as those who targeted Minister Pawar, or groups that have taken to the streets in the name of protesting corruption in high places or development projects like those in Koodamkulam and Nandigram (the latter in West Bengal), are sub-serving a larger and oftentimes a hidden agenda. They may be innocent but their actions need not be innocent.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)
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