Of the many questions raised after the death of Gajendra Singh Rathore, a farmer from Rajasthan, one of the most pertinent is whether he could have been saved had help reached him in time. We will never know but this raises the issue of the logistics of protest rallies as they are held today. The right to protest is inalienable and no government should attempt to muzzle this. But the manner in which rallies are conducted merit re-examination.
Today we see rallies snaking across cities throwing all normal life out of kilter. The venue, as was the case in this particular AAP rally where the farmer died, could not hold the number of people that attended them. The police, again as happened in this case, did warn that the area was not big enough for the rally and suggested an alternative venue. This was disregarded. The gathering of a substantial number of people necessarily brings with it several dangers. One is that of the crowd becoming unruly. The other is that of a medical emergency or a fire. It becomes vital that there is support like ambulances or fire engines within easy distance. Rally venues should also have adequate exit sites to avoid a stampede. Today, political rallies have become a show of strength rather than forums to address issues of substance. Therefore, it becomes inevitable that large crowds will be in attendance. Whenever the local authorities raise such issues, as often happens in West Bengal for example, there is an immediate hue and cry that these are attempts to suppress freedom of expression. Rallies taking over public spaces are also commonplace, which means that someone else’s freedom to go about their business is subverted by the right to expression of the protestor.
The authorities have every right to lay down the parameters for protests in order to minimise danger. Parties have to take responsibility to ensure that their followers do not get out of hand and break civic rules. They also have to ensure that law and order is maintained. Often, rallies become avenues to visit violence on public property, opponents and innocent bystanders. If the death of Singh can change the way rallies are held, that would be of far more substance than all the tears of regret that some politicians are shedding now.