Vandalising buildings, burning vehicles, digging up cricket pitches — these are just some of the collateral damage caused by public protests. Whether it is a political protest or a disruption by some organisation or the other, those in the crowd invariably seem to take out their anger on public property. In the recent violence in Rohtak, Haryana and in Villupuram in Tamil Nadu, protestors damaged public property worth crores of rupees and disrupted normal life in order to make their grievances heard. Tensions in Karontha village in Rohtak over the ownership of the Satlok Ashram turned violent when police stopped agitating members of the Arya Prathinidhi Sabha from entering the ashram. In the ensuing violence three people were killed and hundreds were injured. Public transport vehicles were torched in addition to traffic on roads being blocked. Similarly, the protests by the PMK in Tamil Nadu claimed three lives, saw more than 800 vehicles damaged, two bridges damaged by explosives and more than 150 trees felled or torched. People have every right to protest but they have no right to become violent or inflict damage on public or private property.
In the agitation for a Telangana state, for example, vandals went berserk destroying property and preventing people reaching their workplaces and students from attending colleges and schools. There is a long list of such destructive protests ranging from the ones against so-called offensive paintings and books to caste agitations like the one involving the Gujjars and Meenas in Rajasthan. The miscreants have been able to get away with this as it is difficult to pinpoint the blame when the violence and destruction is carried out by those in a crowd. The right to freedom of expression is inviolable but then so is the right to livelihood, education and safety of one’s person and property. Protest cannot be considered a licence to arson, violence and loot as seems to be the case now.
While political parties and other groups are quick to highlight the deplorable condition of public transport and other public services, they are also the first to encourage their supporters to vandalise them. Those found destroying public property must be made to pay punitive fines or jailed depending on the gravity of the offence. For any protest to serve its purpose, it should first abide by the rules and not indulge in a free-for-all at the cost of public peace.