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Civil society can turn the tide of uncivil conduct

india Updated: Sep 01, 2007 00:08 IST

Hindustan Times
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During every riot — whether it is a localised flare-up or a bigger carnage that grows in intensity — there are always 'a few good men’ who play their role to make things return to normal. The communal violence that erupted in Agra after participants in a religious procession were killed by a vehicle, for instance, could have snowballed into something bigger, more terrifyingly uncontrollable. But there were groups of people, on both sides of the Hindu-Muslim divide, who stood up to enraged mobs and ensured that Agra did not become another Godhra. Riot-control in a ‘riot-friendly’ country like India is little understood, let alone implemented. The police either go into an ‘overkill’ mode — as was the case after the Mecca masjid blasts in Hyderabad and during the violent Gujjar ‘reservations’ protests, just to cite two recent cases — or, they remain disinterested onlookers to lynch mobs. Of course, there are occasions when those with the duty of intervening and imposing the rule of the law become perpetrators themselves.

From the larger canvas of the Gujarat carnage in 2002 to the smaller one involving two policemen dragging a petty thief on their motorcycle as part of ‘instant justice’, we witness a growing blur between an angry, atavistic mob and a police force that is supposed to impose order on the dangerous chaos. But to blame the authorities alone is to be blind to the serious faults that lie within civil society. For every cluster of ‘a few good men’ there is a grouping of, pardon the mixed metaphor, ‘rotten apples’. It is when the latter overwhelms the former that controllable situations go out of control. If a lynch mob dragging out and beating up a person for allegedly conducting immoral trafficking of minors is allowed to go the ‘whole hog’, then it is not citizens gone wild alone who are to blame for such anarchy, but also the very law and order mechanism whose job it is to place its authority between violent outbreaks and normalcy.

Authority, as political philosopher Hannah Arendt stated by picking up a strand from an idea of sociologist Max Weber, does not stem merely from the attributes of the individual. The exercise of authority depends “on a willingness on the part of others to grant respect and legitimacy, rather than on one’s personal ability to persuade or coerce”. The authority, in its various forms, in India not only regularly fails to muster the respect of the people, but its unholy relationships — either with people with power or with the ‘lynch mob’ reduces its legitimacy. That, above all, needs to be corrected. For starters, the police — and not only ‘a few good people’ — must regularly engage in the act of restoring things to normal when riots break out.