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Go out, engage with them

The handling of the stir proves that the State needs to learn crowd management, Vinod Sharma writes.

india Updated: Dec 24, 2012 22:34 IST
Vinod Sharma

Why is crowd management becoming so difficult in our country, especially in big cities when protesters are from among the increasingly vocal middle classes?

First, the issues that prompt people to take to the streets are legitimate, touching a chord with a wider section of the society. Weighed down by their inglorious record, the bureaucracy and the political class are unable to match the moral high ground from which the crowds speak. Their conventional impulse is to tire out the agitating crowds rather than going in their midst to engage and reason.

In this age of the media — where television channels and other news platforms are in a no-holds-barred competition for real time information — old-school administrative tactics predicated on the fatigue factor don’t really work. This was so conclusively proved in the course of anti-graft protests led by Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal and Baba Ramdev.

Crowds swelled, not dissipated, every passing day, making inevitable the use of force the police intended to avoid. An impatient, hyperactive civil society galvanised by the moving picture and the social media first made the administration look lethargic and unimaginative. They looked brutal thereafter for raining batons and tear gas shells on crowds with a correct cause.

The media’s basic instinct being anti-establishment, voices and images captured on the small screen— during protests against graft and the ghastly rape of a young girl — were too overwhelming for the authorities to make themselves heard. Their tardy approach and archaic communication skills discredited their occasionally valid arguments, even before they chose to speak up.

The first message that went home was that the government was either complicit or too inept or scatter-brained to handle the crisis. It wasn’t entirely true. But that’s the power of mob hysteria carried to millions of living rooms by a relentless media that thrived on — and at times abetted — events.

What compounded the problem was the absence of civil servants and politicians willing to face upfront the public anger. The disparate nature of the anti-rape crowd — leaderless and guided mostly by fury and emotions — provided the much-needed ruse for administrative diffidence.

The sane guidance the protesters lacked and the government needed for engaging with them could have come from the victims’ families. A thinking administration would have, without exposing the girl’s father, sought to douse passions by playing his appeal for peace (on TV channels) on public address systems at protest venues at India Gate, Rajpath and Jantar Mantar.

Nothing of the sort happened. Lost in the melee were Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul’s assurances in a meeting they had with a group of agitating youngsters. Vandals arrived instead in the obtaining anarchy to perpetrate violence, giving the police the excuse that they perhaps needed to justify use of force.

The failure, therefore, was on myriad fronts: the police sitting on its hands; myopic secret services failing to foresee the initial candle-light vigil billowing into a humongous protest and the political class failing to connect at the right time with the emotional outrage.

The besieged presidency at Raisina Hill symbolised in the end a State barricaded from its citizenry.