It was not the slap that landed on Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar that alarmed me as much as Kiran Bedi’s tweet: “Pray proper Lokpal Bill gets passed in Winter session or else pent up anger may come on streets. Politicians may be targeted.” You’d think a former policewoman would know better than to tweet a thinly-veiled call to arms a day after her mentor Anna Hazare made headlines for his novel way of dealing with alcoholics with a public flogging in his village Ralegan Siddhi.
But Bedi perhaps was counting on public sentiment to back her astounding tweet. Never before have so many people had so much contempt for politicians. Never bef-ore has opinion been as polarised as it is today. And never before has civil discourse been reduced to the sort of ‘tu tu main main’ it has descended to on TV debates and social network sites.
A slap here or there might not have mattered so much. But what were once isolated incidents are now having a copycat effect. Harvinder Singh, who says he slapped Pawar for rising prices and corruption, has a bit of a history; just last week he apparently assaulted 86-year-old former telecom minister Sukhram in court. What was once the monopoly of the Shiv Sena has now become de rigueur for goons on all sides of the political divide, right as well as left. In the past few weeks, we have seen separate but equally revolting attacks on Team Anna members Prashant Bhushan and on Arvind Kejriwal. In 2009 it was hurled shoes that were all the rage: the prime minister got one and so did home minister P Chidambaram, leader of the Opposition LK Advani, Congress MP Naveen Jindal and jailed former minister Suresh Kalmadi.
Incredibly, physical assaults are often sought to be justified. When journalist Jarnail Singh hurled a shoe at Chidambaram to protest Congress non-action on Jagdish Tytler, allegedly involved in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, he was hailed as a hero in some sections and a reward of R2 lakh was declared. When Prashant Bhushan was attacked, it was said that his views on Kashmir were ‘controversial’. When ordinary people are attacked there is even less outrage. When young girls and boys at a Mangalore pub were beaten up by Sri Ram Sena workers, there was condemnation from the media but also a lament on the loss of Indian values.
The justification from some quarters on Pawar’s attack is disquieting. This is not the time to score political brownie points by calling the attack a ‘wake-up call to UPA 2’, as Balbir Punj described it, or to rationalise it by talking about people’s anger over price rise, as BJP spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad did. Yes, people are angry, rightly so. No, violence can’t be condoned, whatever the provocation.
Team Anna fared no better. Anna Hazare condemned the attack but first remarked: “Only one slap?” Later, his supporters said he had been misunderstood. Perhaps they were being mindful that Hazare’s non-violent image has been taking, well, a bit of a beating. On television, Kejriwal and Bhushan also condemned the assault but with clarifications: “I am not condoning violence but we have to understand the anger at the enormous corruption,” said Kejriwal.
While Pawar played down the incident as no big deal, NCP supporters in Maharashtra were throwing stones, announcing bandhs, blocking traffic and shutting down shops. If the assault on Pawar was shameful, then the reaction was no better.
Violence for any reason is wrong. There are no shades of grey. Accepting or justifying a culture of violence signals a dangerous slide for a country once proud of its tolerance and inclusiveness. Worse, violence has a nasty way of descending into lazy shorthand (all politicians are crooks, ditto for journalists, all bureaucrats are inefficient etc). Instead of fighting (metaphorically, of course) for real reform, we merely vent our frustrations on the easiest target. Instead of debate we use fists. Instead of change we get anarchy.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal