Management of public order needs help from all the stakeholders in a democracy
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Management of public order needs help from all the stakeholders in a democracy

Our police personnel are over-deployed and tired because of everyday bandobast duties, yet any instance of crowd violence is blamed on the police. There is little appetite for understanding complexities.

analysis Updated: Sep 21, 2017 12:20 IST
Mob violence,Gustave Le Bon,Crowd behaviour
Dera supporters turn violent in Panchkula, Haryana, August 25. There is a need for a complete rethink and a paradigm shift on management of public order to meet aspirations of an orderly and democratic society(REUTERS)

Explanations of mob violence are generally based on a set of uncritical assumptions regarding psychology of crowd behaviour articulated first in 19th century France. The Parisian elite could have hardly savoured wanton street violence leading to repeated regime change. The best-known theorist of this tradition was a social psychologist by the name of Gustave Le Bon, but similar ideas continue to hold sway even now.

Le Bon argued that a crowd consists of impressionable underclasses and they possess a collective mind, different from the sum of the individual persons. In the crowd there are ringleaders and agitators who start the violence that soon spreads like a contagion. People in the crowd enter a diseased mental state; hypnotised, suggestible, inhibitions gone, rationality surrendered. They forget who they are; a process called in psychology as ‘de-individuation’, and become anonymous. They then share a collective mind, a mob mentality. The only way to deal with individuals in such a hypnotised and frenzied state is to use effective force almost like administering medicine and that brings back sense.

Research in social psychology in the last half a century has invalidated Le Bon’s psychology of crowd behaviour, but similar views continue to be relied upon. The de-individuation approach has an elitist presumption that all crowds are only capable of irrationality. In democracies people have a fundamental right to assembly and expression. Le Bon can explain violence and irrationality by a mob, but has no plausible explanation of peaceful and rational behaviour by crowds. An alternative approach is called the elaborated social identity model (ESIM) that argues that individuals become more aware of their identity in the process of mass participation and interaction with other groups rather than losing identity or becoming anonymous.

At any given point of time an individual has many social identities: caste, religion, language, nationality etc. One or the other of these identities get accentuated in the interaction with other groups and determines what is viewed as ‘normative behaviour’. The group as a whole or elements within the group set these normative standards in the context of perception of legitimacy or otherwise of inter-group relations. If the other group is perceived to have treated the in-group unjustly then a confrontation to restore legitimacy and justice becomes a normative response.

All public order management strategies are based on an underlying theory of psychology of crowd behaviour. If de-individuation, mob irrationality and contagion are the axioms, then public order management must rely strictly on regulation and enforcement. Assembly of crowd should be as per regulation; date, time, place and number specified or permission denied. The regulation should then be enforced and violations prosecuted. In the event that any crowd violence starts, the assembly has to be declared unlawful and dispersed with use of minimum force, the quantity of which will depend on the requirement to meet the goal of complete dispersal. Any inaction will lead to contagion, mob frenzy and situation getting out of hand. The problem with this model of public order management is that it ultimately turns out to be a fire fight on occasions when violence takes over.

In the 1980s the spectre of English football hooligans haunted European venues of international matches involving English fans. In recent times the police supported by psychologists have worked on alternative theories of crowd psychology reducing conflict. On the other hand, venues continuing to follow outmoded strategies flounder despite much higher level of police deployment. The advice is to understand that crowd psychology emerges in the immediate context of social identity and intergroup relations. If these relations are construed as illegitimate then a normative behaviour of confrontation to alter inter group relations takes over.

The size of religious congregations has been increasing. From time-to-time there are stampedes and deaths for which inadequate police arrangements are blamed. Police is generally not in a position to disallow peaceful assembly of people. On rare occasions crowd do turn violent. It is, therefore, not always possible to deny people the right to peaceful assembly on presumptions of violence. So, all these events have to be regulated by a large police bandobast at the cost of other policing responsibilities. Our police personnel are, in effect, grossly over-deployed and tired because of daily bandobast duties, yet any failure can be passed on to the police uncritically. There is little appetite for understanding complexities.

Public order management in the twenty-first century cannot be based on a one-size fit all nineteenth century understanding of psychology of crowd behaviour. The normative standards for any crowd will have to be established through sustained liaison mechanisms and professional handling of interactions by all the public order managers: organisers of public events, local authorities, police and participants of these events. The effort must be to prevent perception of illegitimate inter-group relations from emerging.

The State has a primary role in maintaining public order, but management of public order in a democracy needs collaboration of all the stakeholders because the costs of failures for society are too high. A media narrative mirroring a state-centric and Le bonian understanding will be unhelpful to society in the long run. There is a need for a complete rethink and a paradigm shift on management of public order to meet aspirations of an orderly and democratic society.

Sudhanshu Sarangi is an IPS officer

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Sep 21, 2017 12:19 IST