Stretched Protests: An abuse of democratic freedom?

By Nita Chicooree-Mercier

In the wake of their refugee crises, belatedly the Western world has been crying wolf at ‘democracy in crisis’ , as they start to grasp the abuses and exploitation of the democratic liberties that the Open Society stands for. The overdone protests in India are a perfect example of democratic dysfunctions, imperfections and lacunae. Open societies are all potential victims.

Indian-Americans hold rallies in support of CAA across USA. Photo – connectedtoindia.com


While it is crystal clear to the public worldwide that the huge crowds of young people who take to the streets every week to protest against encroachment on their freedom and the threats of totalitarian rule in Hong-Kong, against corruption, economic stagnation and military-religion driven authoritarian rule, and for a free society in Algeria, Sudan, Cairo, Iraq, Lebanon, and against theo-fascist rule in Iran, India projects a different picture.

It shows how a string of embittered Opposition parties who were largely defeated in the last general elections can team up and jump on the bandwagon of students’ protests against fee hike at Jawaharlal Nehru University to exhort students in other universities to oppose the Citizen Amendment Act and create chaos on campuses.

As the few policemen who were on duty were overpowered by the rowdy crowd of protesters and resorted to a baton charge to ensure the maintenance of order, students from other universities came out in the streets to protest in solidarity with their peers against use of force. The outcry morphed into a protest against the new immigration law enacted by the government with Congress, Communist Party, TCP, SP and AIDMK politicians cashing on the movement to undermine the Centre’s popularity in an aim to reap votes in future elections. It brings grist to the mill of well-known media outlets that systematically oppose the Indian government’s actions for other reasons than India’s interests and the consolidation of national strength in the light of the several challenges facing it.

Within the frame of multi-party democratic structure guaranteeing freedom of speech and protests, the events provide Opposition parties a golden opportunity to exist outside Parliament and come back in the limelight at the national level. Key Congress Party representatives came out in public to harangue the crowd and sit in with them in a grandstanding show of protest against the government. It is a glaring example of how a party in a democratic country did not have the backbone to pass an immigration law when it was at the helm of the country’s affairs. It hesitated for decades, sacrificing the country’s longstanding ideals to appease minority vote banks, thus to ensure its party’s grip on power – although it did subscribe to the necessity of taking in persecuted minorities from countries in the neighbourhood.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 (CAA) was long overdue, if anything. India is not an exception among democratic countries where principles, ideals and national interests are sacrificed by political parties for petty electoral gains. To what extent politicians in free countries have carte blanche to create chaos in all impunity without being accountable to anyone and the public at large is becoming a question of utmost importance. It may raise a contemptuous smile in an authoritarian country like China where national interests reign supreme over partisan interest, and where citizens subscribe to the central government’s agenda and accept sacrifices for consolidation of national unity and progress, and where energy and time are not squandered in futile discussions and endless political palaver.

In post-Independent India, the academia has adopted a left-leaning stance which makes it anti-Establishment and is imbibed with a sense of self-righteousness, which is a mask for political correctness. Ripple effects of JNU disagreement over fee hike initially, and anti-CAA demonstration was taken up in a chorus by their peers with the confrontation of professors of different political obedience. This self-generated confusion among students put them at a loss to explain the reason of discontent after the fee issues were settled by the authorities. Besides, all the outcry took the government by surprise and drew condemnation by the silent majority who gave the government a new mandate to implement resolutions which were clearly defined in its electoral agenda. Ten out of a few thousand higher studies institutions joined the street protests, and yet managed with wide publicity in the media and biased reporting in mainstream leftist international press to create the effect of national unrest gripping the country.

India is still a developing country which is heavily investing in public infrastructure. India is not France. To what extent can it tolerate acts of vandalism destroying public and private property? A reasonable, firm stance is that of of Yogi Adiyanath, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, with the decision to punish these acts by making the culprits pay for the damages they have caused to public property. The Transport Minister had no choice but to give the green light to the police to shoot at anyone caught in sabotage of railways – clearly an anti-national act. CAA supporters even suggested that trains and cars should drive full speed on protesters who were out to occupy highways and railways in massive sit-ins, coming from university campuses. The tough response aired in the press by the authorities and the public is an example of how overblown extreme demonstrations obstructing everyday economic and social activities trigger extreme reactions to counter them and restore public order. All the more as JNU and a few universities are public institutions funded by taxpayers’ money.

With soaring millions of the ethnic-based groupings on its soil, it remains to be seen where the Indian government will draw the line between democratic rights and an effective but tough handling of the situation in the near future and in the long term. With the intention of these groups to test the government’s patience and public tolerance, it is crystal clear that the menace to internal security and order cannot be underestimated.


* Published in print edition on 24 January 2020

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