Proportionate financial punishment must be carried out in cases of loss of property.

 

Whether because the colonial structure of governance was retained almost in its entirety after 15 August 1947 or that the Mahatma’s pre-1947 exhortations in civil disobedience have entered into the very marrow of the thought processes of citizens of the Republic of India, there is still a disconnect between public property and the public where much of the population is concerned. Hence the lack of care that is shown to public property, despite it—technically at least—belonging to the people. It is undeniable that the relative few who man the higher rungs of the governance machinery enjoy privileges involving public property that the overwhelming majority of citizens lack. One has only to look at the extra privileges given to VIPs and VVIPs in public (and often private) transport and services, or the speedy takeover post-Independence of luxurious official bungalows in various cities. The luxury bungalows in the capital’s Lutyens Zone need to be auctioned off and their ministerial and official residents shifted to apartment blocks set up for the purpose. Given the poverty of India, those in charge of government or dominating its politics enjoy a lifestyle far in excess of that experienced by their peers in much richer countries such as Singapore or the Netherlands. India’s post-1947 rulers enjoy a lifestyle and privileges in excess of even what British colonial overseers of this country enjoyed. From villas and aircraft at their disposal to never-ending convoys of vehicles or battalions of servile retainers feeding their vanity, our own self-proclaimed followers of Mahatma Gandhi—and their families—lead lives very different from that of the Mahatma and his family. Watching such neo-Maharajas sail past, surrounded by guards and serenaded by flunkeys, citizens may be excused for believing that democracy has not prevented the governors from belonging to an entirely separate planet from the governed. However, now that it is the Tricolour and not the Union Jack that flies above Rashtrapati Bhavan, the high life indulged in by pretend followers of Mahatma Gandhi are not reason enough to destroy property through the carrying out of agitational activity. Those indulging in such activities need to be held to account financially, and there are signs that finally, this may actually be made the norm. Hopefully, there will not be a judicial or other obstacle to efforts being made by the UP government and the Indian Railways to recover at least some of the moneys lost during the CAA agitation as a consequence of deliberate violence against property.

Handheld devices for facial recognition technology need to be distributed for use by those tasked with the protection of law and order so as to identify those guilty of vandalism. Crowd-spotting drones need to be extensively developed and used. Should the perpetrators of violence lack the means to make restitution immediately, a lien needs to be placed on their future income and assets so that the amount due gets paid off over time. Rather than incurring even more public expense through incarceration, what is needed in cases of destruction of property unaccompanied by loss of life is financial restitution. The Indian Railways estimates that the Eastern Railway suffered a loss of $10 million as a consequence of anti-CAA riots, while the damage to the Northeast Frontier Railway was about $1.3 million. Thus far the UP police have yet to give an estimate of the losses that the state has suffered as a consequence of the damage to property caused as a consequence of anti-CAA agitators. It needs to be remembered that private property (such as vehicles or shops) that is damaged should also be compensated from the moneys collected by the authorities from the rioters. Apart from those directly involved in acts of violence to property and the public, those proved through audio and video evidence of having directly instigated the rioters should also be held accountable, and to a greater degree than mere foot soldiers. Proportionate financial punishment needs to get carried out in all cases of loss of property (while loss of life needs to be met by prison, besides financial restitution). In states where the BJP is in opposition and carries out similar acts of vandalism, elements in that party too should be presented with a bill that they need to pay. The BJP leadership needs to move away from its longstanding habit of regarding its own cadres as automatically free from guilt, whether it be in matters of corruption or the causing of loss of property. A party seeking a uniform civil code needs to apply uniform standards to all elements, whether these be rivals or supporters. Those citizens who in India break laws and despoil public property at whim change within hours on landing in countries such as Australia or Singapore, where such behaviour is frowned upon socially and censured, in the latter case, by law. BJP-ruled states have not implemented Nitin Gadkari’s move to make those flouting traffic rules bear a significant rather than derisory cost. This continuing immunity provided to traffic violators does not speak well of a party that claims to be different, but several of whose leaders and cadres continue to follow the same dismal track trod by the political class of the country since India became the first country to free itself of the modern colonial yoke in 1947.

The policy of making those who destroyed public (and private) property pay should initially be implemented in situations where there is clear evidence against specific individuals. As mentioned, methods for collecting such evidence need to be made available not just to regular members of the police force, but to selected members of volunteer groups who work alongside the regular police to ensure that those responsible for violations of the law get identified. Such volunteers should not themselves intervene in situations (save in self-defence or to prevent bodily harm to another), but should confine themselves to collecting proof of wrongdoing of perpetrators of violence. For too long, the destruction of property in the name of freedom to agitate has taken place without any financial blowback. Moves by the Indian Railways and the UP administration to impose costs on genuine—repeat, genuine—depredators need to become the norm, so that a citizen resident in India adopts the same respect for civic behaviour that he or she demonstrates in countries that do not witness the daily paroxysms of violence and destruction that are commonplace in India.