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Will protests persist? Why isn’t the government listening?

Monday, 24 December 2012 - 7:08pm IST | Place: Ahmedabad | Agency: dna

In any democratic society, it is inevitable that extreme incidents sometimes trigger extreme reactions. However, when these reactions emanate only from the middle class, they often do not persist.

In any democratic society, it is inevitable that extreme incidents sometimes trigger extreme reactions. However, when these reactions emanate only from the middle class, they often do not persist. But, should the protests persist to make a dent on the insularity of the state and civil society or a strong signal is enough?  It is well-known that public memory is short, but should that be the pretext for not responding to non-violent protest? 

When Gandhiji gave a call against foreign-made clothes, he advised people to buy and burn them.  Lot of people performed a bonfire and thus participated in the struggle for freedom.  Today a decentralised protest does not get attention.  Along with the centralisation of power in public or private system, there has also been a centralisation of arena for protest.  Unless one protests at India Gate, the leaders won’t take notice.

It would have been ideal if the protest against the arrest of the Palghar girls and against the violation of a woman’s dignity in Delhi had registered the intensity with which the people felt it.  Both situations require different responses.  In the first case, amendment to section 66 of the IT Act is one step.  And then, the self critical realisation on the part of those who took law in their hands would have been the second step. 

While police action in that case was unjustified, police alone cannot resolve such issues.  The leaders of the party whose followers acted in such a manner could realise that a dialogue and persuasion is a way in which differences are resolved in democracy. Creating fear does not help. Young people should trust that no matter how much difference of opinion one has in society, one can still share one’s feelings and make amends if the feelings hurt somebody.  Likewise, those who feel hurt can approach the alleged offender and share their feelings.  I have no doubt that dialogue can bring about more enduring solutions even now.

In the second case, the anger should be channelised to bring about change in the police, administration, the framework of citizen responsibility and the social network of the offender/s. There is no reason why gender differences so evident in home, school and colleges and work spaces should be allowed to continue for so long.  The consumption of liquor in public places, or movement of drunk people in public places should be a cognizable offence. What people do in their homes is their business but they cannot roam around and be allowed to violate the dignity of others, men or women.

 Haryana had tried prohibition for 21 months and then gave in. Gujarat has had prohibition and women feel safe.  In West Bengal, there is no prohibition and yet there are fewer cases against women.  In all these places, culture plays a role.  Security and dignity of women is not negotiable but it is too important a matter to be left in the hands of police only.  Every time, dignity of women is violated whether in farms, fields, factories or elsewhere, we have lowered ourselves in our self-esteem.  The recent news from Jharkhand, Tripura, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and rest of the country proves that the problem is much wider and occurs across social classes.  The anger, just now harnessed for reform in the police system, social practice, cultural values and the institutional norms, must be revisited. For every one such case is reported, there are many more which remain unreported.  The social stigma on the victims is punishing a person twice.  I am aware of the young people whose interests are betrayed by reputed people and who decide not to complain because of family pressures.  There is no way such so-called powerful people can be allowed to go uncensored. 

Ruchika’s tragedy and freedom of the molester is too recent to be forgotten.   I agree that a special session of the parliament is in order to discuss this issue threadbare.  The suggestions should be invited from the public for a comprehensive reform of the police act and also the administrative systems.  The educational system should also be strengthened to reinforce the dignified gender relations and respect.

I wish protesters were served drinking water instead of water sprays.  We must learn to respect the right to protest and to do everything in our power to have dialogue with such groups who want to convey their feelings.  The more we ignore the democratic means, the less faith people will have in the intention of the state. 

Let us not forget that people are becoming impatient with the persistent tolerance of such assaults on human dignity.  All the MLAs and MPs who have cases against them of this kind must be pursued on priority and they should be made to set examples of accountability.  Similarly, the safety of women in a region should be a criteria on which the performance of the police and other functionaries should be evaluated among other indicators. I hope peace prevails but it does not lull the society into inertia, indifference and institutional apathy once again.  A society, which is safe for women, is safe for everyone.

The author is a professor at IIMA

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