Editorial: Bully at Your Own Risk

Democracy allows dissent and disagreement. The authorities should respect that

A friend narrated an interesting episode recently. He was on board an evening flight out of Kolkata. In these days of slow economies when airlines are not even maintaining their fleets properly, it comes as no surprise that they are also cutting back on housekeeping expenses. As a result, this plane was infested with mosquitoes. Everyone was swatting around until one of the passengers called in the stewards and requested them to do something about the machchars. The hostess said they could do nothing about it and pointed out that even they had to deal with the pesky insects. This happened recently, so there was the worry of dengue and malaria as well. This passenger kept complaining. All anyone wanted was for something to be done. Even a polite excuse might have worked. The plane had not yet taken off. A few minutes later, the captain radioed the air traffic controllers “reporting” that one of the passengers had become a dangerous nuisance and needed to be disembarked. This person was being persistent, may be even obnoxious at worst, not a dangerous nuisance and the only potentially dangerous presence in the plane was the swarm of mosquitoes and the officials would not even tortoise-coil away. The Captain, as the friend put it, did what the Indian state invariably does when it cannot or does not want to reason with someone – brand them a nuisance/ spoilsport/ antinational etc and get rid of them. In another incident, the other day a cabbie was pulled over by a traffic cop who had received a wireless alert claiming that the vehicle had stopped at an unauthorized spot to pick up a passenger. The driver insisted that he had allowed in a passenger at a traffic jam (not of his making) and the passenger attested to as much. The cop was gruff and insisted he had to do his job. The cabbie had two choices – cough up the fine then and there or go to court, fight it, waste time and pay double if he loses. If you are in the airline business, you will see nothing wrong in what the air crew in the first instance did. If you are taxi driver, vehicle owner or even a regular commuter, you will empathise with the challaned taxi driver because we have witnessed too many instances when traffic rules and driving etiquette are applied exclusively on the lay citizens and don’t exist for anyone in khaki (and also the two shades of blue in Sikkim’s case). We also see such attitudes manifest from positions of authority every time they even suspect a hint of emancipation rising in the cattle class (the mango people, as we like to call them nowadays). Sample what happened with the govt-student clash in 2014. Officials at HRDD were stereotypically pompous in addressing the concerns raised by the students, the college management was typically spineless in discussing the issue and the cops played to role when they went at the kids with rolls instead of some more patience just because the kids were not being quickly obedient enough. That day, however, the kids had had enough. They pushed back. Hard. Even though we have done everything to infantilize them by dictating their syllabus and routines and putting them into uncomfortable uniforms, they had shuffled through enough humiliation for the day. Later, the authorities continued to talk down to them during negotiations. Soon, the issue spilled out of the campus and everyone with an axe to grind against the government, the administration and all its other manifestations took to the streets and even slapped down the students when they said they wanted out. There are lessons to be learned from all this, and the first one is for the authorities to realize that India is not a colony anymore. The cops maintain law & order for the benefit of the people and are not given uniforms and authority to keep the people in line. Air crews were given the power to deplane passengers because an out of control passenger midair posed a safety risk. They cannot throw off people for being obnoxious just as cops cannot be allowed a free run to interpret rules as they want and enforce them as they please. One understands the difficulties of allowing freedoms while enforcing order, but come on, we had seven decades to figure that one out. Democracy allows us safe releases for pent up frustrations, dissents and disagreements, but we plug those every time we allow authority to play the bully and impose indignities on the people. Then, occasionally the people explode. There is no need to suffer those when it could have been avoided and healthier democracy created in its lieu. But we are not allowing it, are we? Not with the latest round of arrest of free thinkers and intellectuals on the argument that they are Naxal collaborators. Sympathizers of the denied and marginalised may be, but that is not the same as collaborators.