20 March 2006

How civil do we have to be?

Someone puts Holi colours on a boy. Someone else molests a girl. Stray incidents, but with severe consequences. Soon after, a fight breaks out between groups of people – presumably those representing the boy and the girl. Perfectly-civil residents pick up arms and become militant. The Police step in with lathis and tear gas – create more trouble with unruly behaviour. People protest against Police. Police retaliate. Shots are fired. People die. Curfew is declared in an otherwise peaceful town.

Perhaps it’s not as simple as that. But, that was Navi Mumbai last week.

What went wrong? How did a civil society turn violent? Are the citizens of Navi Mumbai so frustrated that stray incidents of misdemeanours can bring out the worst in them? And, what about the peacekeepers of our societies – the Police? Are they also so frustrated that they need to display unruly behaviour and use arms on demonstrating citizens? Citizens, like you and me, with the right to their franchise!

Mind you, we are talking about the world’s largest democracy here. A democracy built on precepts of non-violence; a democracy sworn to fight terrorism.

If democracy is about people with power, does it mean that, in India, we have too many people with power? Should we, then, redefine democracy to give it another meaning more suited to India’s social, cultural and political topography? And, what about civil society as a means to building a democracy… as a source of power for democratic change? Do we need to re-constitute this?

How civil do we have to be to exercise our social, cultural and political rights without resorting to violence?

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