Given the recent violent clashes between BJP and AAP workers, I felt compelled to consider the topic of violence and democracies. In this piece, I hope to briefly highlight why I am concerned about the type of politically motivated violence that transpired yesterday. I will provide examples of violence in the United States of America and the United Kingdom to contextualize that violence is present in other established democratic countries, but touch upon why violence in India is especially disconcerting.
On the 5th of March, AAP supporters spontaneously gathered in front of the BJP’s headquarters in Delhi to protest the arbitrary half-hour detention of Arvind Kejriwal by Gujarat’s police. AAP leaders Shaziya Ilmi, Ashutosh Gupta, and Rajmohan Gandhi were present at this peaceful protest, which escalated out of control. “BJP is trying to create an atmosphere of hate. We had only been protesting for 15 minutes. They threw stones at us,” Ilmi claimed. BJP leaders deny that their workers initiated the stone pelting. Delhi police used water cannons to disperse the crowd.
The violence between the two parties should have ended in Delhi. However, later that evening, violent clashes between the BJP and AAP erupted in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. This episode is especially worrisome.
NDTV coverage shows BJP workers chasing after outnumbered AAP supporters and gang-attacking them with lathis (canes). An AAP volunteer holds onto his jhadu (broom) while BJP workers assault him. Did the BJP workers in Lucknow have to respond with violence to the gathering of 15-20 peaceful AAP protestors outside of their office? It is disturbing to watch a BJP worker casually walk up to and participate in the merciless assault on a floored and surrounded AAP volunteer. Most importantly, the reporter notes the severe lack of any police presence.
Violence does not affect Indian culture alone. Other democratic countries, such as the US and the UK experience violence as well. USA is infamous for high-profile mass shootings in public spaces, from primary schools to universities, from the streets of New York to houses of worship, and even cinemas. America is susceptible to significant levels of gang violence, which is related to its drug policies. England experiences episodic violence. Wikipedia lists 48 “riots and protests involving violent disorder” in London. Two recent examples include the riots of 2011 and 2009.
In essence, violence exists in the US and the UK, but violence is not present when it comes to democratic practices and institutions. As far as I am aware, there is no violence among society related to campaigns or elections. American citizens do not regularly resort to violence over differences in opinions. American democratic values suffered recently due to the way US law enforcement handled and responded to the Occupy Wall Street movement. However, by and large American democracy was not threatened by this episode (many close to Occupy may disagree). Similarly, when London experienced riots almost no one wondered whether British democracy is deteriorating. It was simply a matter of law and order.
I am uniquely concerned about the violent clashes between AAP and the BJP in Delhi and Lucknow on the 5th of March. All cultures are susceptible to violence, but violent clashes among civilians over differences in opinion are a great cause for concern. Given India’s history of religious and caste-related violence, it is disconcerting to see conflict among citizens. The sanctity of free speech, freedom of expression and assembly, as well as of free and fair elections must be protected. The use of force by civilians must remain limited to self-defense. What transpired between the BJP and AAP in Delhi and Lucknow was definitely not self-defense. Were BJP workers afraid of being attacked by brooms?
While politics demands timely reactions to developments, all parties must resolve to ensure that cool heads prevail. Ultimately, the responsibility to maintain order falls on civilians, supporters of all political parties, and on the police. India is susceptible to chaos due to the sheer number of excitable people. 2014 is the first time I will be present in India for elections. I hope to witness violence-free campaigns, elections, and civic life. Let us be less passionate and more compassionate. Let us not denigrate the virtues of non-violence propagated by the father of our nation.Â Free speech and expression is only meaningful when public order exists.
I agree with Kejriwal’s apology and message. AAP volunteers should not have protested outside of any BJP offices as the violent clashes distract the public’s attention from the task at hand: unveiling Gujarat’s much touted ‘development.’ Kejriwal has urged AAP volunteers to not protest outside any BJP office. As an AAP volunteer myself, I hope my colleagues find the moral strength to refrain from giving into their emotions in the future, and remain focused on the task at hand: working towards a better India.