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Will apex court rein in rioters?

Will apex court rein in rioters?
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The Supreme Court of India has announced, not a day too soon, that it will formulate parameters to fix liability on political parties and/ or...

Taking a serious view of large-scale destruction of public properties during last year's quota agitations by Patidar community led by Hardik Patel in Gujarat and the recent protests by Jats in Haryana, a bench of Justices J S Kehar and C Nagappan said it was high time for the judiciary to take a call on the issue and frame guidelines to fix responsibility for loss of public properties and assets

The Supreme Court of India has announced, not a day too soon, that it will formulate parameters to fix liability on political parties and/ or organisations for damage of public property during agitations. This should have been done long ago. It would have saved the country a lot of misery and property worth trillions.

Taking a serious view of large-scale destruction of public properties during last year's quota agitations by Patidar community led by Hardik Patel in Gujarat and the recent protests by Jats in Haryana, a bench of Justices J S Kehar and C Nagappan said it was high time for the judiciary to take a call on the issue and frame guidelines to fix responsibility for loss of public properties and assets.

"Public properties are being damaged and destroyed. It has to be taken seriously as such incidents are happening everywhere. People cannot be allowed to damage properties. We have to lay the parameters to fix responsibility. Whether it is a political party like BJP or Congress or any other organisation, if it resorts to such acts then they should be asked to pay damages. You cannot burn country's properties," the bench said.

In a move that must have surprised the petitioner, the bench, which was hearing a plea filed by Hardik Patel challenging sedition charge snapped at his counsel. It expanded the ambit of the petition and said it would also adjudicate on fixing responsibility for loss of public and private assets while holding agitation. While retaining the colonial-era law, at least in its present form, is a serious matter that needs the court’s attention, this ‘digression’ towards damage to public property should be welcomed.

"Such agitations also result in loss of life of citizens. Something has to be done and it has to be stopped. We must take a call on the issue. People must know the consequences for resorting to such action. They cannot take the entire country to ransom," the court said.

Patel's counsel sought to extricate himself and pleaded with the court to adjourn the case but the bench said it would deal with the agitation issue first. The court has sent a clear message that those indulging in violent protests cannot be let off without paying the price for destroying public assets. But doubts arise, given our political culture.

This happens across the world. Democracies are particularly susceptible to this. For India, it was part of the anti-British freedom movement, indulged in by those who did not subscribe to Gandhian non-violence. Post-Independence, it has become a part of our political culture. Looking at the facts, for one, the Prevention of Damage to Public Property (PDPP) Act, 1984, deals with the offences pertaining to the damage caused to public property.

For instance, punishment for causing damage to public property by fire can be imprisonment up to a maximum of 10 years.In June 2007, the Supreme Court took suo moto cognisance of various instances involving large-scale destruction of public and private properties after the Gurjjar agitation. It also constituted two committees - one headed by Justice KT Thomas and other by Fali S Nariman to look into the issue.

In January 2009, the Justice Thomas Committee suggested measures on strict compliance of PDPP act. Indeed, on April 16, 2009, guidelines were issued, empowering the police to act under the Police Act, 1861 and the CRPC, 1973. The committee invited suggestions from the public and fresh guidelines were issued this January. Attorney General Mukul Rohtagi is assisting the court in this matter.

This has from time to time attracted concerns and criticism that this law can be used to prevent protests which are but democratic right of a citizen. The question is who will bell the cat? Political parties always try to get around the law and order issues by terming anything inconvenient as “a political issue,” seeking immunity from law. Unconnected though, the issue of declaring assets of their organisations and source of their income has been looked at from this ‘political’ prism, and all parties are united on this.

Then, who will determine the responsibility when public property is damaged? Will there be action and compensation for loss to private property as well, since the agitators do not differentiate between the public and private property and there is really no easy way to resolve a citizen’s grievance. Any demand for compensation is fraught with the risk of the citizen being targeted by the agiators/ organisations.

Those affected live with the loss or try to undo it if they can afford it. Then, who will determine what provoked an agitation and who will decide the culpability? Most agitations are against the government of the day. It is really a chicken-and-the-egg story. Damage to public property is, after all, only one of the many ‘licences’ our political class grabs “for the sake of the people.”

Take any agitation in the country, take any inquiry report that are generally debated and then locked inside government almirahs, the damage to public property is the common thread. Some reports do condemn this and some even indicate a broad estimate of the loss to the nation from a particular ‘movement’. But while political issues are debated – never conclusively – the economic loss is left out of the discourse.

There seems no real effort to compute the losses incurred over the years. The recent Jat agitation alone cost the exchequer anything between Rs 20,000 crore and Rs 34,000 crore. In a country where nothing is conceded without an agitation and one that turns violent, numerous agitations have been witnessed. Indeed, mass agitations have characterised our political discourse. And none has taken place without damage to public property.

Both Jats and Gujjars have been agitating for long. Blocking of rail tracks and roads has characterised their agitations. This time the canal carrying water to Delhi was breached and water diverted. The dispute over sharing of southern rivers, Krishna and Cauvery in particular, has caused loss of property besides misery to the farmers, no matter which language group or region they belong to.

Demand for a separate state, for setting up a university, rail line or port, for this industry or that, change of name of a place of institution are issues as common as “hurting of peoples sentiments” by books, plays and films. We are a very sensitive lot, and do not mind setting a police or railway station, a milk booth or buses on fire.

Who indulges in violence and damages public property? A politician or a political party or an organisation gives a ‘call.’ Their storm-troopers carry it out. Each one has lumpen elements who engage in violence for money, with liquor as an incentive. The ‘effectiveness’ of a movement and the prospects of its success are determined by arson on the streets to force the authority on its knees and get ready to negotiate. The release of “political workers” is part of the deal.

Cases filed are disposed of, while the professional rioters always get bailed out and live to riot another day. While economic loss to public property is estimated, there is no real consideration for the man-days lost in schools and colleges, in farms and factories, of the trade and day-to-day work being disrupted, of travelers unable to reach their destinations, those seeking urgent medical treatment, of pregnant women having to deliver on streets, or in buses and rickshaws.

The list is endless. We need to build in this county an environment in which laws and lawful orders are respected. Instead we are moving more and more towards a state of anarchy.

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