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Sunday Special » Columns

Posted at: Feb 28, 2016, 1:11 AM; last updated: Feb 28, 2016, 10:53 AM (IST)
Harish Khare
Harish Khare

Face to face with anarchy

Harish Khare
I have seen and written about violence, riots and mobs. Starting with the 1981 anti-reservation riots in Gujarat to the 1984 anti-Sikh violence, to 1985-1986-1987 anti-reservation-cum-communal violence in Ahmedabad, to the Ramjanmabhumi violence from 1990-1992. Only once, when the BJP had given a call for “Bharat bandh” after LK Advani’s arrest, was I roughed up by the mob. In all these experiences with violence, as a reporter I had a vague sense of who was directing the violence and against whom. Last Monday's encounter was of a different kind.

As it happened, Monday morning I was on my way to Chandigarh from Delhi. At nine-thirty, my Chandigarh-based colleagues had informed me that National Highway No. 1 — the old great Grand Trunk Road — had been cleared of obstructions and hooligans and was now open for traffic.
I had left Delhi at ten. 

At 10.35, I had crossed Murthal. On both sides of the road, charred cars and other vandalised vehicles bore testimony to the violence of the last few days. 

I was on the mobile, talking to a friend, and admiring the capacity of the ‘law and order’ machinery to restore a semblance of order.

Fifteen minutes later, the journey came to a halt.

The vehicular traffic had stopped. Drivers and passengers had spilled out on the road. No one had any idea why. All that could be gathered was that ‘trouble’ had erupted again on the road, a few miles farther up. 

There was a frisson of apprehension in the air. 

Suddenly, a few existential doubts asserted themselves. One has always taken for granted that an Indian citizen can go to anywhere, travel to any place, any time. My identity gives me — provides me — this freedom.

All that sense of assurance, all that sense of security evaporated in that moment.

Those hotels, glorified, air-conditioned dhabas, really, always bustling with traffic and customers, wore a forlorn, abandoned look.

Before I could decide to ask the driver to drive back to Delhi and safety, word came that trouble had erupted also at Murthal. There was no escape route.

A frightening realisation dawns. No policeman is around, the old reliable, trusted guardian of order has deserted his post, or worse, has probably looked the other way. You are at the mercy of the unarmed, unpredictable and unanswerable lumpens, unafraid of law. And, if the elderly women have been made to join in the protest, there is a social acceptance, even sanction, for the violence in defence of this “cause” or that “demand”. 

A sense of being trapped creeps over. A helplessness because you cannot make sense of who is in control of the disruption and of the disruptionists. No confidence that that the 'law and order' will be able to get them.

Suddenly, you understand that anarchic forces are just lingering beneath the surface. The precariousness of it all, despite all the strong leaders we are blessed with. Parts of Rohtak were like scenes from Syria. 

How easy it was for a few hundred men to choke Delhi's water supply. There was panic and desperation in middle class neighbourhoods, even as the poor are used to water shortages. 

I was lucky that it could be arranged for me to take shelter in one of the deserted hotels. My driver and I were given food and a place to rest. Later, it was arranged that two local young men, on a motor cycle, would escort us to safety through the interior roads. 

And, that journey was tense. but I could also observe that the area was reasonably prosperous. Pucca houses, bountiful fields, well-fed men and women, beauty parlours, stores, shops, — and, yet, still all this insistence on inventing a grammar of backwardness.

It was too grim to be humming John Denver's “Country roads, take me home….” 

Though I always had a vague sense that I would make it to the safety of Delhi or Chandigarh, imagine how a person feels when he has no option but to live with violence and the demands violence make on ethics, morale, relationships and notions of friendships. Violence always takes a toll on one's sense of well-being because it violates one's sense of fairness. The toll is lasting. So it will be in Haryana.  

LAST Saturday, I was invited by a senior official to join an interaction in Delhi with someone called ‘Sri M’. I could not make it to the interaction but the moniker ‘Sri M’ aroused my curiosity. I thought, oh, no, one more ‘guru’ in the saturated guru-space. On inquiry, I was told that the man known as ‘Sri M’ is Mumtaz Ali Khan, a founder of the Manav Ekta Mission. He is also the man behind “The Walk of Hope” — a 7,500-km padyatra from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. 

I sought a meeting with him for the next day. He was gracious enough to squeeze some time out for me. He was putting up at the India International Centre and there was no ‘guru’-like paraphernalia around him. A simple man, simply clad in a kurta and pajama, with a winning smile. I was also told he leads a healthy and happy family life. 

Unhurriedly, but precisely, ‘Sri M’ talked about inspiration behind the ‘Walk.’ There was no hint of any grandiloquence, no hint of putting on any show. The message was clear: Our society has become too divided, too much antagonism is being generated, too many internal fault-lines are being generated; therefore, it was about time someone talked about unity and harmony - without any partisan agenda.

Hence the walk — perhaps in the best tradition of the Mahatma's Dandi March — in an attempt to invoke interfaith harmony and national brotherhood and solidarity. The idea is to involve school and college students as well as other sections and groups in the march. Hopefully such a participation would infuse a sense of new wholesome solidarity.

The whole project seems refreshing and worth the effort in the context of the toxic debate unleashed by the patriot-politicians. I thought ‘Sri M’ was sincere and committed, and I found myself promising to him that I shall join the march when he comes to Punjab. 

A new book, The Myth of the Strong Leader, written by Professor Archie Brown, a British historian and political scientist, makes an absorbing reading. In this very elegantly written book, Professor Brown argues that be he a democrat, or a revolutionary, or an authoritarian or a totalitarian, the ‘leader’ is tempted by what he calls the myth of 'the strong leader.'

This temptation manifests itself not just in non-democratic set-ups but is also visible equally strongly in all democracies. “It is, nevertheless, an illusion — and one as dangerous as it is widespread — that in contemporary democracies, the more a leader dominates his or her political party and Cabinet, the greater the leader.” And, in contrast, Professor Brown notes, “a more collegial style of leadership is too often characterized as a weakness; the advantage of a more collective political leadership too commonly overlooked.” 

This may sound a somewhat familiar debate to the Indian reader, as we have argued — and, continue to argue — about the desirability of a ‘strong leader.’ For example, in our collective memory, Indira Gandhi is remembered not for leading India to its only victory in a war but for having become too strong, too powerful, too arrogant, and too contemptuous of democratic values and processes. Yet, paradoxically enough, we continue to hanker for a strong leader, someone who will not tolerate “all this nonsense.” After a historical analysis of leadership, Professor Brown firmly places himself against “the tendency to assume that one person, the head of government, is entitled to have the last and most decisive word on all important issues.” He has argued cogently and clearly that “this is neither sensible, in terms of effective government and judicious political outcomes, nor normatively desired in a democracy.” This, too, will sound familiar to those in India who argue that we need “a strong prime minister,” especially in the context of the 10 years of ‘weak’ prime minister Manmohan Singh.

Brown’s contention is that “the facile weak-strong dichotomy is a very limited and unhelpful way” of judging and assessing leaders and their leadership performance. His own analytical preference is to highlight the political context which determines to a very large extent what kind of a leadership model would work. A leader like Winston Churchill did not add up to much before the Second World War, but then he found his métier in a stand-off against Hitler’s Germany, and, again, was spurned comprehensively by the British voters once peace returned. The lesson: “the right leader in the right place at the right time.” 

And, Professor Brown ends the book with a clear warning: “Leaders who believe they have a personal right to dominate decision-making in many different areas of policy, and who attempt to exercise such a prerogative, do a disservice both to good governance and to democracy. They deserve not followers, but critics.” 

And, so be it.

Care for coffee?


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