Politics of Public Order

salt march mahatma gandhi

I begin at a tangent.

Today,on the 2nd October ,I had left home in the morning to join a public assembly to pay homage to the Father of the Nation.People do not fully understand why he alone among all the tallest leaders of the Freedom Movement should be given that epithet,and that too by one of his most bitter critics in the movement Subhash Chandra Bose.

Bose had had enough time after his daring escape to Germany to reflect on his past and the on-going struggle for independence in the country. He realised,on reflection and cold analysis,that the Freedom Movement had reached its apogee thanks to Gandhijee’s role.He had effectively turned Indian National Congress from a platform of lawyers,businessmen and middle-class patriots into a real vibrant mass party with roots among the masses and fighting for causes that the masses could respond to.The Salt Satyagraha broke the salt monopoly of the government that artificially put a high price on the commonest article of daily use.Then he had an appeal among all sections of people in all parts of the country.And it was because all these millions upon millions of people had under his leadership begun to feel an unprecedented degree of solidarity and unity through struggle against a common enemy that India had become a real nation.

And today’s little function at the Chandmari crossing in Guwahati was to have been a modest occasion to remember and pay homage to his invaluable contributions that shaped the nation.

Appearing a little late for the occasion I was struck by the fact that the place had been practically cordoned off by a strong police party.The large bus that had carried them into the locality had been placed right in front of the small gathering by the roadside,and soon another bus brought one more busful of police.Passers-by on the road in front of the gathering could not read our placards nor hear speeches made on the occasion.When the officer leading the party was requested to remove the bus to another spot he bluntly replied that it might be needed to pack us into at some moment!

An unwritten custom has now the force of a law. Before organising any meeting or assembly at any public place one has to formally apply for permissionb to the administration,which could deny it on some trifling ground or other.

It is understandable that such meetings or demonstrations in the city could cause sometimes a traffic snarl.(In the present instance the traffic police had an argument with those in charge of law and order as the large bus obstructed normal traffic.)Otherwise the police has no business to interfere with the citizens’ right to assemble and vent their grievances,to criticize the government and to mobilize public opinion on some issue or other.Not to speak of an event to pay homage to Gandhijee.The administration too should not actually concern itself with such meetings unless there is some public disorder,frenzy or violence incited at such gatherings.Birth anniversary of the apostle of peace and non-violence is hardly an occasion that can disturb public tranquility and peace.

Had the meeting been held to celebrate the unalloyed patriotism of Nathuram Godse or the Himalayan presence of Savarkar in the concept of Indian nationhood,the experience might have been the opposite.Who knows,one could perhaps even ask for stopping all traffic and hold the meeting right on the street.

Time was when we had been foolish enough to think Gandhijee had lost his relevance.But the experience of increasing communal frenzy, blind hatred and mind-boggling savagery breaking out among ordinary people in the last three decades has driven home the enduring and irreplaceable relevance of Gandhijee.

Such is the distance we have travelled in the last two decades.Or have we really travelled at all!

Hiren Gohain is a political commentator

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