By Hardik Rajgor May. 25, 2018
The state has developed a rather incompetent manual on How to Respond to Protests, which was applied to the Sterlite stir in Tuticorin. First ignore an agitation, then try to contain it. And after attempts to shut a protest fails, bring out the big guns.
Protests in India are like loan defaulters, there’s a new one every week these days. It’s a beautiful, democratic way to put forth your point after all other means have failed. As we see more of them, you’d imagine the state would get better at responding to them. But sarkars are known for sticking to archaic procedures and an inability to learn.
The poor chain of decision-making was visible in its full glory at the protests in Tuticorin over the Sterlite copper smelting plant. For years, activists have been protesting the air pollution and contamination of soil and groundwater. But things came to a head recently when security personnel decided to take matters in their hands, by firing at peaceful protesters. The attack, which has been labelled a “modern-day Jallianwala Bagh”, led to the death of 13 people and left 102 wounded.
And it is with this incompetence, that the state has developed a manual on How to Respond to Protests. If you are a government anywhere in the world, facing trouble from those pesky citizens, this is for you. This manual can be applied to any protest gathering anywhere in the country – or even the world – regardless of the cause, means of protest, or the root of the problem.
Step 1: Ignore
Your first response to a problem must always be a refusal to acknowledge that there is a problem. Denial is the happiest state, blissful are the ignorant and all that. There is however, a barometer for whether a protest is worth addressing: The only time you must respond is if there is death and destruction. If Anna Hazare is fasting for a few days, that’s boring. But if the police start beating people and Baba Ramdev tries to run away dressed up as a woman, then it’s worth talking about.
Remember, the public is now inured to the idea of people suffering at protests, unless they’re paying with their lives. This works to your advantage, because “Is it really a protest unless something ugly happens?” is the prevailing attitude. Unless people have died, it is not going to make the news and unless it makes news, it is not a problem for you. Feel free to cool your heels and issue fitness challenges to celebrities because the situation is not grave.
Of course, the location is of utmost importance in deciding whether you should address a protest. If it’s taking place in Mumbai or Delhi – and that too in SoBo or Lutyens’ Delhi – and social media is talking about it, then you absolutely cannot afford to not pay attention to it. But if Irom Sharmila is fasting in Manipur for 16 years or people are protesting a copper plant in Tuticorin for 100 days, it can be safely ignored.
Step 2: Contain
When it becomes impossible to ignore a protest, your immediate next step should be to contain or shut it down. Not the problem, the protest. After all, big corporate companies provide donations for your political campaigns, not tribal people with respiratory disorders.
Remember when you approved environmental norms faster than Usain Bolt completes the 100 meter and didn’t consult the people living in the project-affected areas? That’s come back to haunt you, but don’t worry. Once “go green” fails, you must throw green patti at people. Always remember, there is nothing that cannot be bought in this world. The very people harmed by the disastrous consequences of mining plants should be offered money to carry on with their lives, just the way you did with the Sterlite and Niyamgiri protests before that.
Step 3: Attack
After attempts to contain and shut protests fail, you must bring out the big guns. Unfortunately, in quite a literal sense. Peaceful protesters must be attacked using brute force, even if that results in horrible injuries and even death. Whether it’s people protesting sexual violence, corruption, or government policies, always remember, you have dandas, guns, and water cannons in your kitty.
Of course, the crucial bit here is the word “defence”. The garden-variety excuse must be: “Protesters were getting violent and something needed to be done.” I mean, sure, you might have been responsible for poisoning their water and harming their lives for decades… whatever, no one’s perfect. But the moment they want to be heard in any way, you should dilute the issue and make it about who threw the stones first. Protesters threw some stones, you shot at them in the head. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.
One should use Twitter to tell people to remain calm, while you take away Twitter in the area they’re living.
Step 4: Bandh on communication services
Once things start to get ugly and the narrative is going against you, it’s time to turn off the Internet. As a state, the only mantra you must live by in 2018 is, “If violence takes place but no one has internet to share it, did it really happen?” Internet, like Pakistani actors in India, is always a soft and easy target.
The efficiency and swiftness with which communication channels are blocked must not be extended to helping protesters and actually finding any solution to the problem. Nor should the Internet be used to send positive messaging or informing people about developments. One should cut it off over vast geographical areas and let panic prevail.
Step 5: Twitter
While internet access is cut off in affected areas, it is still important to tell the rest of the world how terrible you feel about the whole situation. One should use Twitter to tell people to remain calm, while you take away Twitter in the area they’re living. Nothing defines a good politician like photo-ops and moral grandstanding on social media.
You may be a part of the problem, but now the wind has changed and you must claim to “oppose” the very things you supported for decades and benefited from. Journalists can ask tough questions in interviews and press conferences so it is always better to stick to a monologue on social media about how “deeply hurt” you are about the whole thing.
Step 6: Compensation
Always address the outrage, never the problem. “Oh, someone from your family died? Here’s five lakh rupees. Stop complaining now” should be the code for all compensation offered. But always act like you’re doing everyone a favour. You can put a price on any life, only if you try hard enough.
After all, solving complex environmental issues with multinational corporations is a lot trickier and more problematic than treating people as statistics and defining their worth based on some arbitrary parameters – adjusted to inflation.
Once you’re done paying for life with money, the protest response cycle is complete. Rinse and repeat as and when required because you cannot go any lower.