ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Law and Disorder

For a long time now there has been a growing cleavage between the terms law and order. The recent attacks at Baroda, Hyderabad, Kolkata, and, most recently, in the cities of Maharashtra by forces claiming to speak on behalf of ethnic communities or even vote banks illustrate this cleavage very well. The authorities are in effect permitting and tolerating the violation of the law in order to maintain order.


Law and Disorder decades down the line, forged an idiom of
politics that was as creative and effective
as the one forged by Gandhi. Instead,
India today has reached an unprecedented
janaki nair threshold in the conduct of its political

For a long time now there has been a growing cleavage between the terms law and order. The recent attacks at Baroda, Hyderabad, Kolkata, and, most recently, in the cities of Maharashtra by forces claiming to speak on behalf of ethnic communities or even vote banks illustrate this cleavage very well. The authorities are in effect permitting and tolerating the violation of the law in order to maintain order.

Janaki Nair ( is with the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.

Economic & Political Weekly

april 12, 2008

n the late 1960s, the grand old man of Karnataka journalism, D V Gundappa, by then a publicist for almost 60 years, noted with gathering dismay the ways in which Indian democracy was empowering all kinds of groups to use the tactics devised during the nationalist struggle for what he regarded were less noble ends. The legacy of the national movement was a burden precisely because “disobedience has stayed a solid fact in the life of the country” with nothing to save its “civil” character. DVG, as he was popularly known, was pained at what he saw was a world turned upside down, where gentle discussions (largely by brahmin men) based on fiercely liberal beliefs, had yielded place to a turbulent public political life, where lower castes and classes, women and youngsters, spoke and acted in ways he did not approve of.

New Patterns of Protest

One would have expected that the new Indian republic, ill-served by the norms of liberal democracy, would have, several life. We are exposed to dangerously high levels of legal defiance, law-breaking and incitements to violence, and all this by people in authority as well as those without. There are almost daily news reports, and graphic TV footage, of our members of Parliament (MPs) and legis lators, councillors and other elected officials, attacking each other, or worse, attacking unsuspecting groups or individuals in public spaces. The latest in the recent past is the threat posed by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) and its allies to life and property in cities across Maharashtra, while the protests against the screening of Jodhaa Akbar were barely held in abeyance.

Also part of our daily diet of news is the increasing use of vigilantism, of crowds who inflict a form of summary justice on police suspects, long-time harassers of women, and the like, without waiting either for the arrival of the legitimate state apparatuses, or for the slow, grinding and unpredictable turns of a creaky court structure.

It will not do at this juncture to echo the dismay of DVG and hundreds like him who assessed the political developments of the


1960s and 1970s as democracy gone awry. Neither will it do to celebrate these new terror tactics as the weapons of the weak, heady instances of subaltern rebellions. Instead, it may be worth reflecting on the new and non-consensual patterns of protest that are being pioneered, in order to understand the practice of political power itself, and in order to build new and effective forms of intervention, or seek justice. It may bring home some uncomfortable truths about the ways in which privilege has earlier operated, and therefore, been challenged in contemporary India.

Growing Cleavage

The terms “law and order” are usually yoked together, invoked simultaneously to suggest either a disruption of public life (when there is a “law and order” problem) or a robust administrative response (the establishment of “law and order”), that restores peaceful public life. In fact, for a long time now, there has been a growing cleavage between these terms, and the recent attacks at Baroda, Hyderabad, Kolkata and most recently, in the cities of Maharashtra, by forces claiming to speak on behalf of ethnic communities, or even vote banks, illustrate this cleavage very well. For in their readiness to penalise the victims (i e, art student Chandramohan and art historian Shivaji Panikkar at Baroda’s MS University or Taslima Nasreen in Hyderabad and Kolkata, north Indians in Maharashtra), and their obvious reluctance to assert the law against the offenders (Niraj Jain in Baroda, Majlis-e-Ittahadul Muslimeen (MIM) MLAs in Hyderabad, an assortment of Muslims in Kolkata, and Raj Thackeray and the MNS in Maharashtra) the authorities are using different criteria. They are in effect permitting and tolerating the violation of the law in order to maintain order. In other words, they are repeatedly demons trating that there is, in contemporary India, an irreconcilable distinction between law and order.

The ease with which political leaders threaten widespread disorder if they are penalised for their illegalities – and their numbers are growing, beginning with the Shiv Sena in 1960s Bombay, Kannada Shakthi Kendra in 1991-94 Bangalore, and far from ending with the Raj Thackeray in Mumbai – is a sign of how entrenched the distinction between the two terms has become. Better to tolerate the transgre ssions of the aggressors, than take on the cynical wrath of a “community”, however defined. Easier, as in the Shivji Panikkar/Chandramohan and Taslima Nasreen cases, to invoke the law against the victim, who is usually an individual or a relatively weaker political force, and allow them to be further damaged by the blunt chops of the law.


Meanwhile, the “sensitivities” of communities which the transgressors of the law claim to represent are legally impossible to define or even predict. They could range from resentment about the reference the social structures and events from the 17th century, historical facts that are unknown even to those who rise in umbrage, or the protection of Tamil women’s honour from women themselves, as in the case of Khushboo or more recently, Shriya from Sivaji the Boss. Women alone, it appears, have no recourse to a ready-made “community” and have to suffer both the laws of their man-made ones or the wrath of men speaking on behalf of other “communities”. (We would do well to remind ourselves that the kinds of inequities that are imposed on women to preserve the community in question would not be tolerated by community itself vis-a-vis other communities.) “Communities” are legion, going well beyond the enumerated kind, and their leaders’ appetites for newer “sensitivities” insatiable. The moral charge of the sensitivity alone gives these leaders, some of them self-appointed, a new and unique freedom to arbitrate on works of art or styles of writing. In other words, they are using the moral charge provided by “sensitivity”, backed by a willing law enforcement apparatus, to breach enclaves of discussion, debate or learning.

A new stage has been reached today, where potential aggressors themselves claim that they are being incited to violence, to protect against which an “offending” book, artwork, film or, most sinister, a population, be removed from public scrutiny. As yet, there are no clear signs on who will be “offended” and by what, leading to a high degree of unpredictability in our public life. In each case, the groups that claim to be “offended”/affected, act in ways that makes their identity a precious, non-negotiable commodity.

Meanwhile, the obscenely compromised justice mechanisms of the state, which either fail to act in a timely and appro priate manner, or further brutalise the victim (the fate of the Rizwanur Rehman case is instructive in this context, with the state apparatuses lurching from one compromise with the well-identified offenders to another) have led an increasing number of ordinary citizens to “take law into their own hands”. We hear increasingly of all kinds of summary justice being meted out by enraged bystanders, neighbourhood associations, and village bodies, as well as (though only occasionally) long suffering groups, whose pleas for police intervention have fallen on deaf ears. In many of these cases, it is impatience with the delayed and usually brutal methods of the police that leads to the forms of summary justice.

A society, law, and administration that cannot protect enclaves of free debate and discussion, will end up protecting instead the freedom to disrupt and disturb according to the rules of self-interest. This is not a result of deficient “education”: in that sense, the recent moves of corporate India (notably, the Lead India campaign) to bypass politicians and politics, to turn India into a nation of event managers, schooled in the manners of Tony Blair or George Bush, is another act of selfdelusion. Both the tendencies that we are increasingly witness to – the hyper sensitivities of communities, old and new, and the impatience with the ways of the law – are a result of enormous inequalities to which the Indian elite have long been anesthetised. The fragile consensus over modes of protest, styles of disobedience, and institutions for justice-seeking that existed for some decades after independence is clearly breaking down. Unlike what the elites wish to believe, there has long been a happy cohabitation between the rule of law and the reign of terror. Attacks on individuals and groups in the name of “communities” have already become the norm, and the maintenance of order tolerates the breaking of law. To get beyond this will require more than a handful of male leaders groomed in the techniques of “good governance”.

april 12, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top