When institutions are put on the mat

Narendar Pani | Updated on January 12, 2018

A people’s spontaneous movement: What does that do to governance? - Photo: B Jothi Ramalingam

Popular protests such as the one against banning jallikattu reflect a collapse of trust and faith in all arms of the state

For all their differences in style and tenor, the protests for jallikattu in Chennai and those against Donald Trump in Washington DC have one common thread. Both protests have an anti-institutions character to them.

The jallikattu protestors believe some Supreme Court rulings have not been sufficiently sensitive to Tamil culture; the protestors against Trump are not entirely satisfied with an electoral-college system that gave victory to the real estate billionaire though his opponent had received more of the popular vote.

Sheer momentum

In these days of social media, where the mood of the moment is typically more influential than arm’s-length evaluation of issues, the sheer momentum of the protests demands support.

But we don’t have to go too far back to recognise how untenable this method of influencing governance can be. The crisis of just a few months ago on the sharing of Cauvery waters demonstrated how fragile peace in our cities can be when people with opposing interests take to the streets.

While an occasional street protest can make a point, good, or even merely peaceful, governance demands that disputes are not brought to the streets.

Civilised societies typically hand over this dispute resolution role to various institutions of the executive, the judiciary and the legislature. The outpouring on to the streets is a popular indictment of these institutions.

Familiar territory

Some of this is hardly new in India. The political class has been at the receiving end of scorn for a while now. The bureaucracy may have fared a little better, but not very much so. What is new is the willingness to, directly or indirectly, take on the judiciary.

Both, in the jallikattu protests in Tamil Nadu as well as in the Cauvery agitation in neighbouring Karnataka, the earlier norm that the judiciary must be beyond criticism has not been maintained.

There is reason to be fearful of the consequences of this trend in a diverse country like India. If all groups decide to take their disputes to the streets Indian cities will become even more unlivable than they are.

We can beat our breasts and blame each other for this situation. If our elected representatives cannot respect Parliament why should the ordinary Indian respect other institutions?

Step back

A more meaningful response would, however, be to take a step back and try to identify some of the reasons for this trend.

Some of these reasons may not even be local. Globalisation has increasingly been seen as a threat to local ways of life. Donald Trump’s victory was built around his ability to tap into the fears of the white working class in the US about the continuation of their way of life, even as the protestors in Washington DC and other American cities believe he is a threat to their way of life.

It is also possible that the strong sense that Tamil culture has been threatened is not unconnected to globalisation. The presence of employees in the information technology industry at the jallikattu protests in Chennai would suggest that those involved directly in global economic processes feel a sense of cultural alienation.

The demonisation of PETA too could be a reflection of anger against global norms about the ethical treatment of animals. A culture that has traditionally allowed children to grow with bullocks at home would find it difficult to accept norms decided by persons who may well hesitate to hug a bullock.

Not globalisation alone

It would not do, though, to place all the blame on globalisation alone. There are other more local factors at work as well.

One that does not get the attention it needs is the strategy of reform that has been followed since Independence.

Before 1947, social movements had a prominent role in the process of social reform, especially during the process of allowing temple entry for dalits.

With the coming of Independence and our own courts, the emphasis has shifted to using the law for social change. And in these days of the anti-defection law it is possible to pass laws that even the people’s representatives are not entirely convinced about, as long as the leadership of the main party can be taken on board. As a result of this process we can have laws that do not, rightly or wrongly, have popular support.

In the early decades of Independence the people typically were not willing to take on the combined might of the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. But as democracy has become more deeply entrenched — and some of the institutions have lost a bit of their invincibility — the protests against centralised norms can only be expected to grow.

Growing protests will in turn further hurt the credibility of our institutions. And as these protests will necessarily converge towards cities, we may well be seeing the makings of a larger urban crisis.

The writer is a professor at the School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru

Published on January 22, 2017

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