Xenophobia, Racism And Vigilantism
The bizarre drama yesterday, involving one of the Aam Aadmi Party ministers, Somnath Bharti, should make the AAP leadership sit up and think. Here is a brief extract from a report:
Less than 24 hours after he led a midnight raid and tried to bully police into arresting some “Nigerians or Ugandans” who he alleged were members of “a prostitution-and-drug ring”, Delhi Law Minister Somnath Bharti returned to the very spot on Thursday and asked residents to draw up a list of houses where “such people” live and said he would personally check each one.
The minister got embroiled in a full-scale confrontation with the ACP, BS Jakhar, who insisted, correctly that the police were not legally empowered to do this. According to the same report, Jakhar said, “The minister told me that the women inside are part of a drug racket and that we should conduct a raid in all houses in the area. I told him that the law does not permit us to barge into someone’s house, so late in the night, without a search warrant.” But to not effect. The minister was not only unfazed; he even went on say that he had “received a lot of complaints from women in this locality against foreign nationals, yeh hum aur aap jaise nahin hain (They are not like you or me).”
A number of questions arise from this incident.
The first and most obvious one is about the issue of vigilantism and the observance of the ‘due process of the law’ which most newspapers and reports have underlined. And for once, in that face of Somnath Bharti’s intemperate behaviour, Delhi Police appears to be doing the right thing. In fact, the African women who Bharti was out to get, have gone on record saying:
“We were returning from a party, when our taxi was stopped by a few men. They started shouting at us, calling us names. The police were in fact supporting us. They held us captive inside the car for over three hours,” one of the women told The Indian Express.
I am no advocate of prioritising ‘due process’ without reference to the context—for very often, ‘due process’ works in the interests of the powerful. I do think that there are occasions when ‘due process’ becomes a shackle f0r the powerless and I do not want to fetishise it. It is precisely for this reason a matter of utmost importance that we exercise our judgement in each case with care. But there are reasons why it has become part of established procedure in any modern society, that the state and its representatives not be allowed to function vis-a-vis the ordinary people without authorization. Barging into people’s homes and arresting them without search/ arrest warrants is one such safeguard that has been fought for and established over centuries. No one can be allowed to violate these under any circumstances.
The second issue here is of the minister’s highly objectionable othering of the Africans who are our guests—and until otherwise proven guilty of some specific crime—must be treated with utmost respect. Not only did the minister not show the minimum respect that hospitality demands, he in fact gave free expression to his basest prejudices—of racism and xenophobia when he said “they are not like you or me”. One needs to understand that notwithstanding our long-standing traditions which consider the guest as an avatar of the gods (atithi devo bhavah), ours is deeply xenophobic and racist society. Hatred of the other is ingrained in us and those who aspire to political leadership can ill afford to go by the flow of what the masses believe. This is a delicate issue but one that is of capital importance. Simply because the minister receives complaints from such neighbours—whose attitudes about purity and vice are among other things, structured by their caste position as well—he cannot afford to jump into the act without any thought and reflection. But this is perhaps wishful thinking on our part because Somnath Bharti and other AAP MLAs and ministers are also perhaps part of the very same universe of the ‘popular’ that the masses inhabit. That they are part of that world and suddenly catapulted into a position of running the government is no doubt their strength, but can also turn out to be their undoing, if they do not watch out.
The third issue that is linked to this complex of the relationship between the leadership and the popular support it has, is the much celebrated idea of mohalla sabhas and devolution of power to local committees. This is something that Arvind Kejriwal and other AAP leaders need to think hard about. After all, this was one reason why Ambedkar was vehemently opposed to the idea of devolution and gram swaraj—for he saw no possibility of their being free of the effects of caste practices. The ‘popular’ is often celebrated in opposition to both the statism of the liberal political elites as well as the vanguardism of the radical elites but itself remains uninterrogated. We either have the statist and radical elites who have nothing but disdain and suspicion of the popular or, we have the endless celebration of the popular without submitting it to any serious critique. Yesterday’s incidents should tell us that any unreflective faith in mohalla sabhas can be highly problematic and the leadership needs to evolve a more finely tuned and balanced approach to the issue of devolution of power.
Finally, the episode highlights another matter that the AAP leadership needs to immediately tackle. The massive and rapid expansion of the party and the influx of many people with immediate political ambitions for the next elections is going to create as many problems as it solves. The party cannot go on in the fashion it currently is—in a state of permanent action with little time to think and reflect on itself. If the Somnath Bharti episode can serve as a timely warning about this serious lacuna, AAP might manage to forestall many of the dangers that lie waiting for it along the way. It may be worthwhile for the party to think of ways of conducting workshops and study circles for their activists and leaders alike, even while they are in the midst of a momentous task. That alone can prevent the new and interesting experiment that AAP is from dissipating before it has time to realize its potential.
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