In the eighties, Dhubri, the headquarter township of the then-undivided district of Goalpara, often had the spectre of communal tension looming over it every year around a time when two religious festivals of two different communities fell on the same particular day. The district administration used to be aware of this and prepare for it, gearing up the necessary bandobust timely. The situation, therefore, rarely went out of control. But mischief-makers were aplenty on both sides who would relentlessly try to provoke and foment trouble. One such time, things came to a boil, and mayhem was imminent. The DM contacted the Minister from the district and some other leading public figures, and a peace procession was taken out with the DM and the SP in the lead, flanked by the Minister and other leading citizens, with some commoners also joining the march. With visible police and paramilitary presence, they walked through the zones of probable flare-ups. It was a timely and effective mix—a show of strength as well as an extension of the olive branch. Nothing untoward happened, and the situation was contained before it could take a wrong turn. I recall this instance from more than forty years ago not to tom-tom the success of the administration, but much more so to highlight the cooperation given to the administration by the Minister, who belongs to a minority community (if this needs to be mentioned at all), and other leading public figures, without whose open support the crisis couldn’t have perhaps been so deftly handled. Such situations must have taken place elsewhere in other districts as well and been as efficiently tackled. Why I consider this a pertinent point is because the mischief-makers who conspire below the surface to brew trouble are often perceived to thrive on the tacit connivance of local leaders who nurture goons to come in handy during the rough and tumble of election politics in our country. The moment the politician in power is seen to be openly disassociating with them, these dastardly chefs of hatred and violence lose their guts and flee the scene. The police force, whenever left free from unhealthy, prejudiced political string-pulling, has always been a force to reckon with. This is almost a global feature.
In the midst of the mayhem currently happening with impunity in several states in our country, these thoughts tend to surface naturally. The way things are going, nobody seems to be accountable for good governance. It’s down to a free-for-all blame game with talk-show participants pointing fingers at one another, blaming each other, and shouting down each other to hide the absence of basic merit behind their make-believe fulminations. Things have touched such a new low in public discourse that they are not simply acerbic but highly demoralizing as well, to say the least. Rule of law, administrative neutrality, a secular temper—all seem to have been given the green light. Good governance should be a constant, with clearly defined, visible standard operating procedures—not simply an election ploy. The administration should not only claim neutrality but be seen to be so. Civil unrest and lawlessness can undo the good work accomplished in any sphere in all these years. One incident of large-scale, uncontrolled communal violence can wipe out all the good and take things back to square one. A game of bad politics between the Centre and the states can only precipitate a larger crisis. Controlling law and order is a state subject, yes, but it should be obvious to project that the Centre has no responsibility in containing this and can happen only when a double-engine government (a new coinage) is at work in the state. The federal structure was envisaged and adopted basically for such matters of national integrity, among other things. Just because political fortunes are tied to the elections around the corner, the nation cannot suffer a free fall into the abyss. Such incidents, when leaders look the other way, may tend to snowball and engulf other parts of the country as well. Conspirators, within and outside, are already lurking in the wings; we all know it by now. An upright, clear, and outspoken stance from leaders is important to clear the air in such troubled times.
The centre is expected to hold and not simply pass on the blame to the states, especially in a situation when the states are also equally upping the ante with the same tu-tu-mai-mai rhetoric. Everybody seems to be playing in troubled waters at the cost of unmitigated tension and anxiety for the common man. All this boils down to certain fairly clear symptoms: a) unrestrained, unruly behaviour by the rank and file cadre of political parties and lumpen elements under their umbrella; b) leaders unwilling to restrain their cadres (in some cases reportedly instigating); c) mere electoral gains seen as the only goal worth pursuing; and d) a thoroughly indecisive, demoralized administration unable to call a spade a spade and rein in things. Unfortunately for our country, the administration of late has turned into something like a weathervane: it sways whichever way the political party in power wants it to. This has not happened in a day; ever since the early seventies, there have been constant, methodical attempts to break down an upright bureaucracy. With continuous demoralization, something somewhere in the system has to give. The overall climate for bureaucrats has encouraged not only uprightness but also compliance. Countrymen would have expected sterner mettle from weather-beaten steel-frame inheritors not to succumb so easily, but that was not to be. The steel frame crawled when asked to kneel, with very rare exceptions.
There was a time when even a lone constable in a laal topee could enforce the law in his beat; the Assam agitation was kept under control more by the CRPF’s lathi than by bullets. Things have since changed on both sides: now neither the protesters nor the troublemakers are peaceful any longer, nor are the outdated, ill-equipped forces capable of controlling them. The mob-control forces of the country need to be strengthened in their numbers with matching arms and ammunition, but above all in their morale, which is not at a desirable high currently. This calls for united efforts mainly by the political players, for the simple reason that the tables could turn on them unexpectedly anytime, and then, only a neutral, effective, committed force with a strong morale will be up to the task of delivering when the deceit of political one-upmanship makes the field opaque enough to distinguish the hero from the villain. Otherwise, it would be like ignorant armies clashing by night. One is not talking of handing over bulldozer magic to the force; that may exactly lead to a worse kind of lawlessness that could tantamount to a jump from the frying pan into the fire. What the citizen would want is available, time-tested, decent, firm, and effective policing that is immune to corrosive political pressure, examples of which are available in many democracies.
Those who hear the rumble of distant thunder should take timely cover to avoid an impending disaster. When it comes to a country of our size and complexity, it is all the more important that we learn to keep our ears to the ground and prevent dangerous distortions to the system before it’s too late to arrest a slide into chaos. Political parties and leaders of national stature (if we have them) must take a call on this, for, from the common man’s point of view, that is where the ball lies.