Those who lead protests have to discipline their followers into adopting peaceful means, and must exercise their rights without infringing on the rights of other citizens(Ravi Kumar/Hindustan Times)
As a show of strength, and their opposition to the farm reforms, agitating farmer unions have called for a Bharat Bandh on December 8. This call has now been supported by almost the entire spectrum of Opposition parties. The bandh has been called in the backdrop of a movement that has already severely disrupted the right to liberty, movement, and trade of fellow-citizens. It also comes in the backdrop of three rounds of unsuccessful talks between the government and farm leaders, where the central government has indicated that repeal of laws is not an option and the protesters have made it clear that nothing less than a total repeal will be acceptable.
In a democracy, citizens are allowed to express their will both within the confines of institutions — through Parliament, legal challenges, opinion-building through media — and outside institutional confines but within constitutional means — through street protests and mass mobilisation. But when interest groups resort to the latter, it comes with greater responsibility. Those who lead protests have to discipline their followers into adopting peaceful means, and must exercise their rights without infringing on the rights of other citizens. The Bharat Bandh is a legitimate political tactic — but calling for it brings the responsibility on farm leaders to ensure that it is peaceful and not violent, that their opposition does not result in coercion against other citizens, and their mass protests do not, at a time when the pandemic is still raging, result in a sharp spike in cases due to the violation of social distancing norms. Both farm unions and Opposition parties must abide by this on Tuesday.
At the same time, the onus lies on the State to first engage with all dissenting stakeholders to prevent a call for a bandh in the first place. But if it is happening, then instruments of the State — particularly the security forces — have a responsibility to respect the democratic right to dissent, and exercise utmost restraint. The use of excessive force to quell a protest or harm protesters in any way is not only wrong but can also lead to further alienation and create a more vicious cycle of anger and repression. And, therefore, on December 8, there must be a delicate balancing act, the responsibility for which lies on both sides, to both maintain order and express dissent.