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Here's the bill for your recent riot

By Rajeev Srinivasan
Last updated on: July 29, 2004 19:11 IST
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Rajni S Anand, a young engineering student, committed suicide last week by jumping off the 6th floor of a government building in Trivandrum. It is reported that she was at the end of her tether after having tried in vain to get funds from various quarters, including nationalised banks. When she found no way forward, she decided to take her own life.

Rajni's case is tragic, and this is not a fate one would wish on any student. It is claimed that there are plenty of funds available to deserving students, and that educational loans with no security other than the human potential of the student are there for the asking. In a particularly poignant twist, Rajni was a Dalit, and there are supposed to be funds set aside specifically for disadvantaged groups to help them in their educational activities.

I am sure all of the above are partially true, yet in Rajni's case, things just did not come together, and she felt desperate enough to take her life. None can have anything but the deepest sympathy for Rajni, and for other young people who are undoubtedly in her shoes, running from pillar to post.

Rajni's death should have been an occasion for introspection and a review of the circumstances that led her to desperation. Instead, what has happened, according to newspaper and television reports, is large-scale student demonstrations, violence, destruction of public property, and generally mayhem.

It started at the University College, Trivandrum, a once-reputed institution that has had the misfortune to have the A K Gopalan Center (a Marxist stronghold) come up right next to it. Today there is no difference between the cadres and normal students who have come to pursue an education. Any issue becomes an excuse to get into pitched battles with the police, and to cause wanton destruction.

Right next to the University College, alleged students led by the Marxist SFI attacked and set fire to a health department van, pelted stones at a phalanx of police in riot gear whom them held off for three hours, and torched a branch of the bank that had denied Rajni the loan. And they snarled traffic on a main arterial road for hours. The police fired teargas to get the rioters away.

This scene was repeated all over Kerala, and the toll in damage, injuries, overtime pay to police and the opportunity cost of their being on riot duty, destruction of public property, etc. would have gone into the tens of lakhs. Not to mention loss of business and hassle to the general public and travelers. Bankers are now complaining that the rioters are declaring open season on bank branches; and they are threatening to down shutters.

There is an intriguing question here. Who pays for all this?

The simple answer is: you, gentle reader. This is all coming out of your, that is the taxpayer's, pocket.

The next question is: Why shouldn't those who created the violence pay for it?

I agree: yes, they should be forced to pay for it.

There is an unfortunate culture in India that holds no respect for public property. I wonder if this is a post-Independence phenomenon, when a perverse sense of entitlement made people believe that since public goods were owned by everybody, they could be damaged: a sort of 'Tragedy of the Commons' phenomenon on a large scale. Don't people understand that by destroying public property, they are destroying their own property, now that the State is no longer a bloodsucking imperialist? Or is it still? That's another story, but let's assume that the State is relatively benign, for now.

In this context, I saw the interesting news that some court has ordered the BJP and the Shiv Sena to pay damages of Rs 20 lakhs each for agitations called by these organisations last year. I think this is an excellent idea. This has to become the norm, so that anyone who catalyses a riot-like situation is forced to pay the painful financial costs.

So, for instance, in Kerala, the SFI, DYFI, KSU and SUCI and the other alphabet-soup student organisations (I recollect only these four, I am sure the others are equally culpable of bad behaviour) should be hauled up before the court, the damages caused by their actions tallied up, and the bill presented to them. Oh, so they say they have no funds to pay? Well, then, their office-bearers can go to bankruptcy jail and enjoy rigorous imprisonment.

This is the sort of mechanism that has been put to great use in the US by such groups as the Southern Poverty Law Center. They have sued habitual offenders, such as the racist Ku Klux Klan, won large punitive judgments against them, and driven the offending groups to bankruptcy. If I remember right, the Ku Klux Klan was forced to actually sell its headquarters building.

This is a rare positive outcome in litigation-mad America. I think it was the Jewish Anti-Defamation League that started this trend of punitive litigation: if you say or do anti-Jewish things, you can expect the ADL to sue your pants off. This has a deterrent effect, and I hope the Hindu Americans are listening: the sundry enemies of Hinduism in America will behave themselves if there is the threat of hefty lawsuits and negative publicity.

Similarly, I hope civic-minded lawyers will come together to file public-interest litigation in India. If, for example, the trade union CITU is bankrupted and loses its assets in a court ordered auction because they instigated Rs 50 lakhs worth of damage to public property during a strike, then that would have a tremendous deterrent effect on future would-be strikers. They will behave themselves.

Poor Rajni's untimely death would not have been turned into an excuse for general mayhem if there were video cameras capturing the rioters doing their thing; and the fear that the long arm of the law would, as it were, reach out and touch them.

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Rajeev Srinivasan