Britain strike
NHS nurses during a strike, amid a dispute with the government over pay, in London, Britain, on January 18, 2023. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has proposed crackdown on disruptive protests. Image Credit: Reuters

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s proposed crackdown on disruptive protests has received unusual attention in India. Not only politicians or commentators but common folk are asking, “Why does the West preach to us while doing the same things themselves? Why the double standards?” In the United Kingdom, police in England and Wales are to get pre-emptive powers to stop disruptive protests.

In India, farmers’ protests, which were even more damaging and went on for over a year from August 2020 to December 2021, received support not only from Western media but from lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic. When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who supported these demonstrators in India, declared an emergency to clear protesting truckers, he did not receive the sort of negative publicity and condemnation that India did. In fact, India continues to face flak whenever the government tries to quell or control disruptive protests.

Earlier, in Shaheen Bagh too, civic spaces and public streets were occupied for months in Delhi during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests. These protests, which began in December 2019 and ended in March the following year, were immediately given a minority vs majority colouring in the foreign press. In the concurrent and related rioting, over 50 people were killed in Northeast Delhi, several during the India visit of then-US President Donald Trump in February 2020.

Copy of 2021-01-24T145212Z_439382041_RC2EEL90OCO8_RTRMADP_3_INDIA-FARMS-PROTESTS-1611563008322
Farmers participate in a tractor rally to protest against the newly passed farm bills, on a highway on the outskirts of New Delhi, India, on January 7, 2021. The protests received support not only from Western media but from lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic. Image Credit: Reuters

Farmer protests in India

In their supplementary chargesheet against some of the alleged rioters or provocateurs, the Delhi police claimed, “There could not have been a greater international embarrassment for the government of India than to have communal riots raging in the national capital while a visit by the US president was underway in February.” The objective of the conspirators, who “engineered, vicious and visceral” communal violence, was “to uproot a lawfully elected government”, the chargesheet added.

Such guerrilla protests, whether in India or, for that matter, in North America or Europe, can hit already beleaguered post-Covid economies hard in addition to disrupting law and order and crippling the normal lives of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens. A recent instance is “slow marching” or chaining themselves to barricades by protesters in the UK. Just a few people can halt or slow down traffic for hours. Paradoxically, these anti-oil protesters cause a greater consumption of petroleum products and emission of greenhouse gasses, not to mention pollution, by trying to bring normal life and movement to a grinding halt.

Sunak, while announcing the proposed measures, clarified, “The right to protest is a fundamental principle of our democracy, but this is not absolute. A balance must be struck between the rights of individuals and the rights of the hard-working majority to go about their day-to-day business.” He added, “We cannot have protests conducted by a small minority disrupting the lives of the ordinary public. It’s not acceptable, and we’re going to bring it to an end. The police asked us for more clarity to crack down on these guerrilla tactics, and we have listened.”

British move to rein in protesters

On the other hand, critics of the bill, such as Martha Spurrier, director of Liberty, warned of its dangers: “Allowing the police to shut down protests before any disruption has taken place, simply on the off-chance that it might, sets a dangerous precedent, not to mention making the job of officers policing protests much more complex.” Another activist, Patsy Stevenson, who found the bill “outrageous” said, “I think this bill is going to cause so much damage. This bill is basically like the government saying: ‘We will do whatever we want, regardless of how the public feels about it,’ because once you ban protesting, that bans free speech completely.”

Despite climate evangelists and civil liberties crusaders dubbing these proposed measures anti-democratic, Sunak’s amendment to the public order bill seems to have the support of most Britons. Under the proposed changes to the existing regulations, law enforcement authorities “will not need to wait for disruption to take place and can shut protests down before chaos erupts”. The amendment will be debated in the British parliament, where its passage depends on cooperation from the opposition Labour or crossbenchers. Both sides agree that the definition of what counts as “disruption” is the key to how effective the bill will be in maintaining law and order on the one hand and ensuring that democratic rights to protest are protected on the other hand.

India farmers protest
Farmers shout slogans during a demonstration as they move towards Delhi to join the farmers who are protesting against the government's agricultural reforms, in Amritsar on March 5, 2021. India was heavily criticised by hostile foreign powers and such moves undermine democracies. Image Credit: AFP

Why India should ignore foreign criticism

Back in India, the problems are similar but even more severe, with riots leading to severe injuries, even deaths, and damage to property of both state and citizens, not to mention losses in thousands of crores of rupees. Most Indians feel that how India manages to bring such anti-state actors under control should be its own business. The West should stop preaching to us.

True. But India too must stop being so sensitive to Western censure. A robust democracy should weather criticism, taking it in its stride. But today’s democracies are going through an unprecedented crisis. They are often divided against themselves. It is also relatively easy for hostile foreign powers to undermine democracies. All they have to do is encourage disruptions. Given how flimsy the distinction between dissent and disruption is, it is not difficult to disguise the former as the latter.

The way forward is for democracies worldwide to respect and support each other rather than jump into the fray when there is trouble in someone else’s backyard. While democratic processes must be strengthened and safeguarded by both state and civil society, those forces bent on undermining, even destroying, legally elected governments must be kept in check, brought under control, and even stopped by the legitimate use of state power. Else, instead of democracy, we will only have chaos and disorder.