People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 17

April 28, 2013


Heckling As Violence


Prabhat Patnaik


A NEW proposition of political philosophy is being propounded in India, namely, that heckling political leaders is a form of violence against them; and since violence against elected representatives is abhorrent in a democracy, leaders should not be heckled, and those heckling should be booked.


This is an entirely home-grown proposition. The other day at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral many turned up along the route, where the cortege passed, to boo her and pass angry comments against her. They were, by the new-found Indian definition, using violence against a dead person, which is even more reprehensible than against a living one, and that too a person who had been the longest-serving prime minister of Britain in the twentieth century and whose iconic status in the Tory pantheon was comparable only to that of the war-time prime minister Winston Churchill. And yet there are no reports of any arrests being made of those who booed Thatcher, any demands for apologies, or any inquiry committees to find out who the hecklers were. The British, including even the British Tories, obviously do not consider heckling as violence.




And even this home-grown proposition is of very recent vintage, no more perhaps than a couple of weeks. After all, in this country itself when Indira Gandhi had come back to power after the brief period of Janata Party rule, her visit to Jawaharlal Nehru University had been blocked by student protestors shouting slogans against the Emergency, and she had ultimately to turn back. She was the popularly elected, serving, prime minister of the country, and what the students did, namely preventing the elected prime minister from visiting some location on Indian soil, was completely wrong. And yet there were no arrests, no accusations of violence, no demands for apology, and no disciplinary action against anybody. It was taken for granted that in an intelligent community the rights and wrongs of an action must be thrashed out through discussion, debate, criticisms and self-criticisms, and not through fiats, dictates and tantrums.


Contrast this with the present situation. The West Bengal chief minister insists, against police advice, upon passing through a group of persons protesting against the death in police custody of a young student, a death that had been callously dismissed by her as a “small and petty affair” without even a proper inquiry. The protestors heckle her, but she is not so much as even touched by anybody and is escorted safely to the meeting with the Planning Commission for which she had come. And yet she gets hospitalised for a whole week to recover from the violence inflicted upon her by the heckling!


True, the finance minister of West Bengal was manhandled by some of the demonstrators and had his kurta torn, but while this is no doubt reprehensible, he too had made it a point to leave police custody; had he not done so nobody would have touched him, just as nobody touched the chief minister. Now, it is a well-established security rule everywhere in the world that dignitaries follow police suggestions and do not indulge their whims and mingle with protestors. To violate this rule is foolhardy and this foolhardiness must at least partly be held responsible for the consequences that followed.


But in any case it is not the manhandling that is being cited as evidence of violence, which would have been a defensible proposition. The heckling of the chief minister is also being thrown in as an instance of violence and is even being given pride of place in the list of violent acts perpetrated by the demonstrators. It is not only the TMC cadres, but a host of others from the governor of West Bengal to even some small Left outfits who have expressed outrage not just over the tearing of Amit Mitra’s  kurta but over the very fact of demonstration-cum-heckling of elected representatives.


So exercised has the governor been that, not content with blaming unruly demonstrators, or criticising the incapacity of the leaders present in situ to enforce restraint on the demonstrators, he has even demanded an apology from the Politburo of the CPI(M) on the grounds that it was a pre-planned attack and “democratic centralism” entailed that the PB should own responsibility for each and every action of its front organisations. By the governor’s logic, which underlies his claim that it was a pre-planned action, the demonstrators knew beforehand that Mamata Banerjee and Amit Mitra would reject the police suggestion to use another route which had been planned for their entry to Yojana Bhawan; that the demonstrators knew beforehand that Amit Mitra would stray away from the police cordon; and they knew that he would stray away in a particular direction (he was apparently looking for a different entry point) so that they could get hold of him to tear his kurta !


But let us get away from all this, and ask the basic question: can heckling be considered an act of violence? No doubt it can cause psychological trauma to the person at the receiving end which can affect his or her health. But then the very act of even seeing somebody can cause such trauma, as had happened to Kansha in the Mahabharata when he saw Krishna. Can this then justify the imposition of a ban on protestors being at all visible to elected representatives? And certainly being attacked in the media for public decisions can be a source of psychological trauma for political representatives; does this justify a ban on criticisms in the media of government functionaries?


The question of where to draw the line is no doubt an important one, but the line can certainly not be drawn at the whim of the political representatives in leading government positions, without stifling criticism of their decisions affecting the lives of the people. One can make two points in this connection.




First, those who are so sensitive to heckling and demonstrations that they have to spend a week in hospital to recover from its after effects, should not be in politics at all where they have to take decisions affecting people’s lives. The thin-skinned person (and I do not mean this as a criticism since I count myself in some sense as being one), has no place in politics in a democratic dispensation, where criticism, often of the most stringent kind (of which heckling is an instance), is central to the functioning of the system. They are better off in academic pursuits of the more arcane kind like finding counterexamples to the Turnpike Theorem in economics (though even these may occasionally entail unacceptable and psychologically traumatic strain).


Secondly, those who get perturbed by heckling and would like a more civilised and humane discourse, must themselves also engage in such a discourse. One cannot call the death of a young idealistic student, and that too in police custody, a “small and petty affair”, a remark that is offensive to fundamental humanity; and then complain if angry demonstrators heckle one. To claim the right to make inhumane comments about others, and then to complain when others heckle one, amounts to having one’s cake and eating it too. Of course even when one’s discourse is perfectly humane and “civilised”, in so far as the consequences of one’s decisions are deleterious to some people’s lives, one still has to be prepared to face demonstrations and heckling. But if one’s discourse too is inhumane then the chances of this happening multiply several-fold.


This “no-matter-what-we-do-you-can-not-heckle-us-for don’t-you-know-heckling-is-a-form-of violence” attitude alas is gathering support among leading political functionaries in government. There is something fundamentally wrong with our polity if it is informed by this attitude: for then the death in police custody of a young idealistic student does not even get properly investigated, while an inquiry committee is set up at the highest level, by the home minister of the country no less, to investigate the incident of heckling.


This attitude is symptomatic of the creeping fascism in our country in at least two ways. First, it is symptomatic of a lack of tolerance of any opposition. Even as imperious a person as Indira Gandhi, despite being the prime minister of the country and despite being palpably wrongly targeted (I recollect Comrade M Basavapunniah telling me the morning after she was denied entry to JNU: “Cannot the prime minister of the country visit a university if she wishes to”?), had not taken any steps to punish those who had prevented her entry into JNU; things have changed so much since then that mere heckling is now considered an act of violence and strident demands are made, and accepted, by virtually all, including the media, without any demurral,  for the punishment of the “guilty”.


Secondly, this stridency has to do undoubtedly with the fact that the demonstrators belonged to the Left. The communal BJP and the neo-liberal Congress Party, each for its own reasons, wants the Left to be targeted, tarnished and marginalised. Each has its own reasons for going along with Mamata Banerjee’s visceral hatred of the Left. And many of the civil society “pundits”, wallowing in the middle class prosperity that the bubble-based neo-liberal boom has spawned over the last few years in India, find the Left, with its emphasis on poverty, agrarian crisis and primitive accumulation, a dispensable and embarrassing relic from the past. All this contributes towards the effort of making out of a relatively innocuous demonstration in Delhi an Indian version of the “Reichstag fire”.


Many will no doubt learn to their cost that this silent complicity in the demonisation of the Left that is underway, undermines democracy and helps the advance of fascism. One only hopes, however, that this lesson does not come too late for stopping the advance of fascism.