If the Uttar Pradesh government's brave attempt to recover cost of damage to public property succeeds in deterring marauders, the tough decision by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath could become the new benchmark for dealing with arsonists, regardless of their religion or caste and their cause.
Amid allegations of use of excessive use of force against CAA protesters, the Uttar Pradesh government has served notices on over 300 people to pay damages for venting anger on public property and set up Special Investigation Teams (SITs) to probe cases of rioting.
Beyond the hullabaloo and political war over the controversial citizenship law, the Yogi Adityanath government has shown great political resolve by deciding to make anti-CAA protesters pay for damaging public property. This can be seen as a move aimed at setting a high benchmark for dealing with violent protesters. Without seeing the cost-recovery decision through political or communal prisms, the UP government's move to book CAA protesters for rioting and serve them notices to pay Rs 50 lakh each is a landmark policy development – an action based on provisions in law that have rarely been used by state government's fearing electoral backlash.
It remains to be seen if the effort by the Yogi government to create deterrence against damage to public property by slapping cost recovery notices bears fruit. Regardless of the issue at the centre of the public outcry over the government's stand on the CAA issue, the attempt to make vandals pay for damaging public property and common utility facilities needs to be appreciated, if the exercise passes the test of fair play in coming months.
In UP violence, a majority of protesters were allegedly from the minority community – some even suspected to be linked to Popular Front of India (PFI), an extremist and militant Islamic fundamentalist organisation. Most of the damages recovery notices have also been issue to people from one religion. The Yogi government would do good to apply the same yardstick of recovering cost from protesters of the majority community or any other community if, in future, they indulge in similar acts of plundering public property.
Over 300 protester who allegedly damaged public property have been served cost recovery notices across UP. The Lucknow district administration has served notices to 100 people till now. In Meerut, 141 people have been blamed for damages. In Sambhal, notices were issued to 26 whereas in Nehtaur town of Bijnor notices were issued to 43 rioters. In Bulandshahr, the Muslim community has even paid a cheque of Rs 6 lakh to the district administration as damages for violence in the town.
The Congress sees the cost recovery notices to rioters as Yogi's effort to shoot the messenger. The party has alleged widespread police brutality against innocent protesters with at least 19 of them getting killed in UP. In Delhi, however, the Congress is itself under a lens of suspicion for allegedly spreading the CAA violence ever since the Delhi Police booked former Delhi Congress MLAs – Mohd. Asif Khan and Mateen Ahmed - for igniting arson in Jamia Nagar and Seelampur.
BJP leaders have blamed the Congress for giving a violent turn to CAA demonstrations with the petty objective of making political capital. “For the Congress, the CAA agitation mid the UP BJP government's desperate attempt to calm things down have turned out to be an opportunity for one-upmanship that thrives on schadenfreude,” said a Central BJP leader.
The tough stand taken by Adityanath to recover the damages for destruction of public property during anti-Citizenship Act, in a way, reflects the tough thinking of the BJP leadership which appears to be in no mood to be pushed into defensive or evasive action in view of the protests over the CAA.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has put his weight behind Yogi in taking action against the marauders and making them pay through their nose for damaging public property. Signalling his tough stand against violence, Modi said, “Those who were misled and caused damage to public property should sit at home and ask themselves if their path was right."
Former Army chief General Bipin Rawat, who has taken over charge as the new Chief of Defence Staff on December 31, earlier waded into the debate over violence by making a sharp comment about those leading the anti-CAA agitations. “Leaders are not those who lead people in inappropriate directions, as we are witnessing in a large number of university and college students, the way they are leading masses of crowds to carry out arson and violence in our cities and towns. This is not leadership," he said, kicking up a controversy and inviting criticism from political parties and former defence personnel.
Harsh Mander, a human rights activist and former bureaucrat, led a group of NGOs in attacking the UP government over police violence. "The state is at open war with a segment of its citizens," he said, alleging that security forces in UP had used "violence at an unprecedented scale" including firing stun grenades inside the campus of the Aligarh Muslim University.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi also targeted the BJP for the violence."Unless you take people along and unite the country, you cannot do anything to tackle the problem of unemployment and economy... The country cannot benefit by making people fight among themselves," he added.
For the Congress, the CAA agitation appears to be an ideal chance to claw back into a meaningful position in UP politics. As Rahul and Priyanka attempted to rake up the issue by planning surprise visits to protest-hit UP towns, the party accused the Yogi government of arbitrarily targeting one community and described as a new low the BJP government's decision to send notices demanding damages from protesters and threatening to auction off their properties.
BJP critics also dug up past instances of the Yogi administration adopting a tough approach against law breakers and pointed to earlier attempts by state police to track down criminals, even if it needed to engage in encounters, and launch anti-romeo squads to tackle eve-teasing.
The Samajwadi Party has described the damages recovery notices to anti-CAA protesters as alleged attempts to misuse the law and order machinery for settling scores. SP president Akhilesh Yadav said Yogi has given a free hand to police to use violent measures and after encounters against alleged criminals the state is seeing the use of bullets against protesters.
The Yogi government clarified that it is merely using the power given to it by the Allahabad High Court in its order on December 2, 2010 in Mohammad Shujauddin vs State case. In that order, Justice Sudhir Agarwal had said that police shall book the persons who damage public property and the local authority that owns the damaged property shall file a claim for realisation of the amount equal to the damage caused.
As things stand now, the competing narratives of the BJP and the Congress on CAA hinge upon the success of effective communication. The Opposition parties are trying to take along a large section of Muslims in protesting against what they call discrimination on the basis of religion even as the BJP launches a nationwide educational campaign to dispel doubts and misgivings about the CAA that bars illegal Muslim immigrants from three neighbouring nations from seeking Indian citizenship while allowing people of other faiths, including Hindus, Jains and Parsis, to do so. The Opposition parties allege that the CAA and the proposed national population register exercise is a means for the Modi government to discriminate against Muslims, a charge denied by the BJP.
The PM is not wrong in warning that by amplifying the violence, the protesters who disagree with the CAA have ended up diverting the focus on the method of their dissent more than the cause.
At a time when high-pitched wars are being fought over the CAA issue and the BJP has accused the Congress of misleading the minorities by confusing the Citizenship (Amendment) Act with National Register of Citizens, the steps taken by UP government to create a deterrent against vandalism needs to be equated with tough public safety laws in countries like Singapore.
As years go by and the current CAA agitation fades from public memory, the big take-away from the entire episode would indeed be the lesson taught to vandals by the UP government. Some observers may also want to give credit to the UP government for at least addressing the much-ignored need to drill a sense of non-violence into the heads of protesters by threatening them with impending recovery of cost of damage caused by them to public property.