What most of the commentators have missed out during the recent protests in Kashmir and Bangalore is that the traditionally organised power structures are being challenged by radically networked societies and governments need to restructure better to respond
Two recent protests in the country demonstrated how radically networked societies (RNS) challenge the conventional, bureaucratic and hierarchical power structures. Last week, after a girl was allegedly molested by a soldier in Handwara, Kashmir saw a deluge of protests by the locals. The army later released a video in which the girl gave a statement exonerating the army. But the incident was enough to snowball into a major law and order problem in which police had to resort to firing on protesting mobs resulting in five dead and scores injured. It culminated in the dismantling of army bunkers after more than two decades. In the second incident, violence erupted across Bangalore on April 18 and 19 by garment factory workers that left more than a hundred injured, two of them seriously. A police station was attacked and vehicles were set on fire. Reportedly, this was a reaction to amendment to Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) by the central government as part of its budget announcement for 2016. The new norms barred employees from withdrawing their entire provident fund corpus before retirement. On April 19, the government announced a complete and unconditional rollback.
The striking feature of both the incidents is that they were leaderless. In Kashmir, mobs of protesters were assembled based on “news” circulated in WhatsApp groups. The dismantling of bunkers has been seen as a victory for locals. But the government’s response was typical of bureaucratic knee-jerk reaction. In an order dated April 18, the Kashmir government has instructed all WhatsApp groups to register within ten days. There were even government employees who were part of the groups. WhatsApp has emerged as a potent tool for gathering of protesters. The statement by Divisional Commissioner, Asgar Samoon reported in newspapers is produced as below:
“There are many unauthorised news groups on WhatsApp that disseminate news. It’s not restricted to just chatting, they have thousands of followers who post news without verification and many times lead to law and order problems. Government employees are for implementation of policies, if they have grievances or suggestion they can be put forward through proper channel not in public forms. In many cases government employees were seen instigating violence.”
Even in Bangalore, the protests were first planned and circulated in WhatsApp groups among the garment industry workers. Most of the protesters were women. About three and a half years ago, Bangalore had a similar incident concerning the migrant working population from northeastern part of India. In August 2012, more than 30,000 people left the city over rumours of impending attack on them.
According to my colleague Nitin Pai, corruption, economic distress, political oppression, and elite control of political power, among others have always been there. He goes on to add that the proliferation of public protests might be the first signs of clash between radically networked societies and hierarchically ordered states. This is true whether the polity is democratic or authoritarian.
In 2011 Arab Spring, protests spread like wildfire in Tahrir Square in Egypt and Tunisia that resulted in ousting of authoritarian political leaders. The onset of social media like facebook, twitter, whatsapp, Snapchat etc. have radically transformed the speed with which information is transmitted and processed. In many ways, this is the epitome of Marshall McLuhan’s ‘medium is the message’ theory.
Bangalore and Kashmir present a contrast and similarity. Contrast, because Bangalore city police is one of the most tech savvy forces in the country with an active twitter handle and social media presence. Kashmir police has not demonstrated such a capability. In addition, Kashmir has a heavy presence of other security forces like Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and army which have their own typically rigid hierarchical organisations. Similarity, because both got checkmated by very similar radical networks.
Responding to the RNS also entails a trade-off between liberty and national security. To what extent can personal freedoms and liberty can be contained is a matter to be seriously debated. Left purely to governments, they will only enact policies to strengthen the hand of the state, however draconian it may be. This will be an incremental tail chase in perpetuity. The latest order in Kashmir is evidence of this.
One reason the United States emerged on top of the world order is because it had the best political system for post-Enlightenment industrial age societies. It can be argued that the nation that best restructures itself for the information age will have a shot at being the next great superpower. Across the world, governments are grappling with this phenomenon. We certainly have a long way to go.
Guru Aiyar is a Research Scholar with Takshashila Institution and tweets @guruaiyar.
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