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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 11 New Delhi March 3, 2018

India, Pakistan and Mobocracy

Monday 5 March 2018

by Shiraz Sheikh

Here is a tale of two countries not only with shared genesis but also with divergent experiences of regime types. At one end is India which was built with pluralism under a democratic leadership and with inheritance of the colonial state apparatus. It successfully spread the branch of procedural democracy and is proud of being the largest democracy in the world. On the other end is Pakistan that suffered from structural discontinuity coupled with dearth of political leadership. As a consequence Pakistan experienced unstable regime types that resulted in a weak democratic system. Never-theless, Pakistan’s democracy seems to be consolidating and at present is continuing with a procedural democratic system. In both the cases democracy is accepted and acknowledged as legitimate and desirable forms of political system. And after seven decades since their coming up as sovereign republics, democracy seems to be maturing in both states. But in reality is it so?

This is a renewed question that warrants a revision in the present context. I did this revision by observing two separate incidents which posed a fundamental challenge of legitimacy to the democratic system. The challenge was posed by the strength of the mob, a blackmailing of street force. This created a debate on the nature of democracy in India and Pakistan. To demon-strate how mob and mobocrats weaken the substance of democracy I take the two incidents, one from India and Pakistan.

Tehreek-e-Labaik’s Protest and the Mobocrats

In the first week of November 2017, Tehreek-e- Labaik Pakistan, an Islamist political party led by Barelvi—jurisprudence cleric—Khadim Hussain Rizvi, organised a sit-in protest named Tehreek e Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) and besieged the federal capital, Islamabad, for three weeks. The controversy arose because in the amended Election Bill, the phrase “I solemnly swear” related to the Declaration and Oath by the Person Nominated in the belief of finality of Prophet Muhammad, was substituted with “I believe”. The TLY protestors accused that it was a deliberate attempt by the government to dilute the Blasphemy Law while the National Assembly accepted the omission as “clerical error” and later rectified it. This rectification did not please the protestors and they continued to create chaos and paralysed the functioning of various cities by blocking the Islamabad-Faizabad interchange till all their demands were conceded.

Their core demands were the resignation of Zahid Hamid, the Minister of Law and Justice, reinsertion of the omitted wordings from the Nomination Form-A which was claimed to be diluted under the Election Bill 2017, government compensation for lost assets during the protests and fixing the responsibility of those who amended the earlier provision. During the negotiation period, in a crackdown operation six people were killed and scores of demons-trators injured. As a result the demonstrators became more resistant and resorted to violence. To regulate the spread of the crisis the government responded with internet restriction and media blackout as well as arrests of protestors. The civilian government officially sought the military’s help to manage the crisis but the armed forces were non-responsive. The siege ended on November 27 after 22 days of chaos and confusion when the government agreed to the TLY’s demands.

The TLY-protest was interpreted from various perspectives such as the religious orthodoxy of Pakistani society and faultlines in civil-military relations. With regard to the central argument of this article, there are at least three casualties. First, the government has timidly conceded to the demands of a mob. The question was not whether those demands were genuine and valid but whether the methods through which the demands were put forward happened to be democratic. Methods are important, because in a democracy the means are as sacred as the ends. In this case it was pure blackmailing by the show of street power and ability to create chaos. Second, the government curtailed the democratic rights of other law-abiding citizens by blocking the media and internet. The mob forced the democratic government to act in a fascist way. Third, the submission to the will of the mob not only reflected its incapacity but also its disrespect for democratic methods. They sacrificed their own soldiers at the altar of the mob and this will nourish and reinforce people’s faith in mobocracy. Now we shall examine our second case, which is from India.

Padmaavat(i) and the Mob

The hullabaloo that surrounded the release or delayed release of the contentious film Padmaavat, revolved around the question of “freedom of expression” and “community-sentiments”. The opposers of the film, a section of the Rajupt community, represented by two caste organiations—the Shri Rajput Karni Sena and Bharat Kshatriya Samaj—charged the film-maker with distorting history and portraying Rani Padmini in distaste. They revere her as a personification of Rajput ‘honour’ because to protect the community honour she burnt herself alive lest she was polluted by the nymphomaniac Khilji, who happened to be the ruler of the Delhi Sultanate. Historians argue that the Padmini-Khilji saga was a fictious literary work of Malik Muhammad Jayasi written in 1540 CE, more than two centuries after Khliji’s death. The oral traditions of Rajputs believe it to be otherwise and factual. My argument is not about the myths and facts of this epic poem in which Rani Padmini was the protagonist. My argument is about the political response to the opposing forces which posed a challenge to the writ of the state. To make this observation explicit, I shall examine the controversy chronologically and corroborate why it is important to see it in this perspective.

The film was supposed to be released on December 1, 2017 but was delayed due to various controversies. It only could be seen in cinema halls from January 26, 2018. The delay was due to the opposition of the Rajput community. There were open threats from various quarters of the Rajput community to burn the cinema halls, persecution of the actors and the director, demands for the legal trial of film-makers and harming of public property. In such a situation, the film fraternity sought the government’s assurance but the latter remained silent. The film was only allowed to be released after certification from the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) which certified it by placing it in the U/A category after the name of the film was changed from Padmaavati to Padmaavat and five other modifications. In this way the government diluted the importance of the CBFC constituted by itself and allowed the external forces to dictate terms that were purely in its own jurisdiction. Despite all these the Shri Rajput Karni Sena continued their protest in various forms including threats and violence.

What was stunning in this chain of events was the silence of the elected government. People saw political underpinnings and correlation in the government’s behaviour. It was argued that due to elections in Gujarat the release was delayed, because the ruling government, which is overtly instrumental in projecting its ideology, didn’t want to be seen hurting the sentiments of those who vote for them. It was then followed by a more critical chain of events. The four State governments of Gujarat, MP, Rajasthan and Haryana, all ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), proactively announced that the film will not be released in their States. But hearing a petition of the producer, the Supreme Court of India issued an Order to these States to ensure the release of the film and also maintain law and order.

Despite the Apex Court’s order the film was not released in these States as film distributors and cinema hall owners decided not to do so. Prima facie this seems absolutely cognisable. But a deeper scan exposes the incapacity or unwillingness of the government in providing adequate physical as well as an ambience of security. The government, the guarantor of public security, tactically shirked its responsi-bility before the mob-threat. The distributors could foresee this; thus, they very pragmatically desisted from releasing this highly profitable film. That was the power of the mob which coerced the state, the distributors, the film-maker to kneel to their will. In another way, the mob also curtailed the law-abiding citizens’ the right of choice.


Both the cases discussed above are not necessarily comparative but do share identical processes and consequences as far as democracy is concerned. In Pakistan, where democracy is weak, the government timidly conceded to the bellicose mob which challenged the writ of the state. In India, which is a comparatively consolidated democracy, the government strategically shirked its responsibility to ensure the rule of law. In both cases, the respective governments, willingly or unwillingly, rein-forced the legitimacy of the mob-method by allowing them to make a mockery of the rule of law by the use of brute force, anarchy and illegitimate blackmailing. This trend, which may appear as an ordinary passing event, will erode the peoples’ faith in democracy and nourish mobocracy.

The author is a Ph.D scholar at the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

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