Are Our Crowds Irrational?

Are Our Crowds Irrational?

The question we need to approach rationally

Disorder is not a novel thing, neither internationally nor at home. Kashmir has traditionally been a hotbed of conflict and disorder. Since 1947 generally and more recently after 90. What explains the outbursts of disorder? The tendency of the state has been to explain (and condemn) the disorder and the associated violence as ‘mindless’, ‘senseless’ and ‘without justification’. The statist explanation of the crowd behaviour draws (not necessarily wittingly) from some nineteenth century academics like Le Bon and Gabriel Tarde, and more recently Christian Borsch, who believed that the anonymity of the crowd led individuals to forget the ‘pro-social standards of behaviour’.

The statist explanation holds fast to this conventional wisdom regarding the crowd behaviour. In Kashmir the state’s response to the disruptive crowds has been in sync with this anachronistic ‘irrational’ crowd theory. Thus, we can see state functionaries condemning the protestors as criminals, goons, or drug addicts. The response to the protests is thus hardly novel. The protests are met with a violent suppression to bring ‘order’ back on the streets. Of course, order is necessary as violent protests are potentially destructive of life and property. But attempts are made by the state to delegitimise the protests as the acts of criminality or nihilism and strip them of their political significance.

The problem is posed in binary terms: good versus bad, order versus disorder, and law versus crime. The solution is likewise presented as straightforward in terms of repressive measures such as higher arrest rates, tough sentences for the convicts, arrests without warrant, frequent use of disproportional violence on the streets etc. This state narrative is accentuated by the mainstream media coverage of the events, which Pierre Bourdieu calls a ‘hidden God… who governs conduct and consciences’. As one of the British criminologists Stanley Cohen argued, media with its flare for sensation, successfully portrays the protestors as ‘folk devils’. The other sane voices in the process lose their significance and are not even heard in the commotion and brouhaha. 

Contrary to the statist interpretations drawing from the antique academics, there has been a lot of new thinking in the academic circles. Protests, riots, and disorders are not wantonly condemned as irrational and hence to be repressed, but are thought of as having some social and political context. The propensity is to study the contexts and backgrounds of the disorder so as to be able to address its basic causes. Increasingly, the ‘irrationalism’ of the crowds is being challenged for its lack of explanatory powers. If crowds are irrational as is supposed, then why do riots and protests differ in nature from one place to other? The new theories treat every disorder, protest or riot as a case in itself without reducing it as being ‘irrational’. Thus, it is believed to be a need to go into the deeper causes of the protest so as to address them.

In Kashmir however, the recurrent protests and disorders are met with a force of disproportional magnitude. Hundreds are ‘rounded off’ and interrogated (in Kashmir the term ‘interrogation’ is used as an equivalent of torture), crowds are teargassed, and worse fired upon, and ‘peace’ and ‘order’ is restored by imposition of curfew. The use of outdated tactics of force and repression by the government serve as a temporary dressing upon the wounds and are seldom able to do any real service. No wonder that the protests and disorder on the streets has seen an upward trend in the recent years. As a well-known psycho-analyst Sigmund Freud says, ‘Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.’ People may be forced into peace and order but in the longer run the sentiments and the emotions keep resurfacing if they are not properly satisfied.

Nobody deserves to be called a drug-addict and a delinquent if s/he is left with no option but to come on streets to demand her/his rights. If meaningful democratic ways are choked by the government itself what options do people have other than creating disorder. State needs blame none but itself for not being able to create the enabling conditions where peace and order could flourish. There will be no peace and order until people enjoy the liberty and freedom from every oppression. As is said the opposite of freedom is not unfreedom but death!

(Shah Zahid Hussain is a Junior Research Fellow at the Department of Political Science, Jamia Millia Islamia)