Consequences of damaging public property during protests

By HH Mohrmen

Since the anti-foreigners agitation of the late seventies in Meghalaya protestors in the state in general and Shillong in particular has this unexplainable penchant for destroying public property. The recent incidents of public properties being destroyed in broad day light has reached its nadir and calls for immediate introspection and debate on the general public attitude towards public property and the act of vandalism.

From what was reported in the media, it is obvious that whenever there is a call for protest by pressure group, antisocial elements take advantage of the situation to create chaos and in the process targeted only public vehicles and buildings. This makes one question the kind of mindset the antisocial elements in the garb of the protestors have. The perception of the perpetrator of the act of vandalism is that public property is “government property” (mar sorkar) as if government is an alien organization or that government is an outside entity or even the enemy of the people. Public property be it roads, footpaths, buildings etc are seen as someone else’s property and hence easy target for one to destroy. This mindset is still prevalent in the society, as street lights are unnecessarily targeted, signboards and even unused government buildings are stoned and window panes are damaged without any rhyme or reason. It makes me wonder what could be the level of education of those responsible for the act. I am extremely worried and even fear for the future of our state if the perpetrators of the crime are educated youths. Fear because currently, there are only two groups in the society which provide our state a stable supply of politicians, the business sector and the pressure groups. If the politician is not a businessman, he or she must then be a former leader of certain pressure group in the earlier part of his life. So if the future leaders of the state are former leaders of pressure groups who condone the acts of vandalism and have no guilt of destroying public property then, I don’t know what kind of future is in store for the state?

What makes people (in spite of being educated) to treat public property with disrespect? Is it a tribal trait to treat public property with indifference? As far as I know, it is not in the Khasi Pnar tribal milieu to have an attitude of unconcern towards common property; “ka bhalang or ka bha uba bun balang” the welfare of the society is the value that is still held dear by the tribals of this area. Traditionally; in the tribal way of life; it is a taboo “ka sang ka ma” to damage or even touch that which does not belongs to us (“ban ktah ia ka bym dei ka jong ngi”). The question that still begs the answer is why this liking for destroying government property among the young people? What is so Khasi Pnar about destroying public property or how can an act of vandalism become a patriotic act?

Can the prevalent attitude towards public property be a colonial hangover that we have not been able to rid ourselves off? It seems the general perception amongst the public is that the government (like during the days of the British raij), is a power which forcefully occupies our land. Or are we still of the opinion that Government is the authority in a distant land which governs us against our will hence, the property or anything that has to do with the government is something that is against us. I think this is a common attitude shared by the general public because the public in general or the pressure groups in particular always remained tightlipped whenever such incidents are reported.

It is irresponsible for the group or groups which call the protest to simply conclude that it was an untoward incident and blame it on the so called anti social elements, whenever the incident of damaging public property occurs. By remaining silent when this act of vandalism is carried out during the group’s scheduled programme they are inadvertently encouraging the bad elements to commit more criminal acts during the union’s or association’s programme. And there is no denying the fact that the stories of burning vehicles or burning buildings create fear in the minds of the public and this in some way helps make the strike effective.

The public too, never really has the time to question, who these (so called) antisocial elements are. We seldom hear pressure groups which calls the agitation programmes claim responsibility for the incidents that occur during the group’s programme, neither have we ever heard pressure groups condemn any untoward incidents. It looks as if it is a general rule that everyone should remain silent and one seldom hears of any group or even individual condemning the barbaric act. We, all (the general public of the state) remain silent and hence share the same perception that public property is not for us and are instead against us. Public property, be it an expensive government vehicle, a bridge or a government office building belongs to the government therefore it does not belong to me. Government property is nobody’s property, hence we don’t care what happens to the property and it does not hurt us a bit to see these government assets being ruthlessly damaged. If that is not the case then why is there no group or individual coming forward to condemn the drastic act? In spite of the many cases of vandalism being reported in the media, we have not seen a single public condemnation of the act. A criminal act cannot by any way be a justifiable means to achieve any goal; no matter how noble the cause is. A crime is a crime no matter why and where the act was carried out.

Since it is a criminal act one would also expect that the police would act according to the law and immediately register a case and conduct an investigation to find the culprit/culprits responsible for the damage and loss to the public exchequer. But one is yet to come across a single case against those who are involved in damaging public property during protests organized by pressure groups. One also wonders if any of the two public servants whose vehicles had been damaged recently have lodged a FIR informing about the unfortunate incidents. Who cares? It is not my car anyway. It is public property that has been damaged; I don’t stand to lose anything here. This is how we all treat public property. No one really bothers what happens to peoples’ assets.

One would expect those responsible pressure groups which organize the protests, to own up to the acts of vandalism that happen during the groups’ agitation programmes and at least apologise for the same. Instead the protesting groups remain silent and by doing so they are indirectly condoning the criminal act. Since neither the organizations nor the public condemn the barbaric act, the antisocial elements assume that what they did was right even when they have dared to commit the heinous acts in broad day light. And in spite of that nobody dares to open their mouths against the crime!

If this is the kind of attitude that we all have towards public property, then the people of the state still have a long way to go before we can even call ourselves citizens of a democratic state. If we don’t even care for the properties that were created or built for common good then can we still call ourselves educated and cultured citizens of Meghalaya?

(The writer is a researcher and an environmental activist)

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