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Agnipath Protests | Technology can help call out vandals, rioters

In instances of mob violence, extrapolation of digital data to match drone mapping data using AI tools, analysis of social media activity, and DNA fingerprinting applications can bust the anonymity shield of the mobsters 

June 24, 2022 / 01:31 PM IST
Rail coaches have been set on fire by Agnipath protesters in Bihar. - Reuters

Rail coaches have been set on fire by Agnipath protesters in Bihar. - Reuters

Mahatma Gandhi believed violence was a clumsy weapon that created far more problems than it solved. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr and Nelson Mandela consistently chose peaceful protest even when faced with undemocratic and unfair regimes. As late as 1957, King, Jr had to advocate something as basic as ‘voting rights’ for African Americans in his famous ‘Give Us the Ballot’ address — but peacefully. He adopted Gandhi’s non-violent direct action, and civil disobedience as a core strategy for the African American Civil Rights Movement.

India is a functional democracy with a truly progressive Constitution. We citizens of India should be speaking through ballots to register our political opinion, or take out peaceful demonstrations to register protest — and definitely not fan violent mobs, which is a primitive path that we refused to take even against the repressive Britishers.

Though getting impatient and emotionally upset with the establishment and its inefficiency is understandable, infringing the rights of other citizens or destroying public property is not logically or legally acceptable. Venting out emotions through violence and justification of the same is on the rise, and the senseless destruction of public property in response to the new Agnipath scheme is not an isolated instance in recent years.

The abrogation of Article 370 through the Constitution (Application to Jammu and Kashmir) Order, 2019, C.O. 272, enacted on August 6, 2019 by Parliament was greeted with violence. Violent protests rose against the Muslim Women Act (Protection of Rights on Marriage), 2019 enacted on July 31, 2019 by Parliament. The Citizenship Amendment Act became law on December 12, 2019. Violent protests followed, killing at least 76 people in clashes across India. Parliament decided to amend and pass the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020 and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020. In the violent protests that followed, over 1,500 telecom tower sites were damaged by protestors, besides torching buses and police vehicles.

The trend is disturbing, especially when the protests fundamentally seek to overturn decisions of an elected Parliament through violent intimidation. The protesters seem to lack patience to go through a democratic and constitutional process to attempt and roll back what they see as unsavoury decisions.


The right to protest is a manifestation of the constitutional right to freedom of assembly, the right to freedom of association, and the right to freedom of speech in a democracy. However, retributive violence and acts of arson that intimidate an elected government seek to directly threaten democracy. To equate a constitutionally-elected regime with some sort of barbaric or fascist dictatorship and wage a war on the streets is ridiculous. Riots are boldly unleashed, assuming that the perpetrators will not be identified or apprehended. A mob is the best cover and camouflage for criminals whose individual identity gets subsumed with the crowd.

It is in this context that the state governments whose primary responsibility is maintenance of law and order, should wake up technologically and take the bull by its horns. We need to call out those who indulge in violence, and make them pay individually under the provisions of Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984. India’s tax-payers do not have the luxury of resources to satisfy the ‘anger management issues’ of protestors.

The Delhi Police used automated facial recognition to screen crowds at a political rally for the first time in December 2019. Facial recognition technology started giving instant results, and has helped identify and apprehend people who had incited violence or indulged in crime. It is possible to match records from databases of voter IDs, driver’s licence or Aadhaar. Geo-location using the mobile phones under tower location is a routine investigation method for most crimes nowadays. In instances of mob violence, extrapolation of this data to match drone mapping data using AI tools, analysis of social media activity, and DNA fingerprinting applications can bust the anonymity shield of the mobsters. Similar strategies were used to track down those who attacked the US Capitol building.

Criminals will surely learn new tricks like leaving behind their digital devices, using secure platforms to conspire, and covering up their faces. A technological cat and mouse game is to be expected, but law-enforcers have to pursue and put an end to this violent trend.

Using technology to battle crime doesn’t mean that it should be used indiscriminately to repress freedom of expression, or spy over the citizens. The real conundrum before us is the possibility of genuine democratic protests getting muzzled in the process. We have witnessed many governments, with the active connivance of senior police officials, misuse the criminal investigation process to intimidate political rivals and critics. Often non-bailable sections of the penal code are misinterpreted and slapped on unsuspecting peaceful protesters and critics.

The only agency that can call the bluff in the face of wrongful arrests of genuine peaceful protesters and set right the balance of state intervention to nab violent members of a mob, is an alert lower judiciary that takes human liberty, fundamental rights, and the Constitution seriously.

Never before has surveillance technology on the one side and a humble judicial magistrate on the other side become so important in safeguarding Indian democracy — from those who threaten it externally with vandalism as well as from those who swear by it but kill it from within.
Prasanth Nair is an IAS officer and a former advocate. Twitter: @PrasanthIAS
first published: Jun 24, 2022 01:31 pm
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