The Allahabad High Court has directed Yogi Adityanath’s government to remove all hoardings in Lucknow displaying photos and personal details of those accused of violence during the protests against the Citizen Amendment Act. Visible on major crossroads, the billboards identified protestors, holding them responsible for the destruction of public property when the anti-CAA protests turned violent. Though the High Court intervened and put an end to the malicious allegations (yet to be proven in court), the anti-CAA protestors have already suffered irreparable damage to their reputations. This story has been widely reported, their images shared in newspapers and retweeted on Twitter.
Fifty-three pictures, names and addresses of presumed arsonists blazing down on commuters; this when the common man doesn’t entertain the possibility of diabolical intent and will believe the people listed are guilty. It makes the protestors vulnerable to mob justice because a state-sanctioned hoarding carries a certain legitimacy. And alas, even the well informed among us are programmed to believe the worst of our fellow citizens. No matter what else these anti-CAA protestors achieve in their lives, search engine optimisation will throw up this case first, since it traverses the law, controversy and brute force. A Google search will reveal thousands of opinions, pro and against their role in this movement, which though perfectly legal, puts a question mark on someone’s ethics forever. Despite the support from the Supreme Court, being featured in a hoarding like a wanted criminal is hardly ideal in the eyes of a prospective employer. (Icky though it is, profile checking is accepted practice for companies while hiring, and those zeroing in on potential life partners.)
Unfortunately, there is no legislative remedy in India for victims of false accusations. These protestors can file a suit for defamation but compensation is rare. The speculation, did they or did they not instigate chaos, doesn’t completely end. This clever tactic of public shaming has a primitive brutality about it. It is a tried and tested method that’s been in use liberally, since Biblical times. The Protestant Christian doctrine, the Humiliation of Christ explores the suffering he experienced while being savagely mocked in public. Similarly, one of the most emotionally wrought scenes in Game of Thrones was the ruthless queen Cersei Lannister’s walk of atonement when she was utterly exposed to jeering crowds, who’d gathered to insult their shorn leader. The human species knows instinctively, the fastest way to destroy someone is to delight in their weaknesses and display their terrible choices before their contemporaries.
So much for stories of disgrace from thousands of centuries ago. In India, today, it is depressingly normal to see horrifying headlines like a ‘Dalit man being paraded naked for polluting a temple by entering it’. Dishonourment is an excruciating form of punishment because each individual is born with a sense of personhood. When our dignity is taken away, it can be worse than a physical blow, because unlike broken skin, a broken spirit does not automatically heal. However, subtle forms of humiliation persist in modern culture because they affect change. For example, it is not unusual for housing societies to put up letters in common areas, naming people who haven’t paid their monthly dues.
The Delhi Golf Club and the Gymkhana have similar notice boards naming offenders. Presumably, this is a warning to other members, of what might happen to anyone planning to scam the club. Unless one is shamelessly brazen, it’s hard not to feel like a cheapskate, once outed like that. These are still minor indiscretions which one can get around. Having your face plastered on a roadside banner for alleged vandalism, declared a culprit on Twitter, the collateral damage can be deeply unfair and unstoppable.
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