Lockdown guidelines have given rise to a new breed of vigilante – mostly in the form of old and middle aged men and women who are usually representative of another regressive body – the RWAs. Traditionally conceived to represent urbans and sub urbans interests, Resident Welfare Associations have metamorphosed into narrow-minded and bigoted groups of petty tyrants. From not allowing domestic workers to use lifts to denying housing to Muslims – the list of their bullying is long. The lockdown guidelines, being arbitrarily imposed by these RWAs have given a fresh lease of life to mostly idle bigots to impose their very questionable authorities. In fact most RWAs have added their own list of draconian rules that go much beyond the government orders – all in the name of health and safety of residents. Most of these arbitrary rules hold no legal standing and are in in fact in violation of many aspects of constitutional freedoms and democratic rights.
Public emergencies, such as the one we are facing now have always boded well for authoritarian regimes. In the name of safety and public order, they realize they can get away with imposition of stringent rules regarding movement and behavior of people. This has been RWA’s dream – control of residents in their microcosm without any questions asked. They can now freely be classicist – impose no entry or no lift use etc. for domestic help (in line with the Kent ad deeming maid’s hands to be infected). They can be bigoted – frown upon Muslim delivery boys encouraging behaviors where people are refusing deliveries from Muslim delivery agents and abusing them. A sketch by PenPencilDraw depicts an RWA member with his “wishlist” that includes pepper spray for domestic workers using lifts, pellet gun to blind newspaper boys, handheld printer for challans to rule-breakers, binoculars to spot excessive intimacy and drones to scare food delivery agents.
Recently a journalist tweeted, “If you want a real picture of the ugly indian see the RWA associations drunk on power & prancing around like tin pot dictators.” This sentiment resonated with many who compared them to “urban khap panchayats” or “petty warlords” lording over people on their whims and fancies like arbitrary timings for opening gates or marking down paths for walks (even under normal non pandemic circumstances). There have been reports of RWAs not allowing domestic workers without corona negative certificate (despite Delhi government guidelines having no objection), making Aarogya Setu app (of questionable security) compulsory, calling police for smallest instances, and even enforcing banging of plates or lighting of diyas (completely voluntary and symbolic gestures). They pick huge issues with kids playing, cars parked wrongly or people preferring services of a vendor not favoured by them. I have witnessed an RWA member telling off a resident for walking anti-clockwise in colony park (he insisted residents are only supposed to walk clockwise).
These RWA and its members (and some supportive residents) are typical of petty tyrants. Ashforth in his paper “Petty Tyranny in Organizations” describes a petty tyrant exhibiting “tyrannical behaviors include arbitrariness and self-aggrandizement, belittling others, lack of consideration, a forcing style of conflict resolution, discouraging initiative, and noncontingent punishment.” To this one can add, at least for India RWAs, right wing tendencies, intolerance for any one they see as different (Muslims, Dalits, transgender, or homosexuals) and anyone that they see as anomalies (single women, unmarried couples etc.) and contempt for working class who they see as necessary cogs but refuse to treat them with dignity or basic decency. Most of the RWAs are staffed with people who are typically retired, have held positions of petty authority in the past, are nosy and insecure and who drive pleasure from petty bullying for instance telling off children for running around in the park etc. The pandemic with new guidelines everyday has provided them with perfect opportunity to try and strive for relevance again through draconian rules and harassment.
The management of this pandemic has shown mirror to the absolute double standards of how authority functions (dogs are being brought home by planes while laborers with their small children are walking thousands of kilometres in heat and dying without food and water in Shramik trains). The control of the pandemic could have been an exercise in sensitivity and efficiency. It could have demonstrated how the power of the state can be used to serve the people it represents but it has demonstrated arrogance and apathy of those in power. The RWAs are a microcosm of the same phenomenon. Understanding, empathy and reasonableness in dialogues could have made them a stellar example of how representative democracy can function. However, populated by small minded and disgraceful bigots, they have become examples of what happens when arbitrary power is vested in undeserving hands.
(The views expressed above are the author’s own)