The Internet has complicated life for many politicians. In the past, if an article critical of a political leader was published supporters would barge into the office of the newspaper or magazine, burn a few copies and destroy some furniture. But when articles or comments critical of a leader — or historic figure — appear on the Internet, especially on sites that don’t have a presence in India, what does one do? Attack the ‘bearer’ of the message. That is what Shiv Sainiks have been doing in a north-eastern suburb of Mumbai, attacking cyber cafes for not ‘banning’ the hugely popular social interaction web site, Orkut.

Of course the cyber café owners ought to have known better. It is common knowledge in India now that if you have views that some how run down the work or philosophy of Bal Thackeray; you do so at your own risk. It does not take much to arouse the wrath of Shiv Sena activists who could be spending their energy and time in constructive advocacy to come running out of their houses and begin torching trains, blocking traffic and create a general climate of lawlessness. The same goes with the Dalits and their response to any thing said or written about Dr. Ambedkar.

Dr Ambedkar and Shivaji are revered figures. Dr. Ambedkar is fairly contemporary, Shivaji is more historical, but both have left a legacy that hardly any one denies, whether or not one agrees with their social or political views. They have a place in India’s history and political life and there are lessons to be learnt from their life and action.

But can respect for one’s leader or icon, no matter how venerated be commanded? or enforced at gun point? and what kind of hollow respect would that generate any way when one lies quivering fearing for one’s property. Outwardly one may be deferential in the face of a mob but such actions may actually arouse abhorrence or distaste. Are Ambedkarites really generating respect for Dr. Ambedkar when they go around vandalizing public property because some statue, some where is desecrated?

In the aftermath of the actor Rajnikanth’s recent movie, Sivaji, there was a story that I was reading recently. It seems that Rajnikanth was driving through Chennai one day when the police stopped his car as the then Chief Minister, Jayalalitha’s convoy was about to pass by. So Rajnikanth without making a fuss stops his car and gets out to wait. Soon one, then two and then gradually a whole mass of people gather around the mega star. After a while, there is a veritable traffic jam as people crowd and scramble to get a glimpse of the star. The panicky police come rushing to Rajnikanth , that he can go on and that his stopping has actually created more problems than it has solved and that the Chief Minister is getting late. Rajnikanth is as courteous as ever and explains to the police that he has absolutely no problems waiting as an ordinary citizen and that the CM must have the right of way. Eventually after much persuasion, Rajni drove away having subtly made his point – that respect and adulation are always earned….. never ever commandeered. It is a lesson that all of us will do well to learn.

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