Volunteerism for a positive cause is a far cry from vigilantism, writes Ajit Ranade

In his inaugural address as the 35th President of the United States America on January 20, 1961, John F Kennedy spoke these famous words: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. This was the call by a charismatic leader for public action. Kennedy appealed to Americans to think beyond themselves for a larger cause.

In India too, we remember Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri appealing to fellow Indians, to give up one meal a week, considering national shortages and food inflation. In response to that appeal, thousands, or millions of Indians indeed spontaneously responded and to this day, there are people who observe a weekly fast, in remembrance of that noble appeal. President A P J Abdul Kalam too launched an anti-corruption movement especially for the youth, called “What can I give” campaign. This too was an appeal to ethical values and the spirit of giving, rather than taking.

PM's public appeals

Prime Minister Narendra Modi too often exhorts people of India, to work collectively toward national development, in a spirit of self-sacrifice and volunteerism. One of his well-known campaigns was an appeal to those who could afford to pay full market prices for LPG cylinders to give up their LPG subsidy. This was to enable the government to provide up to 80 million free cooking gas connections to households from the lower income strata, providing considerable health benefits and empowerment, especially to women. Rather than depend only on aggregate tax collections to pay for this social scheme, the PM asked his fellow Indians who could afford, to join the enterprise.

In fact, the scheme also had a feature, that the donor could see where the subsidy that he or she willingly gave up, had been directed. In that sense, the appeal for donations for Covid relief to the PM Cares Fund too garnered significant amounts. That fund will now be used to pay for the vaccinations, as reported by the Union Health Minister. However, that fund is not subject to scrutiny under the right to information.

Of course, the modern state cannot simply function based on appeals to the ethical and moral values of citizens. It must adequately provide finances that can fund various social sector programmes that are aimed for the benefit of the vulnerable and the downtrodden. Philanthropy, charity, sacrifice and volunteerism can coexist, but cannot be at the cost of replacing or reducing the obligation of the state.

Volunteerism or vigilantism?

The state’s functions and obligations are even more critical in the areas of law and order. For instance, as the saying goes, “You cannot take the law into your own hands”. Nor can the state enlist private citizens to discharge functions that relate to enforcing law and order. This is a very dicey proposition. In Maharashtra, there has been an experiment to enlist cleanliness marshals who are authorised to impose a fine on the spot for littering and spitting etc. At the other extreme is the case of Salwa Judum, a private militia deployed for the anti-insurgency movement against Naxalites, with the blessing, backing and training of the state. The Supreme Court passed an order in 2011, essentially outlawing the outfit. From cleanliness marshals to private militia is a long road but that road is slippery.

It is in this context that one must view and express concern about a recent initiative of the home ministry. Its cybercrime cell has started a new programme, under which citizens can participate as volunteers, to identify, flag and report to the government illegal and unlawful content including child pornography, rape, terrorism, radicalisation and anti-national activities. This is a pilot project which is being launched only in Jammu and Kashmir, and Tripura and then may be later extended to other states. This cyber-volunteer project is a far cry from the spirit of volunteerism sought by Kennedy in the opening paragraph.

This enlistment could potentially grant extraordinary destructive powers to these so-called cyber volunteers who could become a vigilante force. There seems to be no accountability for their actions and they could end up being the secret police, reporting and ratting on the people. Such enlistment takes the notion of a ‘surveillance state’ into dark territory. It is undoubtedly true that the social media has been excessively infected with hate speech, and speech that could incite violence, bigotry and cause disorder.

State responsibility

But it is up to the state to set up mechanisms to regulate content on social media, and indeed, this is the way things are evolving in many countries. Also, it is up to the state to identify those responsible for criminal offences on social media and it cannot ask volunteers to do this job. Moreover, curtailing hate speech is always a dicey proposition as it should not end up infringing on the fundamental right to free speech. Hence, it cannot be left to private citizens, who may have an incentive to wrongfully implicate others.

Another related development is a recent facility launched by the income-tax department. This allows people to provide a tip-off about undisclosed foreign assets, benami properties, or tax evasion. There is now a link on the e-filing portal of the department and it also allows the informer to remain anonymous. A unique complaint number is generated. This too has shades of a surveillance state, going down a slippery road. Is it not again a case of the state passing on its function of chasing tax-evaders to informers who may be motivated by malice?

Asking citizens to volunteer in the giant enterprise of national development by making individual sacrifices or through positive actions like donations is one thing. But asking volunteers to secretly or anonymously spy on fellow citizens, become de-facto vigilantes and help in law enforcement without any accountability, is quite another. It will lead to greater distrust and fear. The very foundation of a robustly functioning democracy is a high degree of social capital and trust. Let us not jeopardise that.

The writer is an economist and Senior Fellow, Takshashila Institution.

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