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Past present: Power of the mob

June 10, 2012

In Pakistan we are witnessing two types of gatherings of people: political and religious. Every political and religious party, to show its strength and popularity, organises mass meetings by spending lots of money and making efforts to collect as many people as it can.

The importance of a crowd in the political process of the country emerged after the foundation of cities. As professionals belonging to different arts came to reside together in the same area, they gave rise to a town or city; as their population increased, the inhabitants started to play a role in the social, cultural and economic life of their city. Whenever a victorious general returned to the city of Rome, bringing war booty and prisoners of war, the citizens gathered to welcome him and raised slogans in his praise. Therefore, every general tried to please the citizens and get their support.

In order to keep the citizens happy and on their side, the Roman emperors organised games at the Colosseum where people could gather and enjoy chariot races and gladiator fights. The government also took care to supply them with a regular quota of bread; the idea was to not give the citizens any opportunity to create trouble in the city. Besides games, entertainment and a supply of bread, politicians regularly delivered motivational speeches to the crowd. Such public meetings were held at forums where politicians and generals addressed the population to keep popular opinion on their side so as to retain power.

The Parisian crowd made the French revolution a success. They not only demolished the Bastille castle but brought the royal family from Versailles to Paris. As a result, the Assembly passed revolutionary resolutions such as abolishing feudalism and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Universal male suffrage was granted to the people of France by the 1793 revolutionary constitution. This provision legalised the participation of people who, so far, had no say in the political process, and politicians started to appeal to people for their votes.

The 19th century saw two revolutions of note in Europe; in 1830 and1848, in which people learned how to resist the army and barricaded the streets to keep the soldiers out. Later on, the governments of certain European countries rebuilt the cities with a view to enable better mob control; the police was also trained on how to effectively restrain mobs and manage crowds in narrow lanes.

After the process of democratisation and mass politics, scholars turned their attention to studying and analysing the psyche and mentality of a crowd. Various studies show that crowds become a monolithic unit in which every individual loses his individuality and becomes a part of the crowd. A crowd acts and moves uniformly; when it is happy, it sings and dances; when it is angry, it burns, demolishes and destroys whatever comes in its way. It behaves irrationally and emotionally.

Unity gives it a sense of power. It challenges legal authority and asserts its presence. The mentality of the crowd is evident from the incident at Chauri Chaura in 1922, when the crowd set fire to a police station along with the policemen who took refuge inside it. It horrified Gandhi who suspended the Non-Cooperation Movement after this incident.

At the time of Partition, there was great communal frenzy among the Muslim as well as Hindu communities. Such was the intensity of hatred that friends attacked friends and neighbours refused to help people they had lived alongside their entire lives.

After the fall of Russia in 1989 the crowd ousted the despotic rulers. In Germany, the power of the crowd demolished the Berlin Wall and once again united Germany. Recently, the common people took to the streets in the Arab world, changing the political landscape of the region.

However, political parties and leaders also use the energy of crowds to fulfil their own political designs. The Nazi party in Germany controlled the crowd by using all kinds of psychological tactics and unleashed it to terrorise the Jews. On the other hand, the African National Congress organised the crowd to resist the apartheid government and made it impossible for it to function. Subsequently, it forced the government to release Nelson Mandela and his friends and ended the racist rule.

Therefore, it appears that a crowd can be used for constructive as well as destructive purposes.

In Pakistan we are continually witnessing spontaneous demonstrations and strikes against government policies. These are small crowds which are dispersed by the police. No political party is interested in conducting such demonstrations countrywide with uniformity and it is obvious that such sporadic protests neither reform nor change the social and political structure. Political leaders are not worried about the problems or grievances of the people. They are fully satisfied that people have no alternative but to vote for them. Therefore, neither the peaceful nor the furious crowds are playing an active role to transform this society.