YOU GET ONTO a taxi, phone a friend and talk about taking part in a peaceful protest against a law passed by the government. The driver takes you to the police station. You come out without much damage, albeit scarred. You have been subject to unnecessary stress. Many hours of your life have been wasted. What should be the consequence for the driver? As it turns out—nothing. An Uber driver who did exactly this in Mumbai some days back was on Tuesday allowed to return to the service after a temporary suspension.
The passenger who this driver had ‘turned over’ had been speaking about joining protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. The driver was obviously ignorant about what is legally permitted for citizens to do in this country. But then, so are lynchers. He, like millions in this country in recent times, equates criticism of nationalism with advocacy of terrorism. And he might even have thought he was doing a public service by informing the police against a threat to the nation. But essentially, what has happened is that the driver kidnapped his passenger. And it does not make it ‘not kidnap’ just because it is to the police station that the hostage was taken to. Nothing becomes legal merely because the police gives a stamp to it, or because of the presence of policemen.
But Uber, its first correct instinct to kick the driver out notwithstanding, then saw the man being felicitated by BJP’s Mumbai chief Mangal Prabhat Lodha and that changed the dynamics of the game. Because there was now the question of they themselves being branded anti-national for taking action against the driver by that portion of the country sharing Lodha’s ideology. Their argument—what if it had been a a real terrorist planning an attack? Should the driver still do nothing? The answer to that is what if it was a Muslim driver who kidnapped and took Lodha to the police station when he was talking about the good deeds of gau rakshaks? Every driver can then define what terrorism is and police stations would have nothing else to do but vet passengers sneakily brought in by them.
It is at such times that you miss the concept of punitive damages which India doesn’t have. If such a thing were to happen in a country like the US, not only would the driver have been permanently disbarred but Uber would be facing a legal suit claiming extraordinary fines. And, money, as it is said, clarifies everything. When the choice is between having to cough up a few crores or hurting the sentiments of pseudo-nationalists, it becomes very clear, very fast what is the right thing to do. Likewise, with the banning by Indigo Airlines of the stand-up comedian who heckled news anchor Arnab Goswami. If there is no serious monetary consequence for such actions, then they are easily taken. As it stands, the only thing the Uber passenger got was a waiver of the ride fees but then the destination was after all one the driver chose.