Notwithstanding the sustained efforts of our neo-colonial rulers to “decolonise” our mental spaces, some vestiges of it remain. Have you noticed how, the moment someone is given a uniform, or a baton, or a public office, he starts wielding his “authority” with indiscriminate abandon and capriciousness, as if to make up for having been at the receiving end himself for years ? (And I’m not talking here of petty govt. officials who are in a league of their own, but of your average non-sarkari Joe). Harken back to your own experience, dear reader, with the not-so-friendly neighbourhood cop, the parking attendant, the security guard, the toll plaza guy, the air-line staffer, the bank clerk, the ration shop dealer, the mobile service center chap, the vigilante “gau rakshak” goon, or any other person with a suppressed or low self esteem who suddenly finds himself empowered to lord it over his fellow citizens. The latest entrant to this sorry tribe is the RWA (Resident Welfare Association) or the AOA (Apartment Owners’ Association).

These elected bodies have been established by law to manage their colonies and housing developments, but of late have acquired an extra judicial, parastatal identity, issuing edicts and orders they have no business doing, like petty tyrants. They are totally unmindful of the laws of the land and violate them with impunity. Increasingly, RWAs have disallowed residence/ tenancy of bachelors, student groups, single women, pet blogowners, live-in couples, even female visitors. Residents who object or complain have their power or water cut off, entry restricted and are slapped with unjustified fines.

The high (low?) point of this was reached last week when a New Delhi RWA ordered the daughter of Mr. Mani Shankar Aiyer, ex-Congress Minister and MP, to vacate her flat in the colony and move out ! The provocation ? A social media post she had put up, criticising the Ram Mandir consecration on the 22nd January and going on a three day fast to protest against it. A purely private opinion and a personal gesture in a still putative free country, you would think? Wrong.

The pot bellies of the RWA , donning the mantle of protectors of the Faith, decided that Ms. Aiyar was indulging in hate speech, insulting the Hindu religion and inciting disrespect towards it. She had to go, even though she is reportedly not a resident of that particular RWA, though her father is! This brazen and illegal assumption of an undelegated authority by these medieval burghers marks a paradigm shift and escalation in the role of the RWAs- one towards bare faced bigotry and sectarianism, which is not only disturbing, but is also dangerous in its implications.

In a prevailing atmosphere of intolerance, majoritarianism and religious triumphalism, emboldened by regressive laws like the anti-conversion Acts, the UCC of Uttarakhand and the impending CAA and NRC, this assumption of extra-legal authority by the RWAs and AOAs is ominous. They are gradually becoming the self-appointed gate-keepers of morality, culture and political discourse- a role that the law does not confer on them. Unfortunately, the recent spurt in laws that stigmatize inter-faith marriages or live-in relationships or conversions come in handy for these RWAs to harass those who have adopted such relationships or identities. The time is not far off when these busybodies may determine what their members eat, how they dress, to which Gods they pray. If not checked they could well demand, in due course of time, the production of marriage certificates, prohibit live-in residents or couples in an inter-faith marriage, bar members of a particular religious denomination or hailing from a particular region from living in their societies, compel participation in specific religious functions, expel residents for being critical of government policies, insist on proof of citizenship, dictate how many children an apartment owner can have.Why, they may even insist that all their members vote for a particular party! It would be vigilantism of the worst type. Needless to say, they could legitimately expect the full support of the local police in certain states.

Citizens are already subject to all kinds of surveillance, privacy intrusions and indoctrination by the government; the RWAs could take it to a whole new level. This trend must be resisted before it goes out of hand. State governments must step in now, through their district administrations and Registrars of Cooperative Societies, to draw red lines for the RWAs and penalize those who cross them. A man’s house was once his castle, it is now under siege.

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