It is no secret that the Shiv Sena has regularly attempted to stifle free expression by carrying out violent attacks on journalists and media establishments — and has got away with it thanks to a policy of appeasement pursued by successive governments in Maharashtra, mostly Congress or Congress-led regimes. But the regional party may have gone too far this time. The recent assault on the offices of the IBN television network, captured blow-by-blow by CCTV cameras, featured a mob of Sainiks armed with rods and baseball bats punching and kicking male and female journalists and trashing furniture, fittings, and electronic equipment. The Sena leadership would have us believe the attack was a “spontaneous” reaction to strong remarks made on the channel against supremo Bal Thackeray. This is demonstrably false. That it was a planned attack is evidenced by the fact that the mobs carried out simultaneous attacks on the TV network in Mumbai and Pune, and by information gathered by the police investigation that, among others, Sunil Raut, the brother of Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut, was involved. A special target of the Sena’s wrath was its intrepid critic, Nikhil Wagle, Editor-in-Chief of the Marathi channel IBN-Lokmat and former Editor of the Marathi daily Mahanagar who has been assaulted repeatedly by Sena goons.
At one level, the brazen assault reveals the ugly face of competitive chauvinism, and the continued existence of a goon political culture, in India’s ‘maximum’ city. At another level, it reflects the Sena’s sense of insecurity during a phase of political decline — when it has been challenged by the copycat methods of a youthful Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, and has fared poorly in elections. It is no accident that Bal Thackeray’s, and Saamna’s, broadsides against Sachin Tendulkar for implicitly making a stand against linguistic chauvinism by affirming his Indianness alongside his Maharastrian identity have been followed up by targeting a channel that has aired opposition to the chauvinism. Such acts of vandalism have gone virtually unpunished in the past. This time, under pressure from an aggressive media, Chief Minister Ashok Chavan has pledged no-nonsense action and the Mumbai police have arrested close to 20 of the perpetrators and registered cases of attempted murder. The investigation, however, has not so far led to anyone more significant than Sunil Raut, who has just been arrested. The widely shared suspicion is that the State government’s response will return to the traditional policy of appeasement once the feelings of shock and anger subside. This is decidedly a case to be handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation.