Saturday’s arson and vandalism during protests by Muslim groups against the ethnic killings in Assam and Myanmar caught the Mumbai police on the wrong foot, and not for the first time. The violence erupted despite advance intelligence reports and the deployment of an 800-strong police force and is a sad commentary on the state of law and order management in the city. Inflammatory speeches by irresponsible Muslim ‘leaders’ goaded the crowds to go on a rampage, burning media OB vans and vehicles, smashing buses and paralysing South Mumbai for a while. The police itself bore the brunt of the mob’s fury. The manner in which the violence unfolded points to pre-planned disruption and even city police commissioner Arup Patnaik, who made an attempt to pacify the crowds, admitted it was a close call. The media too came under fire and had to run for cover with many photographers and TV crew assaulted. While the madness lasted, a sense of insecurity and terror prevailed in the city with protesters taking over local trains and, for a while, the roads in front of Azad Maidan. For a police force that had reasons to fear the rally might end in violence, the failure to deploy and plan adequately was glaring.
That is not to say that political protests — even those built around the emotional pull of religious solidarity — must not be allowed in the city. In the past too, the roads of Mumbai and the sprawling Azad Maidan have been jammed with Muslim groups demonstrating against the Iraq war and earlier over the Supreme Court's Shah Bano judgment. Despite the overwhelming numbers, the protests were peaceful except during the 1989 rally in Bhendi Bazar against Salman Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, which resulted in nine deaths in police firing. After that, Mumbai witnessed its worst communal carnage in 1992-93 in which hundreds of Muslims lost their lives. In the 20 years after the riots, the city has witnessed many bomb blasts after its first in 1993, the terror strike of 2008 and the serial blasts last year. There is a sense of fear, especially among Muslims, after each bomb blast since they are on the radar of suspicion. The failure of the criminal justice system to punish the instigators and facilitators of the 1992-93 violence also rankles them. This is the emotional terrain that self-styled community leaders and aspiring politicians are quick to cash in on by playing on the insecurities of the Muslim community. Saturday’s violence could well be the result of such mischievous instigation. Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan must now take swift action against these vested interests and prevent the city from turning into a cauldron of hate.