Appeasement of all kinds of influential law-breakers over decades has led the Muslim community and Urdu press to demand similar treatment for the Azad Maidan rabble-rousers
It was a perfect scenario. Horrific violence by Muslims against policemen and the media, handled sensitively by a police force known for its anti-Muslim prejudice. The entire community apologetic for the violence of a few. Revulsion against rabid ‘religious’ leaders. Respect for a courageous Police Commissioner.
This was the scene in Mumbai immediately after a meeting on August 11 — called by some Muslim religious leaders — turned violent midway. Called to condemn the violence against Muslims in Assam and Myanmar and the inaction of the government, the meeting attracted a 20,000-strong crowd, carrying placards with inflammatory and abusive images and slogans.
Back to square one
Two months later, things are back to square one: Muslims are bitter about the police and the government, all signs of remorse have disappeared, and the Urdu press is at its irresponsible best. If there’s any ray of hope, it’s with the courts.
The blame for this has to be laid at the door of the Maharashtra government. Two days after Raj Thackeray took out an (illegal) rally demanding the ouster of the Police Commissioner and the Home Minister for allowing “Marathi” policemen and women to be attacked by “Bangladeshi Muslims who had come to Mumbai from Bihar and U.P.,” Commissioner Arup Patnaik was sent packing (to a punishment posting). The message to Muslims couldn’t have been clearer — no cop worth his uniform can be ‘soft’ when you guys riot. The second but equally important message was that a known instigator of communal violence like Raj Thackeray could call the shots with the ‘secular’ Congress.
That wasn’t all. No arrests were made at the spot of the violence but Muslims who returned at night with friends to collect their bikes parked there were pounced upon, assaulted, arrested and charged with offences ranging from murder, to rioting with arms, to molestation. Twenty of them are still in jail, with the police vehemently opposing bail, though by their own admission, they do not figure in the videos of the violence. A magistrate found that 12 of them were so badly assaulted in Arthur Road Jail by jail staff that three days later, their bodies still bore marks of injury. His report, submitted more than six weeks ago, is yet to be acted upon.
It was only after the Bombay High Court observed during the bail hearing of two of these 20, that prima facie charges of murder and attempt to murder were not made out against them, that the new Police Commissioner acknowledged publicly that these charges had been wrongly applied — before he took over, he added pointedly. He took over on August 23. What was he doing since then? The parents of these 20 youth and social workers have since made umpteen trips to the police asking that these particular youngsters be let off on bail. Why didn’t the Commissioner order that Sections 302 and 307 of the Indian Penal Code be removed, so that bail could be granted?
Then there’s the glaring inequity of the rabble-rousers being left untouched. The organisers of the August 11 rally were named as accused in the FIR filed on the day of the incident. They made inflammatory speeches, to which the crowd responded with slogans, says the FIR. It even names the man after whose speech 3000 from the crowd started moving out excitedly. But none of these organisers has been arrested. Why, ask the families of the youngsters behind bars. They aren’t unaware of these men’s political links. Everyone has seen State Home Minister R.R. Patil of the NCP come calling at the residence of one of them, whose brother is an NCP corporator. Another, a known rabble-rouser, heads an organisation involved in another riot in 2006, in which two policemen were lynched in Bhiwandi. Asked to explain their inaction, the police simply reply: “We are going through the evidence.” That’s the same reply they give when asked why they are opposing bail to the first batch of 20 youth arrested! For one group of accused, that explanation means a licence to roam free; for another, an obstacle to even conditional freedom.
Perhaps it is this typically cussed and arbitrary conduct of the police and the government that makes even the families of the boys caught in the video footage of the incident, defiant. Some point out that though their sons can be seen in the video, they are just standing there. Others, whose sons can be seen holding a matchbox near an OB van, or a police rifle, or kicking the Amar Jawan Jyoti memorial, are hard put to deny the guilt of their progeny. But their acts are ascribed to other factors: incitement by irresponsible leaders in the month of Ramzan when “fasting makes you short-tempered;” lack of education and, interestingly, of street-smart guile; even the absence of job reservation for Muslims which would have given their sons regular jobs and made them act more responsibly.
These excuses are perhaps understandable. What is not is the common defence taken by these relatives — everyone indulges in violence, but only Muslims get punished. This comes straight from the Urdu press, which, if one is to believe these families, has now begun to continuously report instances of violence from across the country — adding that no one has been arrested for them. The vandalism of Raj Thackeray’s men tops these reports.
But no one gets away with attacking the cops, you say, not even Shiv Sainiks. Immediately come the counter-questions — what about Congressmen attacking cops in Orissa, a female constable being molested during the Ganpati festival in Lalbag? Was anyone arrested? Some people are above the law, you explain, but there are no takers for that argument, as there shouldn’t be. “Then where is justice? Is this democracy?” ask veiled mothers aggressively.
So, the chickens have finally come home to roost. Decades of appeasement of political Hindutva, and dominant caste rowdies, have resulted in others asking for the same. A community known to stay quiet once it was “taught a lesson,” now refuses to do so. If vandalism by a select few goes unpunished, why should we be punished for doing the same, asks the new generation of Muslims. This logic, coming from the vandalisers, though repugnant, is perfect. But coming from the press?
The Urdu press in Mumbai is aware that the Muslim rioters of August 11 weren’t just attacking the media and police in an outburst of “secular pent up” rage. It was an outburst of communal mayhem — not rage — for the videos make it clear those burning the vans were having a great time. The police have shown community leaders and journalists the videos. The latter have heard the abusive slogans raised by the rioters. Photographers attacked that day can testify to the fanaticism of their assailants. Muslim eye-witnesses have shared experiences of conduct by the rallyists that can only be explained by hatred for all non-Muslims. But the Urdu press has chosen not to report any of this to its community, like the Gujarati press in 2002, which blacked out the violence by many Gujarati Hindus, and focused only on the burning of the Sabarmati Express by some Godhra Muslims.
Like the Urdu press, Muslim community workers too, refuse to engage with this new generation of lumpens, who laugh as they recount how they brandished sugarcane stalks grabbed from stalls (“they weren’t swords, just sugarcane”), how their compatriots dived into police vans to pick up rifles and dance with them (“they didn’t use the rifles”). Most of those caught on video are self-employed school dropouts, living in large joint families in poor ghettos, doted on by grandmothers (“he wouldn’t sleep till I fed him with my own hands”), namazis who obey their local imam, have no contact with other communities, but own the latest mobiles equipped with Bluetooth et al.
Many of these youngsters belong to the NCP and even Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Loyal Congress workers had been asked to stay away from the openly anti-Congress rally. Today, neither the NCP nor the Congress can afford to be seen helping even the innocents among these boys. But behind the scene efforts are on to reach “Madame” in Delhi. Interestingly, it’s common knowledge that Prithviraj Chavan, the Congress Chief Minister, had for long resisted ally NCP’s demand to replace Commissioner Patnaik with the current incumbent.
That’s one more phrase thrown at you by relatives of the accused — “It’s all politics. Our poor boys just got caught.”
(Jyoti Punwani is a Bombay-based journalist and writer)