The Maharashtra government should root out anti-social groups in their infancy and convict culprits quickly

A custard apple tree lends its shade to a white signboard that stands at the T-junction of two lanes in Satav Plot, a quiet neighbourhood on the outskirts of Pune.

The board has imprinted on it in bold font: “Ram Rahim Mitra Mandal,” bearing testimony to the residents’ efforts to uphold communal accord. Supervising the scene are the watchful eyes of five CCTV cameras, two of them night vision-enabled.

On the evening of June 2, Pune, normally a calm city, was tense after the morphed images of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray and Maratha warrior-king Shivaji surfaced on Facebook and then on Whatsapp. The reference to the two personalities was insulting. The intent, apparently, was malicious. Scores of vehicles were torched and religious places vandalised in protest.

At the local mosque, a minute’s walk from the “Ram Rahim” board, the Imam was frantically instructing young men to rush home after the evening namaz as a precaution. A young Muslim technical professional, Mohsin Sheikh, paid heed to the Imam’s advice. Barely had he driven his motorbike a 100 metres when assailants, allegedly belonging to the right-wing group Hindu Rashtra Sena (HRS), pounced on him, clubbing his head mercilessly with hockey sticks, cricket bats and rods — right in front of the board. The chunks of the few cement blocks that were also used to smash his head still lie scattered at the scene. With Mohsin’s death, the communal harmony endorsed by the board also suffered a blow. Mohsin’s killers also attacked the board, specifically denting the part that said “Rahim.” The perpetrators audaciously celebrated the incident by circulating SMSes terming the techie’s murder as the fall of the “first wicket.”

The role of social media

Mohsin, who was the sole breadwinner of his family and a resident of Solapur, was targeted merely because his appearance gave away his religious identity. He sported a beard and a skullcap. The murder drew national rage and cries for justice from the civil society. The media described it as a “hate crime,” the perpetration of an act of violence against an individual for his association with a certain group. Mohsin’s only offence was that he looked Muslim.

But why should this murder shock our conscience? In a country where trivial issues are often enough to trigger acts of communal violence and arson, where regional and religious minorities and socially weaker sections are victims of hate crime, we constantly live under the shadow of such acts. The lynching of Arunachal Pradesh student Nido Taniam in New Delhi recently is a case in point. While crimes like these that stain the secular fabric of the country need to be condemned, this case should also remind us of the alarming number of hate crimes that are being facilitated by content on social networking sites. It is undeniable that social media is powerfully reshaping the way collective actions are taken today. It provides a stage for fostering a language of hate and a culture of intolerance.

For all its benefits in aiding communication, social media provides miscreants open forums to promote their bigoted ideologies and access to a potential audience of millions, including impressionable youth. Though Mohsin was not in any way linked to the derogatory Facebook posts — the source of which is still under investigation — he paid the price for the State’s failure to bring to book the people responsible for the posts.

It appears easy to instigate a riot through social media or run a hate campaign. In last year’s Muzaffarnagar riots, morphed images and videos were circulated to inflame communal tensions. Social media will be “used” in future to play out such acts of hate. And if the culprits of the Pune case are not brought to justice, it will only embolden those responsible further. There is clear evidence from the ground suggesting that Mohsin could have been saved had the police acted quicker in quelling tension after initial protests. Preventive action was not taken, even though a riot-like situation seemed imminent in the city and the bandobast was weak. Clearly, the police underestimated the intensity of the situation. Even five days after Mohsin’s murder, they had not acquired the CCTV footage from the spot. This could be part of clinching evidence that could send the culprits behind bars.

Politicisation of the issue

Ground reports also suggest that there was a pattern to the attacks — a similar modus operandi. This further raises doubt on the spontaneity of the violence. The profiles of the victims were similar: they all wore long beards and skullcaps and they were attacked on the head. The intent was to kill. The spree of assaults sent young Muslims into panic mode — some decided to shave off their beards and abandoned their skullcaps while in public. Even as communal tension flared, it was only the good sense of Pune’s citizens that averted further violence.

The issue has been much politicised. The ruling Nationalist Congress Party was quick to say that “communal fever,” spreading since the Narendra Modi government came to power, was to blame for the violence. The BJP and its ally Shiv Sena were equally quick to point out that since the NCP holds the Maharashtra Home Ministry, it should have dealt with the violence. But even a week after the murder, there was no statement of condemnation from the Mayor or Collector. No politician went to the affected areas to heal wounds. It was simply treated as a singular case of murder. But was it just a case of bad law and order?

The State is now mulling over banning the HRS, which is suspected to have carried out the attacks, and probing its role in the murder. The outfit’s founder, Dhananjay Desai, who already has 23 criminal cases against him, is lodged in jail. He was booked for delivering “provocative speeches,” something he has actively been indulging in over the past five years, tormenting the minority community. So why did the State have to wait for this long to act against a group that allegedly gets its funds from extortion and openly spews anti-minority venom calling upon Hindus to view Muslims as snakes?

To send across a strong message, the Maharashtra government should root out such anti-social groups in their infancy and convict culprits quickly. New laws banning hate crimes should be enacted, as was directed by the Delhi High Court last year. But that is easier said than done, given the slow judicial process and a police system that seems inept at curbing such crimes. Mohsin’s death only symbolises that helplessness.

omar.rashid@thehindu.co.in

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