The theatrics over Thackeray

The theatrics over Mr. Thackeray's possible arrest by the Maharashtra police could well subside if he were to apply for anticipatory bail. The Shiv Sena leader is clearly reluctant to do so because he believes it would amount to playing into the hands of the ruling coalition in Maharashtra by strengthening the impression that he fears arrest. At the same time, the Shiv Sena's office-bearers have held out the ugly threat of violence in the event their leader is taken into custody. The mayhem wreaked by the Sena's stormtroopers earlier this week in Mumbai was clearly staged as an ominous warning about what might transpire if their leader was slapped with detention orders. The Sena has made it clear it will be prepared to go much further if the State Government dares to take Mr. Thackeray in.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Front Government in Maharashtra has initiated steps which are clearly calculated to spread the impression - correct or otherwise - that Mr. Thackeray's arrest is imminent. The withdrawal of security cover to Sena legislators, the deployment of paramilitary forces and the tough postures adopted by the Democratic Front Government, particularly the Deputy Chief Minister, Mr. Chhagan Bhujbal, have only served to heighten such a perception. While Mr. Thackeray's abominable role during Mumbai's communal riots deserves nothing but the strongest condemnation, it is important to distinguish between his arrest and his prosecution with respect to the case in question. While any right-thinking person would welcome his prosecution, it is an established principle of natural justice that a person must be held as an undertrial only when warranted for investigation and trial. Given that the case relating to the Saamna editorials is around eight years old and that the main body of evidence is available in hard print, it is difficult to understand what legal purpose would be served by Mr. Thackeray's arrest.

More important, arresting Mr. Thackeray could provide a handle for the Shiv Sena to extract political mileage out of this controversy. Therefore, the Congress(I)-Nationalist Congress Party coalition in Maharashtra must not allow politics to overtake the larger issue in this case - namely, the question whether Mr. Thackeray is guilty of promoting enmity between different groups on the ground of religion under Section 153 (a) of the Indian Penal Code. The Democratic Front Government must not lose sight of the main purpose for dusting the file on this case. It is to bring Mr. Thackeray to trial and establish accountability under the law.