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Douse the fire, now

Douse the fire, now

For a city which has seen so much bloodletting in recent years, it is rather strange that Mumbai’s elite still gets shocked every time the city erupts into another bout of mob violence. Let’s get this clear: since the terrible 1992-93 riots — a turning point in the life of the city in which over 900 people were killed and more than 2,000 injured — more people have died in street violence and terror attacks in Mumbai than any other metropolis in the country.

Which is why the recent violence in which two people were killed and several others injured after street protests by Muslim groups should not come as any surprise. Mumbai has been sitting on a tinderbox for years now. There are, in fact, parallels between 1992 and 2012 that suggest little has changed in the past two decades. The first wave of mob fury in December 1992 was much like the violence at Azad Maidan this time. If in 2012, the Assam violence became the trigger point, in 1992 the demolition of the Babri Masjid sparked off the angry outburst. In both instances, the battlelines were pitched as Muslims versus the police, with the men in khaki being singled out as representatives of a biased State machinery, while the media this time suffered ‘collateral’ damage.

The 1992-93 violence sparked off a frenzied counter-reaction led by the Shiv Sena and tore the city apart on communal lines. Mercifully, admirable restraint shown by the police this time brought the situation under control before it could escalate further, but the danger signs are all there. In fact, in 1992-93, there was a certain spontaneity to the initial protests by Muslim groups while in 2012 one notices a more organised pattern of behaviour that is even more troubling. There is now a deadly mix of radical religious minority  groups and their political patrons along with criminal-terror mafias that must worry the security agencies. In 1992-93, the underworld did play a nefarious role in the violence; 20 years later, even more deadly weaponry is floating with Islamic terror outfits, well beyond what a D company gang once possessed.

If radical Muslim groups are now better organised, then so are their Hindu counterparts. The Shiv Sena may have split, but its propensity for violence remains undiminished. The competitive politics between the Sena and the MNS has only resulted in more acts of thuggery. New ‘enemies’ like the north Indian migrant have been found even while old foes like the stereotypical Bhindi Bazaar Muslim continue to be targeted. The emergence of ‘Hindu terror’ groups with links across the country is even more worrying as it has the potential to spiral into a cycle of revenge and counter-vendetta.

Trapped in the crossfire is an increasingly impotent and, dare one say, compromised State. In the last 20 years, Maharashtra’s political class that once flirted with criminal gangs has now come to be openly identified with them. It is no secret that the state in the Congress-NCP years has been run by a politician-real estate baron-criminal mafia nexus that has left it susceptible to the slightest pressure. Even the presence of an upright chief minister like Prithviraj Chavan has done little to arrest the sharp decline in political morality.

An immediate casualty of the declining moral authority of  the State has been the quality of policing. Police officers are often not promoted on merit, but on loyalty to a politician, a trend which has only further affected the morale of the police leadership. The beat constable in many instances is sympathetic to the Sena ideology and can’t always separate his role as law enforcer from his political affiliations.

Indeed, both majority and minority communities appear to have lost faith in the criminal justice system. The manner in which the Justice Srikrishna report inquiring into the 1992-93 riots was literally thrown into the dustbin of history by the BJP-Sena government when it came to power in 1995 convinced most minorities in Mumbai that the State will not act against the Sena leadership. The Senas have taken the law into their own hands on several occasions, each time a few footsoldiers are arrested but the leadership is untouched. Equally true is the fact that no minority group leader with political influence is likely to be charged with inciting violence because of cynical vote-bank politics. After the Azad Maidan violence, a handful of people were arrested, but the masterminds continue to be protected.

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The result is an ever-widening communal divide and a creeping ‘ghettoisation’ of the city. In a well-researched book, Riots and after in Mumbai, author Meena Menon documents a series of stories of how the 1992-93 riots led to large-scale displacement and people moving out of mixed neighbourhoods in search of  safety. There have always been distinct Hindu and Muslim areas in Mumbai, but now the boundary lines are firmer and the polarisation even more irreversible. Even in slum pockets where once economic bonds weakened religious animosities, there are now invisible ‘borders’ that often determine access to scarce resources.

In a sense, the Azad Maidan violence is another wake-up call for a State in stupor. For much too long it has played a dangerous game of running with the ‘secular’ hare while hunting with the ‘communal’ hound. The time for course correction is now: only a policy of zero tolerance towards all those who take the law into their own hands, irrespective of religious affiliation, can save cities like Mumbai from further catastrophe.

Post-script: There is one other difference between 1992-93 and 2012. Then there were no OB vans and TV cameras that could play out the violence in 24×7 real time. Nor was there an uncontrolled social media as a purveyor of hate speech and wild rumour. In many ways, we live in even more challenging times.
The views expressed by the author are personal

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