Former Prime Minister VP Singh once told me that the extreme right and extreme left often take similar positions on contentious issues, almost always towards achieving the same end. That also applies to different religious groups and in India particularly, you might often find a fundamentalist
Hindu and a fundamentalist Muslim using the same means to score goals on opposite sides of the football field, with similar results.
I saw the first come true when Bal Thackeray and Shabana Azmi took identical positions in 2000 by refusing to allow the rehabilitation of slumdwellers from the Borivili National Park even when the government was offering them free homes elsewhere in the city. Singh had then persuaded the hutment dwellers to grab the offer lest they be left with nothing when their slums were eventually razed.
Singh is no more, but I can see the second bit of his wisdom manifest itself in the positions that both Hindutva parties and some Muslim groups have taken on the government and the media over the ethnic violence in Assam and the persecution of Muslims in Burma.
On social networking sites, saffron ideologues have been full of bluster for the media's alleged failure to cover Assam as relentlessly as they did Gujarat in 2002. So have some Muslim religious leaders who on Saturday made some disturbing speeches, inciting some at the Azad Maidan in Bombay to torch media vehicles, snatch away the cameras and mobiles of photographers, attack policemen and even molest some women police personnel. Like LK Advani, these leaders too saw the Assam issue as a Muslim versus non-Muslim one, instead of an ethnic problem that makes victims of even Hindus and other non-tribal communities in the state.
Both sides have also been building up a frenzy over the persecution of Muslims in Burma (which has nothing to do with India) but while the saffronists might have limited their bombast to the social networking sites, the Islamic groups went a step further and made expert use of smartphones to send doctored pictures of Buddhist persecution of Muslims in Burma. Chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, I am told, was concerned enough to seek the advice of the foreign office only to be told that India could not intervene or even make a comment about another country's conflict with its own citizens.
Bombay's senior policemen who quickly brought the situation under control - and here I must compliment police commissioner Arup Patnaik for leading from the front - are convinced that this was an attempt to create tension between not just Hindus and Muslims, but also other religious groups like Buddhists within India. Now while Thackeray blames the police for turning their bullets into "chocolates" while firing on the mob (two people died), he conveniently forgets that those very police bullets were like soft cream while dealing with Shiv Sainiks and even Raj Thackeray during their various incendiary acts across the state.
However, unlike some saffron leaders we know, the minority community was quick to apologise for the vandalism and senseless destruction of public property. Chavan told me: "The government cannot be seen to be weak and people cannot be allowed to get away with challenging the authority of the State." So tough action must be a consequence they will have to bear for snatching police guns and injuring policemen on duty - 58 of the total 63 persons injured in the melee. That brings forward more comparisons by some fearful Muslim leaders: why were the authorities not similarly tough when the Sainiks rioted at a memorial to Thackeray's wife at Shivaji Park some years ago or when Dalit groups overran the Indu Mills a few months ago and attacked policemen to enforce their demand for a memorial to Babasaheb Ambedkar?
Muslim leaders are also being tough on the fringe elements in their own community. "As a religion, Islam is the best but as a community sometimes some of us can be the worst,'' says Mohammad Faruque Azam of the National Institute for Jihaad against Atrocities and Terrorism, pointing fingers at some Muslim politicians who may have acted as agent provocateurs for Saturday's violence. The attempt was clearly to create a communal conflagration of sorts but the city refused to go up in flames, just as it had done post-26/11 and quite unlike in 92-93. That, so far, has been the only silver lining.
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