The aftermath of the 1993 blasts convict Yakub Memon’s death last Thursday was expected to be bloody, Mumbai could be consumed by the violent rage and grief of Muslims or those who felt Memon did not deserve the gallows, we were told. As events unfolded, Mumbai’s peace did not break. More appropriately, Mumbai police made sure that peace would prevail.
How did the force manage this? News reports extensively detailed the arrangements: preventive custody of nearly 750 people who could create trouble, clear orders that Memon’s body would not be photographed and there would be no speeches at the funeral, 48-hour bandobast duty, specially trained forces such as the Quick Response Team in service, backroom negotiations with the family on what it was allowed to do that day, and a continuous monitoring of the social media for offensive and inflammatory material that could ignite passions.
This is part of the standard operating procedure for the police in the event of a possible riot or unrest. In the recent past too, such as after the terror attacks in 2006 and 2008, when it seemed that communal violence could return to the city’s streets, the Mumbai police found that it was possible to keep the peace, that the bloodletting and communal horror of 1992-93 would not be repeated.
The only new aspect of policing used last week was the monitoring of social media by the Special Branch’s social media lab set up in March 2013. It got some “offensive” posts deleted from social networking sites in an effort to stop the spread of rumours, and pro-actively sent out messages to stem mischief and rumours that fuel riots.
There are legitimate concerns about the lab – it’s functioning and personnel are not transparent, it’s funding by the Reliance Foundation raises ethical questions about the Mumbai Police’s relationship with private entities, and citing security concerns to conduct large-scale surveillance of citizens without safeguards in place has implications for individual privacy and safety. We need to remember the over-zealousness of the police in November 2012 in arresting two teenage girls for a Facebook post after Bal Thackeray’s death. But that is another area of anxiety altogether.
Whether it was traditional policing methods or contemporary tools or a combination of methods, what is clear is that the Mumbai Police can stem communal violence if it has the will to do so. This begs the question: Why did this capable force fail so miserably in December 1992 and January 1993 allowing Mumbai to be scarred forever? That period remains a shameful blot on the history of the force itself.
As many as 31 police personnel were indicted by the Justice Srikrishna Commission that is the only authentic and legal record of that period in Mumbai. On the role of the police, justice Srikrishna says: “The evidence before the Commission indicates that the police personnel were found actively participating in riots, communal incidents or incidents of looting, arson and so on. The Commission strongly recommends that government take strict action against them”.
Indeed, the Shiv Sena-BJP government of the day took action – it promoted 10 of them, one to the chair of the commissioner of police and exonerated 12 of those mentioned. Only five constables were suspended years later. Worse, there has been no attempt in the last 22 years by the force itself to make amends for that piece of bigoted and biased policing. It is still not too late to do so.
As it happened, there were thousands of mourners at Memon’s funeral, labelled “potential terrorists” by BJP man and Tripura governor Tathagata Roy. They followed the police’s instructions. The irony is that the police had made elaborate arrangements to prevent riots at the hanging of a man convicted in the serial blasts conspiracy, which emerged as a reprisal to communal riots that were aided by the police.