A non-negotiable truth

The Azad Maidan violence on August 11, which left two Muslims dead and 63 people - including 58 police personnel - injured has led to two seemingly paradoxical and polarised narratives. First, as a horde of young Muslim men who gathered at Azad Maidan went berserk torching vehicles, beating policemen, molesting policewomen and thrashing journalists and photographers, the (then) police commissioner Arup Patnaik went on stage to invoke the 1992-93 riots, appealed for calm and restrained his own men from opening fire. Patnaik, in this narrative, prevented the city from a communal conflagration. Instead of being appreciated for his initiative, Patnaik lost his job - through a promotion, of course.

Second, as the provoked and armed men launched what by all accounts was pre-meditated mayhem, Patnaik failed to read the intelligence that was available. He failed to protect his own men and women from being attacked. Patnaik brought the situation under control within half an hour but clearly, there was a breakdown of law and order and it would have been a surprise if the police commissioner had still kept his job.

Mumbai can't afford to accept either one of the narratives and discard the other. The danger in doing that is to posit law and order and communal peace as two independent and mutually exclusive aspects of policing a city, especially one marked by a troubled police-Muslim history as Mumbai.

Those who break the law and attack the police must be punished for doing so, whether they are young men in skull caps or in shades of saffron. This is elementary; yet, history shows that neither kind of violator has actually paid the price for playing around with peace or with law and order.

Despite the Srikrishna Commission fixing culpability for the 1992-93 riots, successive Congress-NCP governments have sidestepped the responsibility of taking the accused to task. What had started as a Muslim protest against the Babri Masjid demolition escalated initially into a police-versus-Muslim battle and later into a Hindu-Muslim conflagration.

That the Mumbai police carry a latent streak of anti-Muslim sentiment is not a secret; judicial commissions have recorded this. A text-book retaliation by the police on August 11 could have started off another round of communal conflagration. Patnaik acted with tact to bring the situation under control without indiscriminate firing. Of course, he should not have let the situation come to such a pass.

This is the same police force that took on terrorists during the 26/11 attack and succeeded in arresting one of them. The policeman is still the most visible symbol of the State and its intent to maintain the rule of law. Patnaik's restraint and public rebuke to his men that afternoon led to an undercurrent of rage and dwindling morale in the force, which Raj Thackeray tapped into.

The unprecedented attack called for swift and decisive action against the offenders as well as their leaders. Instead, we heard arguments that it was the holy Ramzan month, that the action was delayed till after Eid, that community leaders would appeal to attackers to give themselves up, and so on. Those men broke the law; they should have faced consequences - immediately. Instead, the police and people initially heard excuses and eventually saw some 50-odd arrests. But the leaders and the maulanas who had exhorted men to protest after Friday's prayers continue to roam free. The political patronage they enjoy seems to give them immunity from the  law. Also, police action against them, which could be the spark that ignites the Mumbai tinder-box, was something that created apprehension in the corridors of power.

Ergo, those who brazenly challenge law and order and those who openly provoke and incite are safe because Mumbai should not burn again. We heard the same line, against a different set of violators and leaders in the post-92-93 riots days. Of course, Mumbai should never burn. But why must Mumbai put up with blatant law and order breakdowns and violations in order to maintain peace? Both are non-negotiable. The dominant narrative should be, as in any global city, a sensible mix of both.


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