On Monday, even as the nation was celebrating Id, some Muslim groups in Bombay sent out an SMS to fellow Muslims: "Musalman bhai-behnon se appeal hai ki Girgaon Chowpatty mein jaane se parhej karein…,’’ etc.
As such messages of recent days go, it was innocuous enough. Mohammad Faruque Azam of the National Institute for Jihaad against Atrocities and Terrorism (Nijaat) was appealing to Muslims in Bombay to avoid going past the Marine Drive on Tuesday as Maharashtra Navnirman Sena president Raj Thackeray, despite being denied permission by the police, was insisting on holding a rally there against the violence by some Muslim groups at Azad Maidan on August 11 (it was then turned into a protest at the very same Azad Maidan).
The message was well meaning, even innocent – aimed at avoiding a possible communal conflagration that both the city and the country have so far avoided ever since those malicious and doctored photographs and SMSs began to make the rounds since July, in response to both the trouble with Muslims in Burma and the Bodo versus non-Bodo violence in Assam.
However, it shook me up as little else has in recent years. I thought despite being well-intentioned, the message set Muslims apart as “others” in the country, reinforced their ghettoisation and made them look like second-class citizens. So I was very glad to simultaneously come across a heart-warming statement from Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray. Whatever the Shiv Sena’s past record and whoever he might have meant to target now, he said, “Rioters have no caste or religion. They should all be brought to Azad Maidan and beaten with a hockey stick, Dhoble style.’’ The last bit, of course, was a reference to assistant commissioner of police Vasant Dhoble, Bombay’s moral cop of recent fame. But Thackeray’s sentiment could apply to both sides equally.
The August 11, 2012, incident could easily have degenerated into a major conflagration. But it was a one-sided affair – the action of one group of Muslims against the State. Fortunately, there was no communal riot and police commissioner Arup Patnaik succeeded in preventing his men, who had their fingers on their triggers, from indulging in the kind of firing that has happened more than once in the past – like after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 or even the protests against Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in 1989.
Yet, instead of complimenting Bombay’s police for limiting the collateral damage, there is now an attempt by saffron groups to provoke another conflagration, with BJP city unit president Raj Purohit, like Raj Thackeray. even demanding Patnaik’s resignation for not taking tougher action (read killing more) against the vandals and miscreants. Even Thackeray described Patnaik as holding a gun in a hand adorned with bangles.
A little application of the mind would have allowed them to see that the government cannot permit this kind of challenge to its authority go unpunished. Nor can it be seen as weak. The police are preparing to take some tough action against those who provoked them on August 11 and I believe this kind of insistence by saffron groups might just get in the way of that, allowing the August 11 perpetrators to go scot-free. For the government would not, then, want to be seen as responding to demands from parties like the BJP, the Shiv Sena or the MNS in that direction (though Raj cleverly distanced hmself from Hindutva at his rally). This, indeed, would be greatly unfortunate.
However, while Nijaat could have avoided reinforcing the impression that Muslims are a separate/lesser entity in this country, they are nonetheless doing their best to educate the community that the problems of Muslims all over the world is not India’s concern. As one leader told me, ``Muslims are dying all over Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria or even Egypt. Who are they being killed by, if not fellow Muslims? We have not heard a peep against that. Then why protest against the dispalcement of a handful of Bangladeshi Muslims in Assam or far-away Burma which is not even our country?’’
I can see some intense efforts now being made to keep Indians from being provoked by the shenanigans of Pakistan or other groups trying to destabilise the country. But that kind of wisdom simply does not seem to dawn on saffron groups who are hell-bent upon politicising what was essentially a challenge to state authority.
They might get the tough action they desire, if they allow the authorities to proceed with their investigations discreetly and without fear or favour. Else Thackeray’s hockey stick might have to be applied to them as well with equal force.