A little over a fortnight after the passing away of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, nothing seems to have changed for either the Sena or its offshoot, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS).
Over the weekend, there were reports that four shakha pramukhs of the Shiv Sena from Mulund were booked by cops for attempting to extort from, well, another Marathi manoos. The modus operandi was the same as ever: they saw one man renovating his garage. They first dropped names; the man was neither impressed nor intimated. He refused to pay up Rs 25 lakh in protection money, so they began to damage his premises. He lodged a police complaint.
But here's the twist--a change in the DNA of the police. The prompt action by the government in suspending the cops who arrested two innocent girls instead of the vandalising Shiv Sainiks in Palghar last month seems to have had a salutary effect on the police force and made them aware of their duties. They jumped into action to register an FIR and arrest the shakha pramukhs. It must have been a shock to the Shiv Sainiks that they could be acted against. They lost no time in running away.
However, the MNS seems to be slower on the uptake. I was horrified when the party spokesperson justified the beating up of a 65-year-old contractor by a 30-something corporator of the MNS from Kalyan, again over the weekend. It pulled on my heartstrings when I heard the contractor say, "What could I do? He is the same age as my own child.''
The MNS, then, seems to have no respect for even traditional Indian values: which society or community justifies the beating up of someone our parents' age and then taking pride in the 'MNS bhasha (language)' used against the man, as Nitin Nikam, the corporator in question, did? I was glad to see that even he was swiftly arrested (though released on bail), prompting Raj Thackeray, after the initial justification by his party spokesperson, to say he was disturbed by the 'act' (which act, by the way - the beating or the arrest?).
Now all players in these kinds of rackets are beginning to realise that things are indeed changing: the Congress seems to have withdrawn its patronage of such goons and will not allow the police to look the other way or even aid the Shiv Sainiks as they did at Palghar or, more famously, during the 1992-93 riots in Bombay. As former super cop Julio Rebeiro told me once in a similar context, "Political interference often gets in the way of good policing. When goons are treated as goons and no one bails them out, they get the message quickly enough.''
The 'bailing out' was usually done by Bal Thackeray who could pick up the phone and get even Congress governments to do his bidding at the drop of a hat. There was much quid pro quo involved, of course, but this laxity on the part of the governments also led to the infiltration of the lower echelons of the police force, at least in Bombay, by the Shiv Sena. Extortionists such as those who are now on the run could not only get away with their violence but also get protection from these cops against the victims' actions despite being the original offenders.
Moreover, the so-called 'outsiders' had their own support systems to fall back upon. But in the absence of help from the government or the police what option did the Marathi manoos have but to submit to that victimisation by the marauding Shiv Sainiks? Even in the two instances over the weekend, both the Sena and the MNS have attacked a Marathi manoos each, effectively busting the myth that they are parties set up n the interest of local Mahrashtrians.
We always knew that Bombay would not be the same after Bal Thackeray. I would not have believed, though, that things would begin to change with such lightning speed. Even so, I would like to keep my fingers crossed, lest this action against the Sena/MNS goons be aberrations rather than the norm in the future.
So far as the two Senas go, however, it might be a long time before they come to terms with the fact that their party might be over. They are aliens to intelligent discourse and gentlemanly behaviour. What would they be if not goons and neighbourhood bullies? Now, as they beat up old men and boast about it or abscond, they are also showing the world that they are little more than cowards.
(The writer is political editor of Hindustan Times' Mumbai edition. She blogs here and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)