On 21 August, as Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray defied police orders and marched towards Azad Maidan in South Mumbai, he knew exactly how it would end. Perhaps he could not resist making political capital of a sudden wave of anti-Muslim sentiment sweeping majoritarian Mumbai, particularly among policemen after some of their colleagues were attacked by miscreants at a Muslim rally in Azad Maidan on 11 August. Thackeray’s was a protest march against the events of that day, and by the time the exercise was over, it was loud and clear to Mumbai’s Muslims that they were back in the crosshairs of a saffron upsurge.
The last time Hindu-Muslim tensions ran high was about two decades ago. The 1992 Babri Masjid demolition saw a breakout of riots that left thousands dead and Mumbai devastated. In the run-up to that event, Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena was stirring up crowds—and religious passions—with a series of ‘maha-aartis’ in response to what it saw as Muslim assertion in the form of mass namaaz on the streets. This time round, it is the nephew who has adopted an anti-Muslim stance. And like 1992-93, the support of Mumbai’s cops could be crucial to his brand of identity politics.
Mumbai’s policemen are mostly Hindu, and if they were angry with Muslims after the 11 August attacks—many were beaten up and some women constables molested—Raj Thackeray has turned them furious. By harping on the molestation cases at the protest rally, the MNS chief got just about everybody in the crowd worked up. Raging on, he demanded the resignations of Maharashtra’s Home Minister RR Patil and Mumbai Police Commissioner Arup Patnaik for their inaction and failure to nab the culprits. Thackeray also described in detail past attacks on the police at a rally of Samajwadi Party leader Abu Asim Azmi some years ago. Revealingly, echoing saffron voices in other parts of India, the MNS chief also made pointed references to Bangladeshi Muslims, speaking of the need to curb their immigration.
The speech has left peace-loving Mumbaikars in general with a deep sense of unease and Muslims in particular with grave fears of a return to the bad old days 20 years ago. The perils of what may be unfolding are obvious. It is common knowledge that Sena sympathisers make up large numbers of the city’s police force (whose shamefully anti-Muslim role in the 1992-93 riots was not just observed but also exposed by a shocking set of wireless voice intercepts). There are large numbers of MNS supporters in the force too.
The thousands of policemen on duty at Azad Maidan during Thackeray’s rally listened in rapt attention to his tirade. They clustered around, listened hard, waved and whistled as the MNS chief spoke. They had found a new voice to speak up for them.
One policeman, Pramod Tawade, who had filed several complaints related to a severe beating by constables of the CISF some months ago, walked onto the stage and handed the MNS chief a yellow rose. He said his superiors had not taken any action on his complaints.
Before the rally, MNS workers had gone around visiting families of policemen and asking them to attend. Those who did were clad in black T-shirts supplied by the MNS to have them stand out as a pressure group of policemen kin.
In case of hostilities, expecting police neutrality—necessary to contain mob violence—might be expecting too much, fear many, especially since street-level mistrust between Hindus and Muslims has been on the rise. Remember, not all Mumbaikars can think beyond religious labels on matters related to law and order. So, in the absence of action by the state government against those guilty—of course, they would need to be proven so by the due process of law—of the violence on 11 August, majoritarians will be able to present this as yet another case of ‘minority appeasement’.
Unfortunately, the rants of rabble rousers on both sides of the divide are worsening prospects of peaceful reconciliation. Slanted Marathi TV coverage does not help either. Competitive communalism between Hindus and Muslims has a history in Mumbai. In the 1990s, it was Dawood Ibrahim’s henchmen who took on the Sena’s thugs. This time round, the Indian Mujahideen’s operatives are said to be playing the underworld don’s dangerous blast-for-a-pogrom game.
These are tense times for Mumbai. The irony, however, is the unintended consequence the MNS rally has had. It has saved the jobs of two men Thackeray wants sacked: RR Patil and Arup Patnaik.