Abuse, attack, impunity
Two days on, the solemn-faced news anchors had shuffled offstage. The mawkish media melodrama over the death of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray was receding from public memory. And faint glimmers of reality were allowed just then to intrude into the fantasy world created by droning media commentary. In that brief moment of clarity, before the Kasab execution set the news channels abuzz again,Thackeray’s legacy was demonstrated by a real-life incident far more eloquent than all the drivel served up on the news channels.
In the district of Thane, neighbouring Mumbai city, two young women were arrested on charges of deliberately creating ill-feeling between citizens on grounds of religion. One had posted a message on a social media site asking if the complete lockdown of India’s principal commercial city on account of one man’s death was really a smart idea. The other had committed the unpardonable sin of expressing her approval of the sentiment.
Seasoned analysts of the Mumbai police style saw the arrests as part of a pattern entrenched since the Shiv Sena became an alternative machinery of enforcement in the city. Accredited custodians of the law – those who wear the uniform of the Indian State and earn their salaries out of tax revenues – would rather strike a bargain than do what is right. They would willingly perpetrate an illegality to appease a power group, when the alternative is a devastating rampage that could multiply their worries. It is a no-win situation in any case for accredited custodians of the law, since the alternative mechanism is decisive in the final instance.
In making the bargain under which two young women were dragged out of their homes and paraded in ignominy in the local police station, the police had already been given some forewarning. A clinic belonging to the uncle of the person who had posted the offending message had already been raided and wrecked by furious Shiv Sena cadre, and the ill and the infirm, waiting for a consultation with the doctor, been dragged out and sent their separate ways.
If the standard set by the deceased man were the norm, then the offence of the two young women was possibly that they fell far short. Speaking in a moderate tone of reason is just not on. Neither reason nor moderation sat very well with the Thackeray persona, which was built on extremes of verbal abuse and physical violence. Thackeray could do without friends but not survive without an enemy. And all the mushy expressions of grief over his death are reminder not so much of what he was, but what he was not. All those who have queued up in TV news studios to eulogise the dead man have at various times, had to buy guarantees that they will not earn his enmity. In his death, they feel compelled to justify as an abiding bond, this bargain that is no more durable than a contingent need: to get a film released, a play staged, a building project approved, or for most Mumbaikars, just leaving home secure in the assurance that they will be able to complete a day’s work in peace and return.
If free speech is the issue, then the standard set by the supremo – not to mention the body count that has followed his more famous exercises of this right – have been impossible to surpass. New year dawned in 1993, with India in a mood of deep anxiety. A place of worship had been demolished in Ayodhya almost in a ritualised act of retribution for supposed slights inflicted on Hindu society in the distant past of the medieval age. India’s Muslims saw the vandalism at Ayodhya as the climactic act in a programme of writing them out of contemporary India and reducing them to citizens of a lesser status. Waves of rioting had engulfed various parts of the country but a month later, there was the slender hope afloat that that with some political sagacity and a great deal of civic solidarity, the situation could improve. There was also the troubling awareness that matters could just as easily turn for the worse.
Thackeray opened 1993 with an editorial in his newspaper, Saamna, titled “Hindunni Akramak Vhayala Have” (or “Hindus have now to be aggressive”). The plan was simple: to orchestrate a clash of symbols, the Hindu maha-aarti against the Muslim bada namaaz, with the immediate objective of provoking violence. By January 6, the first outbreaks had occurred across diverse spots in the city. On January 9, Thackeray declared that the law had failed to protect the Hindus and that it was time to declare “to hell with the law”. And then came the explicit call to violence: “the next few days will be ours”.
Violence was already rampant by this time, but this was a clear signal for escalation. And then on January 11 came the declaration of victory, again as a front-page editorial in Saamna: “Enough is enough”. But the violence had by then been unleashed on such a scale that it was not contained for days together.
This study in hate speech is not complete without the attendant theme of impunity. Within days of the violence subsiding, J.B. D’Souza, a former chief secretary of Maharashtra, had along with other civic minded individuals, filed a petition in the Bombay High Court, seeking Thackeray’s criminal prosecution for hate speech and incitement to violence. When the Bombay High Court took up the petition , it was told by the police that there was nothing objectionable in any of the Saamna editorials and that the appropriate forum in such matters was the Press Council of India. In 1995, the Supreme Court upheld the High Court ruling dismissing the petition.
A brief moment of accountability came in 1998, when the Srikrishna Commission appointed shortly after the 1993 riots, completed its inquiry despite years of obstruction, intimidation and indifference. Its conclusion was unequivocal: the Shiv Sena and its leadership were solely responsible for the violence. In July 2000, the Congress-led government that had taken power the previous year, moved to prosecute Thackeray on the evidence of the Srikrishna report. Rather than principle, the move seemed born in personal animus, since the Home Minister in the state then was Chhagan Bhujbal, an old confederate of Thackeray’s who had fought bitterly with the supremo and changed sides. But after days of tension as Shiv Sena cadre geared up for retaliatory strikes, the case collapsed in a messy heap, when the magistrate refused to admit it on grounds that it was barred by the statute of limitation.
Verbal abuse, physical violence and impunity: the maudlin and meretricious TV news anchors could have done themselves and their viewers a great favour by focusing on just these three elements that sum up Thackeray’s legacy in its entirety.