Saturday evening, Mumbai went spinning into a crisis, but it was fortunately controlled before reaching catastrophic proportions.
The credit for this could go to a series of actions, either as a strategy, sheer good luck or both. A series of fortuitous decisions, coincidences and good sense of the people across the city helped.
Initially, the news television images suggested intense action by a mob, size unknown. The smoke billowing in the background, policemen walking abreast towards a spot was another scary visual.
Somehow, simultaneously the other image gave some hope: a police official was smiling and nodding to a person who kept speaking and gesticulating, even as another, apparently a reporter, was taking notes.
However as many as three outdoor broadcast vans (OBs) of three major channels which were set on fire by the mob prevented the real-time telecast of the images of the unfolding event.
Many channels were telecasting either repeats of their shows, mostly Bollywood related because it was the weekend. By 5 pm, when normalcy was restored, they went ‘live’ but with much good news.
To a city whose communal polarisation is not unknown, the first image, along with news readers saying it was a protest rally of Muslims, caused worry. Protests against what happened in Assam, the Bodo-Muslim violence, could have turned into a major issue.
Hark back to 1993 when the demolition of the contested structure of a place of worship – Muslims claiming it a mosque and Hindus a temple – roused such anger that it turned into a conflagration that lasted months and divided the city; its wounds still fresh.
Then, as on Saturday, the initial minority response was to attack state property – the State had failed in protecting their claimed place of worship – like bus stands and then buses first. A variety of inputs influenced the course of that anger into a full-fledged communal crisis which was stoked by politicians on both sides of the fence, or rather, helped build a fence.
It seemed a déjà vu was in the offing.
Like a variety of actions worsened things in 1993, a variety of actions seemed to have helped quell the mischief makers amongst the reportedly 50,000-strong crowd that had gathered at the maidan. Text messages and use of Facebook seems to have been the biggest factor in such a gathering forming there.
From what the Chief Minister, Prithviraj Chavan said last night, and as reported by the Times of India, there was prior knowledge about the scale of the protest which had sufficient police presence at the venue and outside it. Home Minister R R Patil also concedes that.
However, there are suggestions of an Intelligence failure because many of the young men who attended the event had carried with them items – chains, for instance, which were seen by commuters. Perhaps this was noticed, but the youngsters were not detrained from the locals to avoid several local incidents. This is a matter of speculation since officially, nothing has been said on that yet but foreknowledge claimed by the chief minister, indexing it to the strong police presence, has to be taken at face value.
The decision to close down the Chhatrapati Shivaji terminus even as the crowd rampaged onto the street from the maidan, was a dicey choice. It perhaps prevented some from barging into the station, spreading the violence onto trains.
While swift action was able to contain the problem to a smaller geography, it also had the potential to snowball into another crisis if the arterial CST was not reopened quickly. Lakhs of commuters sweep towards the station from Fort and Nariman Point after office. If the closed station had built into a massive group of waiting commuters who had to depend on text messages and rumours and fears, the police could have had something very, very tough on their hands.
Either fortunately or by clear design, the CST gates were opened by 5 pm, avoiding that catastrophic possibility. Those who had arrived were pushed back into the trains they had come by, keeping the station empty. A flow of people who walked along the Azad Maidan from Fort and Nariman Point to catch trains from there would have been an opportunity spread the trouble. By then, however, things had quietened down.
Any delay in resuming the services could have meant serious trouble.
Another big gain is the media not revealing the names, and thereby the religious denominations of the dead and the injured, of either the miscreants, policemen or the bystanders.
So much so, the emphasis was on the higher proportion of policemen being hurt over the mischief-makers, or even innocent bystanders, seems to have kept the perspective right – it was a mob vs police event; even if the Muslims were agitated at their community being at the receiving end in Assam, it had nothing to do with their Mumbai neighbours.
So Mumbai is breathing easy now.
However, the city has reason to worry. If people can congregate in such large numbers, beyond even the expectations of the police and hopes of the organisers, over a matter involving their sense of hurt on a religious or community identity, and not on secular issues like corruption, the city’s bipolarity remains in place.
Compare yesterday’s crowds on the same Azad Maidan to the crowds India Against Corruption could not marshal at the Bandra- Kurla Complex despite a high intensity campaign on mobiles, missed calls and use of social media like Facebook. It speaks volumes about priorities.