'Take care while making arrests': Delhi Police advisory to riots investigators echoes politics of Hindu privilege

The order has generated much outrage across the country. But for Mumbaikars, the Delhi Police’s 'advice' only evokes a sense of déjà vu.

Jyoti Punwani July 18, 2020 12:50:25 IST
'Take care while making arrests': Delhi Police advisory to riots investigators echoes politics of Hindu privilege

"Care should be taken and facts verified before launching action against leaders."

No, this is not the Delhi Police cautioning its men about arresting Hindus for the communal riots that took place in the capital in February. This was the answer given by assistant pleader for the Maharashtra government Niranjan Pandit, to a query by then acting chief justice of the Bombay High Court JN Patel, whether Bal Thackeray, Raj Thackeray and Narayan Rane had been prosecuted for the acts of vandalism carried out by their followers.

This exchange dates back a decade ago to February 2010.

Almost the same words were used by the Delhi Police in its recent order to its teams investigating the February riots. The order came after the police received information about Hindu resentment brewing over arrests of Hindus for the riots.

The order has generated much outrage across the country. But for Mumbaikars, the Delhi Police’s 'advice' only evokes a sense of déjà vu.

Forget muffled murmurs of resentment. An entire generation of Mumbaikars has grown up hearing loud threats of "Hindu wrath’"routinely issued by then Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray at the prospect of any measure that could limit Hindu privilege. When even a rule capping noise limits during festivals was taken as a challenge by him, where was the question of arrests for criminal acts?

Mumbaikars have seen police refusing to intervene when VHP activists vandalised the modest, decades-old Kashmir Arts Emporium in 2008 (over the Kashmir government’s decision to cancel land allotted for the Amarnath Yatra); when Shiv Sainiks ran amok in 2006 after the statue of Meenatai Thackeray (Bal Thackeray’s wife) was desecrated in Shivaji Park; and when Maharashtra Navnirman Sena members assaulted North Indian vendors in 2008 across the city. The MNS assaults were even telecast on national news.

Occasionally, outside Mumbai, the state police acted professionally and got advance information of violence. But they didn’t follow it up with preventive action.

For example, in December 2010, on the eve of a bandh called by the Shiv Sena in Pune, cops tapped the phones of Uddhav Thackeray’s personal assistant Milind Narvekar, and found evidence of violence being planned for the bandh.

Despite this, no preventive arrests were made because, said Pune Police commissioner Meera Borwankar, "The damage could have been more if the police had detained Sena leaders immediately after tapping the call."

Fifty-four buses were burnt during the bandh. In a classic example of Orwellian doublespeak, then home minister RR Patil justified the inaction, saying: "The police’s priority was to safeguard law and order and protect the public."

Narvekar and Sena leader Neelam Gorhe were booked after the bandh. In 2017, they were discharged after the BJP-Sena government withdrew the case against them.

This was in peacetime.

When the 1992-1993 communal riots were ravaging Mumbai, Shiv Sainiks were arrested, but never preventively. Two days after riots broke out in Mumbai after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, mere inspectors in charge of police stations defied the police commissioner’s orders to round up "communal goondas and activists of the Shiv Sena, VHP and Bajrang Dal and influential goondas of the Shiv Sena’’ on the eve of the 9 December, 1992, all-India bandh called by these parties.

The police were just being true to form: In the 1984 riots, then police commissioner Julio Rebeiro was constrained to ask in an internal circular "who is in charge of the streets of the city – the police or the Shiv Sena?" when he found his men flouting his orders to arrest Shiv Sainiks who were systematically imposing bandhs all through Mumbai.

It is not always that police articulates what motivates them to act, or not to act. Thanks to the Srikrishna Commission investigating the Mumbai 1992-1993 riots, police were forced to explain their conduct.

This brought forth some unforgettable gems.

In late December 1992, when Mumbai was yet to recover from the violence witnessed from 6 to 12 December, Sena leader Madhukar Sarpotdar took out a 5,000-strong rally in Bandra East. The police refused permission, yet they accompanied it through the three hours that it lasted.

Asked why they didn’t stop the rally and arrest the leaders, DCP Vasant Ingle replied: "That might have led to hurting the feelings of their followers.’" A case was, however, filed against Sarpotdar, and he was finally convicted under Section 153 — promoting communal enmity — in 2008.

All through January 1993, as violence raged through Bandra East (where both Bal Thackeray and Sarpotdar lived), police told the commission that whenever they arrested Hindus, huge morchas of Shiv Sainiks would land up at the police station, defying curfew orders.

To prevent the situation "flaring up", neither were these morchas dispersed forcibly, nor did the arrests continue.

Here’s how another DCP, KL Bishnoi, explained why police refused to stop maha aartis being held on the roads by the BJP and Shiv Sena in January 1993, though these were resulting in violence: "It would give the maha aarti organisers one more handle to carry out propaganda that the police and State machinery were biased against Hindus.’’

What the Srikrishna Commisison did, record the attitudes which dictate police conduct, sections of the media are doing today. This is invaluable knowledge for all those concerned about how the constitutional principle of secularism is actually practised by the State.

But will such exposes result in any change in police conduct?

A few days ago, Maharashtra Police arrested one Umesh Dada, who'd posted a threatening video against comedian Amrita Joshua for a stand-up set last year in Mumbai.

Joshua had made fun of those claiming fantastical powers for the proposed Shivaji statue to be built in the sea off Mumbai.

Normally, any lighthearted mention remotely connected with the Maratha emperor or his followers is enough to provoke violence, not just by groups named after Chhatrapati Shivaji, but also by most political parties and even the State. Such violence goes unpunished, because it is seen by the State as righteous anger.

Did the arrest of Dada then mark a shift in the way certain lawbreakers are handled by the State? Not really.

The same force that arrested a lone offender threatening a woman took no action against eight MNS members who vandalised the venue of Joshua’s performance till she issued an apology. All that Home minister Anil Deshmukh said was: "We are getting details about the incident."

This, two days after it was broadcast on Facebook Live by the vandals!

Never underestimate "Hindu resentment."

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