How do we counter Pune lynching?

Violence has a habit of escalating so suddenly that it often catches everyone by surprise. Once it spreads, then there is no logic to it, no systematic pattern, just a visceral anger that continues on its own, gruesome spiral. Still, some cool thinking and preventive measures can minimise the fallout.

When goons, said to be from various militant Hindutva organisations, went on rampage in Pune on Friday, it was obvious that this was going to be bigger than just a routine protest against some allegedly morphed pictures of Shivaji and Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray. Despite the fact that buses were torched and property damaged, it did not become national news and by all accounts, it did not rouse the administration enough to clamp down forcefully on it. The police tried to broker peace meetings and blocked the offensive Facebook link; for good measure, they also warned that anyone ‘liking’ the posts could get into trouble, as though that was the main issue here. The police in India have still not fully grasped the nature of the social media, nor do they understand the concept of freedom of expression. They think their job is done once they have threatened anyone and everyone who may press the Like button. Do they have the jurisdiction or the wherewithal to arrest anyone sitting in New Jersey or London? These are empty threats, issued only to show something is being done.

Instead, they should have been concentrating on ensuring that Pune and other places, where there had been violence, were managed effectively.

  After the peace committee meetings, the crowds came out even more charged, instead of quietening down. All kinds of rumours spread rumours, which had no way of being confirmed, but which were designed to inflame passions. More violence followed and mobs armed with hockey sticks and other weapons attacked a group of members of the minority community. If this does not show pre-planning, what does? Either the police were naïve or unprepared to handle the situation. In the attacks, Mohsin Sheikh, a young techie, who was coming out of a nearby mosque, was hit on the head and died in the hospital. Two others were injured.

Was Mohsin Sheikh in any way linked to the so-called offensive Facebook post or had he ‘liked’ it? No. Was he somehow using his tech skills to spread communal hatred? No. Then what was his fault? Reports suggest that he was wearing a skull cap, which he would be, since he was emerging from a mosque after prayers. Thus he was not a mischief-maker, but just a man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This death could have caused mayhem in the city, but fortunately didn’t. The police moved swiftly and arrested 13 people for the murder, including the chief of the Hindu Rashtra Sena, a little known outfit with extremely rabid Hindutva views. Their leader, Dhananjay Desai, has a number of cases against him and the group was involved in an attack on a Marathi TV channel some time ago.

Pune is calm, but under the surface, who knows what frustrations are simmering. If a smallish, obscure group can create so much havoc, think about what could happen if a larger outfit decides to go on a rioting spree.

In the last few years, a number of such Senas have sprung up. Mangalore has its Sri Ram Sene, well-known for beating up girls who dare go to pubs. Its chief, Pramod Muthalik, joined the BJP for a few hours, but was ejected after an uproar. In Delhi, there used to be another Sena which went about tearing film posters.

None of these groups would last even a day if they did not have the tacit encouragement of more powerful, but shadowy political masters. They remain in the background while their storm troopers go berserk. This was there is plausible deniability.

The Maharashtra government’s response to the events in Pune has been somewhat tepid. The Shiv Sena has, not surprisingly, kept quiet. A BJP spokesperson has been quoted as condemning the killing, but also asked that those who post such morphed pictures should be jailed—this immediately establishes a causal connection, as if Sheikh’s death and the Facebook post are somehow linked, when they are not.

There are many lessons to be learnt from this incident, lessons that are hardly new, but somehow never sink in. First, those who are bent on sectarian violence will find any excuse to create trouble. Second, some organisations, especially those devoted to the Hindutva cause could now start believing that they have a free pass to push their narrow-minded agenda; they have to be disabused of this notion. Third, in the run-up to the state elections, the police would do well to keep a sharp eye out for trouble-makers, whether on the fringe or in the mainstream. Most of all, it is time that important leaders of every party come out boldly and make it clear that such violence will be clamped down on ruthlessly. The police must be told that it has a free hand in going after anyone who sets out to create trouble and not waste its time chasing chimeras like bogus Facebook Likes. If proactive measures are not taken, we could be headed for trouble just when the nation is hoping we can get down to the task of kick-starting the economy.

Sidharth Bhatia

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