Making history, not repeating it

Ask all the questions, seek explanations, make comments on what the Mumbai police did or did not do before, during and after a Muslim mob behaved in despicable fashion torching OB vans, attacking media persons and the police, molesting women constables, snatching arms from the police in the backdrop of a rally at Azad Maidan last Saturday, to protest atrocities against Muslims in Assam and in Myanmar. (Police and the organisers agree that it was an armed group that suddenly surfaced outside the maidan and turned to violence.) But do allow for the possibility that responding in a most "un-police-like" fashion to extreme provocation, the city's police commissioner, Arup Patnaik, may have opened a happy chapter in the otherwise unhappy Muslim-police relationship in the metropolis.

Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray is most unhappy that the police commissioner did not issue a blanket shoot-to-kill order. But the latter's exemplary restraint is precisely what peace-loving Mumbaikars need to thank him for. Instead of repeating history, Patnaik has tried creating one.

Flashback to 1989. Even after the then Union government had issued a ban on The Satanic Verses, a few hundred Muslims instigated allegedly by one man took to the streets raising incendiary slogans, provoking the police. The cops gunned down 14 Muslims, to which the additional commissioner of police (law-and-order), S.M. Shingare, added the threat: "If they come for us, we'll draw more blood."

Fast forward to December 1992: in the immediate aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, under orders from the then police commissioner Bapat, well over 200 Muslims were gunned down in less than 72 hours. Bapat's justification: a "shock treatment" was essential to control the mobs.

Add to these the conviction of over 80 per cent of the more than 123 accused in Mumbai's March 1993 serial blasts in sharp contrast to the total impunity to the perpetrators of the January 1993 anti-Muslim violence, plus frequent complaints about alleged arbitrary arrests of Muslim youth in recent years, to get some sense of the highly strained, estranged community-cop relationship.

Senior journalists and social activists from Mumbai are aware that, given the absence of justice, the wounds of 1989 and 1992 are still festering. Thankfully, Patnaik, who was a deputy commissioner of police when Bombay burned (1992-93), has not forgotten either. It's his act of remembering, and reminding, that prevented yet another bloodbath and ensured that the situation did not spin entirely out of control last Saturday.

It perhaps needed both courage and conviction on his part to march up to the dais in the midst of a highly volatile atmosphere and grab the mike to remind the charged gathering that neither police nor Muslims should forget what happened in 1992 and that both must do everything possible to prevent a repeat and reopen wounds. For the violent mob outside the maidan, the message meant nothing. But to the much larger assembly of Muslims gathered inside the maidan, it got home. As most of them dispersed peacefully from the other end of the maidan, it became easier for the police to deal with the murderous mob and to disperse them with the minimum use of force.

Those inclined to think this is too charitable an interpretation of the role of the police may wish to recall that whenever under attack, the police themselves tend to run riot. Every human life is precious and the tragic loss of two Muslim lives is not to be ignored. But nor must we forget that the mob was entirely responsible for the provocation and the overwhelming majority of those injured were policemen and policewomen, not to mention the unpardonable molestation of the latter. Peace was restored in about 30 minutes and mercifully the situation in the city is under control.

What if Patnaik had opted for the "shock treatment" precedent of his predecessors? For well over a week, MMS clips are being forwarded mobile to mobile, in Mumbai and elsewhere, with gory pictures of what's being done to Muslims in Assam and Myanmar. Many of these pictures are obviously doctored, having nothing to do with Assam or Myanmar. But who cares? They are enough to inflame untutored minds, being told to see for themselves how Islam is under attack everywhere and to ask whether they will remain mute spectators. Imagine if pictures of Muslims being gunned down by the police in Mumbai were to get added to the MMS clips?

Mercifully, the Mumbai police have denied such an opportunity to those, whoever they might be, who seem to be working overtime to incite Muslims. As things stand today, the Mumbai police are the injured party, while the city's Muslim leadership, such as it is, is compelled do all the explaining, apologising, forgiveness-seeking, appreciating the role of the police.

It must not be easy for Patnaik and the top rung of the Mumbai police to calm the nerves of those whom they lead. But the police commissioner's remarkable restraint has opened up an opportunity to heal wounds, open a new chapter. It's an opportunity Muslims must grab with both hands. Patnaik and his police having done their duty, it's the duty of each one of us now to help identify those who seemed determined to set the city aflame last Saturday and to isolate parties like the Shiv Sena and the BJP who are all too eager to communalise the situation, whether in Mumbai or Assam.

Javed Anand is general secretary, Muslims for Secular Democracy. Teesta Setalvad is secretary, Citizens for Justice and Peace. Both are co-editors, 'Communalism Combat'

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