Reading a Riot

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Over two weeks ago, on August 11, a sizeable gathering of over 15,000 gathered at Azad Maidan, a public ground in Mumbai, to protest violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar/Burma and those of the northeastern Indian state of Assam. It was in early to mid July that violence broke out between sections of the multifaith indigenous Bodo people and migrant Bengali Muslims in Kokrajhar, Chirang & Dubhri districts of Assam displacing over 400,000 people, and earlier, 87 people were reportedly killed in ethnic clashes between Rohingya and Buddhists in Rakhine. The crowds were responding to a call by Raza Academy, a 25 year old Mumbai based organization, that has been actively mobilizing Muslims in the city protesting slights against their religious sentiments – from anti-George Bush public protests, announcing a cash prize of 100000 rupees for hurling a slipper at Salman Rushdie at the Jaipur Literary Festival early this year, seeking the revoking of a visa to the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, to protesting the presence in Mumbai of the Canada based Pakistani cleric Tahirul Qadri, accused of apostasy and of thanking Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, for providing state security for his public gathering in Ahmedabad. (See Faisal Devji’s interesting piece on the Rushdie/Jaipur Lit Fest episode here).

Mob-violence-mumbai11A group of no more than 2000 people were expected to gather, but unanticipated crowds filled up Azad Maidan, and reportedly, a group of rioters, armed with sticks, rods and swords, which had infiltrated the congregation, went amuck at around 3.15 PM, setting fire to TV OB Vans, police vans, public transport buses, besides attacking policeman and media persons. The violent mob, gathered at the gate of Azad Maidan, had begun to raise angry slogans against the media for not adequately reporting the ‘atrocities’, displaying images of ‘atrocities’ against Muslims. These images, which had been circulating across social media, were in no small measure, immensely provocative. In the violence that ensued, two Muslim youth were killed in firing, and 54 people were injured, mostly police. There have been allegations that some policewomen were sexually assaulted.

The graphic images of Muslims being ‘slaughtered at the hands of Buddhists’, as several reports have revealed (in particular, this one by Pakistan based Faraz Ahmed) are doctored. A picture of ‘1000 people killed in Burma’ captioned ‘Continuity of Massacre of Muslims of Burma by Buddhists’ was in actuality a 2004 picture of Thai protestors, he revealed. Several commentators have written about the circulation of these images via social media and Yousuf Saeed writes here of his attempts to reveal them as fake. While the suffering of the Rohingya and the complexity of the situation (see here & here) is doubtless, most commentators have been quick to point out, these doctored images have facilitated a peculiar and disturbing mobilization, both online and off, as played out at Azad Maidan on August 11. In addition, several publications played up these doctored images and the accompanying rumours alongside amplified outrage, as CM Naim points out here to an editorial article published in the Delhi Urdu paper Sahafat, on the “World Community’s Silence on the Massacre in Burma”.

Arup Patnaik, the now transferred police commissioner, as many have argued, did what most sensible cops would do (and ought to do) – he did not lose his cool and order a firing on the mob. He instead restrained his force, ‘running helter-skelter’ with ‘fingers on the trigger’, appealed on stage for calm and orderly dispersal, and thereby not just ensured a timely scaling down of the extremely volatile climate, but in no uncertain terms, averted what would have been a major catastrophe. It is not just the potential loss of human life that was at stake there, it was also the collective fragile psyche of a city that was torn apart by communal mayhem 20 years ago, in the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Masjid by Hindu right wing forces. Pointing to the top cop’s ‘exemplary restraint’, Javed Anand and Teesta Setalvad write here that it was “precisely what peace loving Mumbaikar’s need to thank him for. Instead of repeating history, Patnaik has tried creating one.” Indeed, for Patnaik himself recalled (see this NDTV discussion show) his personal experience as a Deputy Commissioner of Police during 1992-93 riots in Bombay, wherein 188 people had died in police firing over one day. His ‘entire idea’, the cop further revealed, was to control his force, because he was well aware from prior experience how things could go out of hand very easily, for if he had ordered a firing, ‘two-three hundred’ people would have been killed, and it was, in his estimation, ‘better to take some stones’. Arup-Patnaik_2

In this keen analysis, Jyoti Punwani argues at the outset that the rally at Azad Maidan may just turn out to be historic for two main reasons. Firstly, the conduct of the police, which has in the past been “indicted for their communal conduct towards Muslims by two judicial commissions”, and secondly, “for the anger of the city’s Muslims against the ulema who organised the rally.” Pointing to the grave volatility of the situation at Azad Maidan that Saturday afternoon, “a bloody confrontation” looming, she points out that under other circumstances, or leadership to be more precise, the mob would most certainly have been fired upon. The Hindu right wing, from the BJP, the Shiv Sena and the MNS, would have preferred that, she indicates, since that has been the traditional way to deal with Muslim mobs in the city, and that the claims of a ‘soft’ approach by the police commissioner underscores the psychological militancy of the right, which often enough erupts into physical violence. The MNS, the truculent sibling of the Shiv Sena, has made much noise of the incident, and in defiance of police orders, led a protest rally on the day after Eid, following the last fasting day of Ramzan, demanding the removal of the top cop and the home minister, RR Patil. At the public gathering, also held at Azad Maidan, Raj Thackeray, the leader of MNS, squarely blamed ‘dens of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis’ from the northern states of UP and Bihar, who come in hordes to Mumbai and create ‘such problems’. As of Friday, Arup Patnaik was replaced as Mumbai’s Police Commissioner, an action that the state administration has described as a routine administrative transfer.

Several former cops and administrators are in agreement with Arup Patnaik’s handling of the riotous mob. But many have also raised questions as to whether there was a failure of intelligence. The ousted police commissioner had pointed out that a 650 strong force was present, and it was over deployment to be on the safe side. They had inkling that things may go ‘haywire’, Patnaik said on TV, but it was a ‘bandobust’ arrangement and not securing a ‘law and order’ situation. Of the many questions that have been thrown up, the critical one is why the police had misread, or had not even read at all, the sentiments of the community at large. In fact, had central intelligence authorities not adequately evaluated the tensions in Assam? Former cop and intelligence man V Balachandran, interestingly raises this issue here, while discussing the social media blockage, and points to the fact that the central security management seemed not to have taken adequate cognisance of the strong sentiments amongst Muslims across South Asia in relation to the Assam and Myanmar events. Wondering if the Ministry of Home Affairs had conveyed anything to the states at all, he points out that the Tehreek-e-Taliban had issued a threat on July 26th, and that it was clear community sentiments were aflame. Were intelligence agencies unaware of this? Many commentators, former cops/intelligence men and administrators have consistently pointed to compromised human intelligence networks, the increased alienation of the Muslim community with regard to the police, and the increased infiltration of right wing elements within the force. Jyoti Punwani points to this here, while raising the important issue of the attack on the cops: “Saturday’s violence by Muslim youth has shaken Mumbai. This is probably the first time that policemen have borne the brunt of the violence — of the 63 injured, 58 are policemen. What kind of mob has the guts to attack the police and think it can get away with it?” Should permission have been granted at all to the public meeting, given the potent mix of rumours, inflamed sentiments and indications of impending trouble? Was this potent mix visible to the authorities at all?

2The violence in Assam and Myanmar (and the provocative social media messages) has had wider repercussions across India, as sudden spurts of threats and attacks against Northeasterners in various Indian cities began to disturbingly emerge. An exodus of Northeastern students and workers from Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad ensued, as officials were caught unawares. (See here and here). In several areas, those who looked as if they were Northeastern were singled out for attacks. Reports of anonymous text messages threatening retaliation against the Assam violence kept coming in as Northeasterners thronged railways stations. Special trains had to be pressed into service to cope with the situation. Commentators have criticized the state governments for not doing enough to quell the fears and the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, appealed for calm on August 16th. The very next day, central authorities placed a 15-day ban on bulk text messages and data exceeding 20 kb. The telecom industry was hit immediately and this report says, “it’s not teenagers who are frustrated with SMS restrictions”, since telemarketers will lose 30% of monthly revenues. Security agencies and the hospitality sectors have also been hit, since they employ significant numbers of Northeastern workers. The government also blocked twitter accounts of several people, including commentators whose postings appeared inflammatory.

Salil Tripathi argues here that the restrictions on messaging, the banning of certain webpages like the Pakistani reporter Faraz Ahmed’s post mentioned early in this article, is a “blunt response, monumentally silly”. The truth he asserts, is the failure of the authorities to respond in a timely and effective manner to the violence in Assam, and let ‘malevolent groups’ exploit the tensions.

A mirror-image of the Hindu right wing communal/sectarian malevolence in Mumbai, this article explores here, is that espoused by the perfume baron and Assam MP Badruddin Ajmal, whose party AIUDF, has in the recent years found their ‘political fortunes’ through ‘exploiting Muslim victimhood’ (see also here and here). He has been blamed for ‘fanning communal tensions’ and the All Assam Students Union (AASU) joined by indigenous Muslim groups, have accused him also of being responsible for the fear psychosis amongst Northeasterners across India. The current conflict in Assam has allowed him to ‘spread his net wider’, as it has similarly allowed Raj Thackeray to flex his muscle on his home turf in Mumbai. 0

Once again the fragility of the national fabric has been exposed by these disturbances and the associated fallout. Seething anger, dangerous undercurrents, and underlying tensions are commonplace. The tinderbox is easily ignited by pernicious politics, rumours, apathy, inaction and sectarian, communal, ethic, regional differences explode in shocking violence, affecting the nation at large in profound ways. As investigators make arrests in the Azad Maidan riots, alleging a deeper conspiracy, the timely action of Arup Patnaik, Mumbai’s erstwhile top cop and now fall guy, is an exemplary lesson in defusing tensions and working in the public interest at large.