Passion Play: Local history, poor governance and divisive politics

by Gautam Pemmaraju

MtCarmelProtest As the picture here suggests, the local parish of Mt Carmel’s on Chapel Road in the western suburb of Bandra in Mumbai, is exhorting upon the Chief Minister of Maharashtra State to exert his efforts elsewhere. Recently, in a most controversial and aggressively conducted manner, the BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation), the city’s main civic authority, went on a drive of demolishing ‘illegal’ religious structures, mostly ‘plague crosses’, around Mumbai – from the centre of the city in Mazagaon and Byculla, to the historic Portuguese Catholic suburb of Bandra. The local community, caught off guard and distraught by this unilateral action, has mobilized itself and is vigorously protesting the civic authority’s drive. Various newspapers as well as a few television channels have reported the events, speculating on a variety of issues – the legality of the structures, the timing of the civic body’s actions, official stances, the historical issues and community sentiments. The archbishop of Mumbai, Msgr Oswald Gracias has termed the action ‘unjust’ and ‘illegal’ and in contravention of existing policy wherein structures before 1964 are deemed to be of legal status. In 2009, a Supreme Court bench, while hearing a petition against a Gujarat High Court order instructing state municipalities to take action against illegal religious structures, issued an interim order to all states of the union, to review the status of existing structures that are constructed along roadsides and which obstruct traffic. In compliance of this Supreme Court order, the state government issued a regulation last October to all municipal bodies to take action against ‘illegal structures’. Following this government regulation, various municipal officials of the different wards began to post notices on numerous crosses and other structures (two temples) over the last two weeks to meet a February 28th deadline – there are 749 illegal structures in the city according to official figures. In the central district of Byculla, the officials posted a notice on a Saturday afternoon informing the residents of an impending demolition on Monday, leaving them no time to appeal the action. Subsequently, a cross in Hathi Baug, Love Lane, in the central district of Mazagaon, was removed and its plaque, dated 1936, was damaged. 1

In 2003 this matter had come before the state High Court and the civic body had then been instructed to take action against illegal structures. Members of the Catholic community had then submitted documentation to the civic body regarding individual structures in support of their historical value and legality. Now community members are accusing the municipality of disregarding this documentation and acting illegally.

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