You don’t need to arrest shakha pramukhs to prevent riots

Where there is will, there is a way around every riot. You just need to summon the courage to do the right thing

You don’t need to arrest shakha pramukhs to prevent riots
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Sujata Anandan

There were two very defining moments for the socio-cultural fabric and political economy of Mumbai that completely altered not just the character of the city and the state of Maharashtra but also had a lasting impact on the rest of India.

I like to refer to the first of these as a spontaneous proletarian rumbling through the body politic of the nascent nation which built up and led to its complete opposite - the second headlong tumble, but a purposeful one, into a communal cauldron of such savagery and bestiality – wherein even a mentally challenged homeless teen beggar was burnt for just being the other – that continues to have little parallel in the country even today.

The defining violence of and by the Shiv Sena in 1969 was almost profane and coarse by nature, showing disrespect for everybody including a former Chief Minister and the then Deputy Prime Minister (Morarji Desai), for government property and private individuals (they destroyed telephone booths and private restaurants with equal violence), and for its own leadership. Most of the latter were swiftly picked up by the authorities and lodged in prisons, not the least of them, party supremo Bal Thackeray who had to cool his heels in the slammer for well over three months.

I guess this is where the confusion of Chief Justice of India Sharad Bobde begins to be apparent - he may have been a mere school boy in the late 1960s when the Shiv Sena began to leave its stamp on the fabric of the city and the nation. When the honorable CJI referred to “shakha pramukhs" being arrested and those arrests leading to more riots in Mumbai, I think he meant the anti-Karnataka riots of 1969 when the then Congress government was taken aback by the ferocity of the violence and came down heavily on all the lumpens on the streets of Mumbai. Of course, there were not many shakha pramukhs among them, then, for the Shiv Sena at the time was essentially a force of street fighters with no singular leader, including Bal Thackeray, having any stake in the system. The shakha pramukhs were the third rung of leadership in the party after Thackeray and his apostles- the 12 up-netas or deputy leaders like Manohar Joshi or Narayan Rane who, years later, would end up as chief ministers of Maharashtra. With all of them behind bars, the violence escalated as the streets were abandoned to common thugs and goons who may or may not have been Shiv Sainiks but used the chance to mark out and define their respective turfs.


By the early 1990s, however, the shakha pramukhs had developed some stakes in the system, though the party still largely remained lumpenised. However, there was a sea change in its focus and purpose. Now, it was not just proletarian and committed to material gains but was being driven by the growing communal ecosystem wherein religion, temples, gods and leaders like the rath yatri L K Advani and their own Bal Thackeray mattered more to the Shiv Sainiks than just jobs and a piece of the enormous financial cake of Mumbai.

No shakha pramukhs were ever arrested during these post-Babri Masjid demolition riots either. The only Shiv Sena leader of consequence I remember being hauled up by the cops was Madhukar Sirpotdar, by then an up-neta, otherwise an employee of a leading multinational company who could have ended up as its managing director had he not got embroiled with the Shiv Sena and its anti-social activities. His offence was the same as that of noted film star Sanjay Dutt – caught with a huge cache of arms in a notified area. Dutt was prosecuted under the Terrorists and Disruptive Activities Act. Sirpotdar later ended up as a Member of Parliament from Mumbai North West constituency – that was previously represented by the Congress' Sunil Dutt, Sanjay Dutt’s father, who stood down after his son was caught with the AK47s and went to jail. So, no; no shakha pramukh ever had to pay a price for rioting in Mumbai which, in 1992-93, was in any case fuelled more by Shiv Sena women than by men. The latter simply wanted to keep their jobs and away from the police. But their wives had other ideas. I recall Pramod Navalkar telling me ruefully during the riots that while he had been brokering peace between two communities, his wife had, tearfully and angrily, brought him bangles and bindis - she had been sore that her husband had been so unmanly as to sue for peace rather than put the others in their place and she felt humiliated by his lack of machismo. Navalkar was an up-neta too, also working for a multi-national company and clearly not wanting to soil his hands in blood. But there were other forces at work and there was only so much he could do to stop the violence from spreading. Bal Thackeray did not care much for him after that, for his peace-making activities had become famous during the riots.

So I, personally, with deference to far superior opinion than mine, do not believe that arresting rioters anywhere in the country will increase the ferocity of the riots. Having covered more than one riot in my life time, right from the middle of the bloodshed and violence, I know that those who want others to riot are not those who stand to get injured or die in the riots. Or even go to jail. Sirpotdar was an exception and there are few and far between like him. Most of those, however, are still not shakha pramukhs or their equivalents. If they are, they have now developed stakes in the system and have jobs to safeguard – theirs and their employees'. Or homes to protect, theirs or their families'. Like during another potential riot in the 1980s when there was a clash between Holi and Moharram processions and these brave shakha pramukhs wanted to kill the Muslims. The authorities decided to "recruit" them to the army and dispatch them to the borders with Pakistan to facilitate the killing spree. Whereupon the shakha pramukhs suddenly remembered they had other business to mind - like taking care of aged parents or bringing up a new-born daughter. The anecdote is from the memoirs of supercop Julio Ribeiro who neatly avoided that riot by that simple expedient. Ribeiro, of course, didn't arrest the shakha pramukhs, he didn’t need to. Just the thought of the consequences of rioting as suggested by him (getting killed themselves or getting atrested for killing others), was enough to make them scurry back into their rat holes.

So, I would suggest humbly, we must now follow that example. As in every disease, prevention is better than cure. And, cliched though that may sound, where there is will, there is a way around every riot. You just need to summon the courage to do the right thing.

(Views expressed are the writer’s own)

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