January 23, 2020
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A Case Of Bloody Mischief

The desecration of an Ambedkar statue sparks off violence, leaving 10 dead and the city stunned

A Case Of Bloody Mischief

THE vestiges of violence are still intact. Exactly 24 hours after riots broke out at Mata Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar in Ghatkopar East in northeast Mumbai, the Dalit colony wore the dressed-down look of devastation—shards of glass strewn like confetti, the flame-eaten skeleton of "luxury bus" MH-O1-J1010, the sooty entrails of what used to be a police chowki...and the fading marigolds around the mute witness-victim, the bust of Babasaheb Ambedkar.

Around 5 am on Friday, July 11, the Ambedkar statue in Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar was garlanded with chappals. The misdeed was discovered an hour later. The Dalit flare-up and the consequent police firing happened almost on cue.

By evening, newspapers carried stories of neighbours and friends who fell prey to panic-stricken cops: of 14-year-old Mangesh Shivsharan, who was scalped by speeding bullets. Of domestic help Kaushalyabai Pathare, 40, shot dead on her way to work. Of R.J. Jadhav, father of six, bread-winner, banned by virtue of a stray bullet from working for six months. Of Anil Garod, Nandu Navre, Sanjay Nikam, Vilas Dhodke, Sanjay Kamble, Bablu Sharma, Amar Dhanwade and Sukhdev Kapadne... 10 dead, 8 critical and 27 injured.

Elsewhere, in the city's overwhelming response to the opposition-declared bandh, roads were being painstakingly painted 'Bombay bandh'. Rail tracks were ripped at Bandra station, bringing all trains to a halt; stone-throwing persisted in Dalit strongholds of Chembur, Vikhroli, Mankhurd, Govandi and Worli; shutters were downed and rasta-rokos spread like wildfire to even far-flung western suburbs. Traffic was being diverted from sensitive areas and tyres deflated under the very nose of the lawkeepers. Several vehicles were also set afire even as the police resorted to lathicharge. Violent protests were registered in Nagpur, Pune and Amravati too. It was the fifth such desecration to have taken place in the state in the past three months, the earlier episodes at Srirampur, Jalgaon, Malegaon and Nasik.

"We'll not support the bandh but we also won't oppose it," announced Sena chief Bal Thackeray, climbing down from his earlier justification for the "condemnable but unfortunate" shootout.

Even as Mumbai police commissioner Subhash Malhotra claimed that the mob was first lathicharged, then lobbed with teargas shells after which "the SRP had no option but to open fire as the mob would have set the three LPG tankers alight causing immense damage", the magnitude of the mishap has begun to sink in. With the political repercussions being felt, the ruling coalition has embarked on a belated damage control course.

It was a blot on the fair copy of the ruling BJP-Sena government. Just a day earlier, deputy chief minister Gopinath Munde had gloated during the assembly session over the commendable performance of the government in maintaining law and order in the state. The self-pat on the back was accompanied by an approving thumping of desks. A day later—Friday, July 11, 7.30 am—it was drowned in 50 rounds of bullets ricocheting from .303 rifles of the state police. The biggest crisis in the two-and-a-half-year-old tenure of the government and the worst-ever police firing since the post-Ayodhya communal riots.

"All over Maharashtra our people are agitated. The government is responsible for all this. That's why we have asked the chief minister and the deputy chief minister to resign. We see the hand of communal forces and upper castes in trying to disrupt Dalit progress," thunders Republican Party of India (RPI) leader Ramdas Athavale. Chief Minister Manohar Joshi's olive branch, extended in the form of a judicial inquiry, has been declared unacceptable by the party.

Meanwhile,the Congress is hoping to cash in politically on the widening Dalit-Sena rift which dates back to the renaming of the Marathwada University and the clashes over Ambedkar's controversial book, Riddles of Hinduism.

The party, with Chhagan Bhujbal in the lead, has demanded the dismissal of the government. "This government is one that tries to suppress dissent," alleges Bhujbal. 

However, the government's offer of doubling the ex gratia amount to Rs 2 lakh to the kin of the deceased and Rs 25,000 to the wounded, and reiterations of "sympathy" for the Dalit cause by the chief minister, have met with an icy reception. Adding further fuel have been Bhujbal's other charges against Joshi: of ordering—in the thick of monsoon—the demolition of slums in suburban Kandivli inhabited by minorities and Dalits. "It certainly goes without saying that RPI and Sena relations will be further strained," asserts RPI leader R.S. Gavai. The Congress, along with the Left, the Samajwadi Party and a host of trade union organisations have in turn offered unconditional support for the state bandh scheduled for July 15. 

The July 11 incident is likely to unite the faction-ridden RPI again. In spite of their coming together in December 1995, the party has never been able to overcome infighting, the lack of a single leadership and the vacillating postures adopted by its leaders. "There are disputes," agrees Athavale, "but we are working towards unity, towards functioning under one banner." 

As the casteist fires leave behind  the embers of bitter memories, several questions remain unanswered. Why did the miscreants target this bust in an area dominated largely by Dalits instead of the huge statue at Chembur where the community has a lower concentration? Why did the police not shoot below the knee—one victim had several bullets lodged in her chest—as is prescribed? The prime concern, however, is whether the guilty will ever be brought to book. Even as hopes for solving this riddle of hooliganism are being rekindled, normalcy walks a tightrope.

The spillover of the violence has been expected and inevitable, until it peters down following various political promises and lies.

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