April 05, 2020
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The Treaty Of Bombay..

By dithering over the the Indo-Pak series, the government may have paid too high a price

The Treaty Of Bombay..
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" We cannot trust them, they are goons. There should be no let-up on security measures even though they have called off their protest. This must be conveyed to the home minister. "
- An intelligence official, minutes after Thackeray suspended the Sena's agitation against the Pakistan cricket team.

IN the end, it was an unholy deal. In the face of the belligerence displayed by Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, the BJP government at the Centre displayed a rare degree of ineptitude. And when it came to reining in the Sena pramukh, it was less of a case of the state's will being imposed than a trade-off.

The Union government may have won some respite with Thackeray calling off his party's plans to scuttle the Pakistan cricket tour. But for backing down, the Sena pramukh also extracted a significant promise from home minister L.K. Advani - that there would be no threat to his position or his party in Maharashtra.

But in the 30 minutes the two spent in a suite in Mumbai's Centaur Hotel, Advani also held out the government's threat. The exchange was straight and simple. Vajpayee's no-frills missive sketched out the results if Thackeray did not come to heel:

  • The Centre would arrest him under the National Security Act.
  • The state government would be dismissed and President's rule imposed. (This, notwithstanding the possibility of handing over the intiative to the Congress by pulling out of the alliance.)
  • Cases lodged against Thackeray would be revived.

    Thackeray yielded. "This was the minimum political threat which was held out and he threw in the towel," says a senior home ministry official. Lifting his ban for a year against Pakistan was an honourable discharge which carried little relevance.

    But it's little wonder that Thackeray yielded. Some of the cases against the Shiv Sena chief could be politically debilitating if pursued actively. Thirteen cases were lodged against him for his inflammatory writings in Saamna, the Sena mouthpiece, during the communal riots which gripped the state in 1993. While the state government withdrew the cases, the police are yet to close the files. His incitement during the Mumbai riots, as fleshed out in the Srikrishna Commission report, is another case that if taken to its logical conclusion could have serious implications for him. Then there is the Election Commission recommendation on the issue of denial of the right of franchise to Thackeray in a case registered against him in the Vile Parle assembly by-election in 1987, where he was held guilty for making inflammatory speeches.

    The carrot held out for a tactical retreat was a 'go slow' on the cases against him. He was also promised better communication with the BJP leadership, which had hitherto ignored him, leading to his marginalisation. There were also hints of accommodation in the cabinet if space permitted.

    The leader of the Opposition in the state, Chhagan Bhujbal, was succint on the Sena's hasty withdrawal: Spare the rod and you spoil Thackeray. Scold him and he retreats. But despite the statement announcing the suspension of the Sena's resistance to the tour, officials are of the view that there is no room for complacency. Within a couple of hours of Thackeray deciding to call off the Shiv Sena's agitation against the cricket tour, the task force in the home ministry assembled in North Block to ensure that security was beefed up. Reports of digging up a cricket pitch in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh - where an Indo-Pak women cricket series is slated to be held early next month - filtered in, lending credence to the view that security could simply not afford to be lax.

    But why did the government let matters drift till they reached such a stage? More importantly, why did it fail to act when it was aware that trouble was in the air and that the Shiv Sena could not be treated as pushovers? For, the Centre had been forewarned.

    The Intelligence Bureau (IB) maintains that it had sent a detailed report of possible damage to cricket pitches around the country once the Sena's call to derail the tour gained stridency. The report was sent on December 24 to the home ministry, almost a fortnight before the vandals dug up the Kotla pitch.

    In hindsight, it is clear that the ministry acted in a clerical and routine fashion to the IB report. The home ministry passed it on to Delhi police commissioner V.N. Singh, who in turn handed it to the deputy commissioner of the area. Instead of issuing clear instructions, they played pass-the-buck - a game bureaucrats know only too well. And when the miscreants landed up at the Kotla pitch, after having called television camera crews and other media representatives, precious little was done to stop them, with just three policemen and four guards of the Delhi and District Cricket Association stationed there that night.

    Sources also maintain that in the same IB report, directions were given to protect other cricket installations. The Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) office was not specifically mentioned but it is obvious that efforts should have been made to protect such an important place, says an official. Once again, a self-assured political class twiddled its thumbs.

    The ransacking of the BCCI office last week was ample testimony to the sheer callousness and indifference of the authorities. The attack was actually planned a day earlier, with reporters from Saamna present at Brabourne stadium on Sunday to record the event. It was postponed for two reasons: it would not get much coverage on a holiday and the Sainiks felt they could derive more political mileage the next day as Advani was scheduled to inaugurate a flyover at the other end of town.

    That it was a planned attack with the full consent of the state was borne out by events following the plunder. Shiv Sainiks were masquerading as plainclothes policemen in the customary boots and safari suits even as Bhujbal surveyed the damage in the complex an hour later. The city police had also by then cleared up the debris and shattered glass. Damaged trophies were lined up on a table and photographers were let in only after this and that too under Bhujbal's insistence. But it was Gopinath Munde, the deputy chief minister and state home minister, who gave the slip by a careless comment: This attack was an open secret.

    A conspiracy then to attack one of the country's prestigious installations, housing the nation's famed cricketing laurels, spurred the home ministry to react. However, the damage had been done and the political leadership in Delhi discredited for not acting promptly enough. A planned method was needed to quell the Sena and it was Advani's airdash to hammer out the Treaty of Mumbai which then helped ameliorate the situation.

    But the government is still not taking any chances with the Sena, which has a history of reneging on its promises. A year back, Thackeray assured Pakistani high commissioner Ashraf Qazi that he didn't mind Indo-Pak matches being played in the country, even Mumbai, only to later retract. He assured that no harm would befall ghazal singer Ghulam Ali, but let the Sainiks loose on the hotel where he was residing. On several occasions earlier, he has promised that attacks on the press would stop and journalists protected. But the assaults have been unrelenting. He is unpredictable and this is what worries us (security forces) and we will act as if he has said nothing, says an official.

    Also causing worry was the apparent lack of a command chain in the Sena. There is no hierarchy in this party, no central command with small groups operating on their own. They have a mind and plans of their own, says a senior ministry official. Another official, overseeing security arrangements in Delhi and Chennai, the two Test venues, says: Remember what happened in Ayodhya in 1992, when the government allowed a 'symbolic kar seva? We do not want something like that being enacted here.

    This 'tiger' may have been tamed in his lair but there are other determined cubs moving around ominously who have no direction or lineage, is how a home ministry official explains the situation. Otherwise, he asks, how does one explain the attempted self-immolation by an activist of the Hindu Munnani in Tamil Nadu who had no links with the Shiv Sena?

    It is for this reason that security forces have been put on high alert. One small incident, however trivial, they feel, would be enough to besmirch the tour and heap embarassment on the BJP government. The fencing has been raised at all stadia where matches are to be played to prevent the throwing of missiles or slippers, routes sanitised and security personnel positioned round-the-clock at venues and hotels.

    The task force headed by special secretary (internal security), Nikhil Kumar, has also undertaken measures like screening for Muslims who may have been recruited by the Sena to foment trouble, as has been done on earlier occasions. A task force member, while confident of meeting this end - "We have our ways of checking them" - is not so sanguine about the expected mobilisation from Mumbai to Delhi through trains and buses for the second match. That may be a trouble spot and we're taking all precautions, he admits.

    But there's a moral to the whole story: the sooner you call Thackeray's bluff, the faster he retreats. And the more delayed the action, the higher the price to pay - as the BJP found out.

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