In lawless Maharashtra

Print edition : July 04, 1998

Welcome to this BJP-Shiv Sena-ruled State to find out all about law and order.

WHEN the many fact-finding committees of the Central Government get over their jet lag from visiting so many States at such short notice, they might want to drop in at Maharashtra. Apart from the additional frequent flyer points they will notch up, they might find useful benchmarks against which to test their findings in other States.

If flying fatigue has already set in, they could first spend a while collecting clippings from newspapers available to them right in Delhi. They would, in fact, have to do this. Simply because Mumbai's newspapers often black out very, very important issues, the reason being good, old-fashioned terror. Even that finding - the severe curbs on freedom of press - ought to make them wonder about which country they are in. But more of that later.

If they just looked at the February 14 edition of The Times of India, Delhi, for instance, here is what they would find:

Home Ministry figures showed that Maharashtra was far and away the worst State in the country in terms of custodial deaths. The country as a whole registered an alarming increase in such deaths. A total of 888 in 1997. There were 308 reported in 1996, and 207 in 1995.

The lion's share of this increase was in two States - Maharashtra, ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena combine (the State Home Minister is Gopinath Munde of the BJP), and Uttar Pradesh, also ruled by the BJP. In Maharashtra, the 200 custodial deaths in 1997 represented an increase of 506 per cent in a single year. The 170 such deaths in U.P. meant a 347 per cent increase over the previous year.

Incidentally, the other States that registered significant increases in the number of custodial deaths were Gujarat (50 deaths; 150 per cent rise) and Rajasthan (30 deaths; 66.7 per cent), both BJP-ruled States.

Together, the four BJP-ruled States accounted for over half the total custodial deaths in the country. But within this dismal tally, Maharashtra led the rest.

(Your chances of dying in custody increase exponentially if you are poor. There is an added risk in being a Dalit or belonging to some other minority segment. However, if you are a powerful ganglord, you tend to do well in Maharashtra's jails.)

Later figures also show that the State tops in the number of custodial rapes. Incidentally, Bihar is far behind Maharashtra in both respects.

BUT there are other facts for the committee to find - although, if it lived a week in Mumbai, it might get nervous about going out to find them. No other city has so many gangland killings every day. Even Mumbai's newspapers cannot help but reflect that reality. Here, a large number of species from jewellers and film industry icons to trade union leaders are at high risk.

Not a day passes without reports of extortion killings of one or the other jeweller or real estate developer.

Then there are the 'encounter deaths' which have become the subject of a court-ordered investigation. The state of law and order in Mumbai is best reflected in statements from senior police officials regretting that 'encounter deaths' are slowing down because of meddling by human rights advocates.

But there is more. Even the BJP's delegations (should the party decide to send one to Maharashtra, as it did to West Bengal) will not forget the contract killing of Gulshan Kumar, the music magnate, that shook Mumbai for months (Frontline, August 12, 1997). A BJP delegation could spend unquestionably useful time in the Mumbai North-East Lok Sabha constituency from where Pramod Mahajan was routed in the last election. It might learn that a casteist, trigger-happy police force shot dead 11 unarmed Dalits (Frontline, August 8, 1997). And that it was this law and order situation that cost Mahajan the seat he earlier held.

A leader of the stature of Datta Samant could have his life snuffed out with very little fuss (Frontline, February 7, 1997). So the minor bureaucrats comprising these committees may be forgiven a little healthy fear - a fear that might get enhanced when they learn that the Leader of the Opposition in the State believes that his life is in great danger.

Chhagan Bhujbal's belief is not without basis. Despite being the Leader of the Opposition in the House (equivalent to a Cabinet Minister in rank, in many States) he had to lock himself in a bathroom to save his life. That was when a Shiv Sena mob attacked his residence (under government protection, officially) and ransacked the place while the Mumbai Police watched.

There cannot be too many States where law and order has reached a point where the Leader of the Opposition has to lock himself in the loo to save his life.

Relatives grieve over the bodies of two of the 10 victims of the police firing on Dalits at Ghatkopar in Mumbai on July 11, 1997.-SHERWIN CRASTO/ AP

APART from top leaders like Dr. Samant and Bhujbal, it might be worth looking at those lower down the food chain.

Maharashtra has few rivals when it comes to attacks on journalists and newspaper offices. The Sena-BJP's record in this regard was always bad. The situation worsened after the Sena-BJP came to power.

On December 20, 1996, the office of the Marathi daily Mahanagar in Mumbai was ransacked. It's crime? Publishing a speech by suspended Deputy Municipal Commissioner G.R. Khairnar. His crime? Daring to criticise Bal Thackeray in that speech. Subsequently, the paper's Aurangabad edition was ransacked, its editor's face blackened with charcoal, and equipment worth Rs. 2 lakhs destroyed.

The State Government then registered cases - against the newspaper! For "creating tension and unrest in society" by using words like "anti-national" to describe Mr. Thackeray. That is a term he frequently uses to describe others in his paper, Saamna. But similar cases were not filed against him. This should not surprise anyone. Maharashtra is run by the one politician who explicitly claimed 'credit' for the destruction of the Babri Masjid, Bal Thackeray ("My boys did it"). But it is very difficult to apply the laws of mere mortals to him.

On June 30, 1997, the office of the publication Pratidin in Amravati was ransacked. Those alleged to be behind the attack included the town's BJP Mayor and 16 Sena corporators. On the same day, Pramod Bhagwat, a journalist of the Maharashtra Times was brutally attacked in Thane. Bhagwat, who had written extensively on construction and building rackets in Thane, named Sena leader Anand Dighe in a first information report (FIR). Nothing happened.

On July 26 the same year, it was the turn of the Marathi daily newspaper Deshonatti in Akola. Supporters of Minister of State for Irrigation Gulabrao Gawande led the attack on the paper's office.

WHAT does the press do when those in Government are directly involved in the attacks?

The crunch came last year when an editorial in Thackeray's Saamna virtually called for the head of Loksatta editor Arun Tikekar. In one of the most shameful displays of cowardice, most of Mumbai's newspapers remained silent, preferring not to report the issue. Loksatta is part of the Indian Express Group. Yet, the Express itself remained silent for a month despite the threat to its editor.

It looked ridiculous. The Express building was swarming with policemen sent by the Chief Minister and Home Minister (no less) to protect Tikekar from Sainiks responding to a call by Thackeray to punish him! And none of this was reported in The Indian Express. The Times of India, too, remained silent.

The fact-finders might realise that this is at least one reason why attacks on individuals identified by the Sena-BJP as enemies have been stepped up. The attack on M.F. Husain's house, the intimidation of other artists, the disruption of Ghulam Ali's concert, the cancellation of squash champion Jansher Khan's visit to India...

THAT then, is a small part of the situation in Maharashtra: the shooting of unarmed Dalits; record-breaking numbers of people dying in custody; highest number of custodial rapes; largest numbers of gangland killings; open operation of powerful mafias; possibly the worst part of the country for attacks on journalists and newspaper offices; assassinations of trade union leaders; attempts on the lives of top political leaders. Unquestionably, the period under BJP-Sena rule has been disastrous for Maharashtra.

On the whole, though, despite Maharashtra being much worse off than many, many other States in India, the fact-finding committee might notice another thing: that people mostly prefer to deal with these problems through their own exercise of their democratic rights and not with Article 356. As they did in the last parliamentary polls when they thrashed the Sena-BJP and humbled Pramod Mahajan.

But the committee could collect all this useful information and hand it over to the Union Home Minister. As an accused in a criminal case himself (one of the biggest ever to rock this country after Independence), he must surely have an interesting perspective on law and order in Maharashtra.

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