A death and a riot

Print edition : September 15, 2001

Shiv Sainiks run amok and destroy a hospital in Thane after their party's local leader Anand Dighe's sudden demise.

ON August 26, the Shiv Sena outdid itself when its activists reduced to rubble the 200-bed Sunitidevi Singhania Hospital in Thane, near Mumbai, after their leader Anand Dighe, who was being treated for a fratured leg, died. In three hours of mayhem, they torched the building and smashed ambulances, medical equipment and everything else in sight. Patients, doctors and nurses were sent scurrying for cover. A six-month-old child with a respiratory problem and a 65-year-old man suffering from a kidney ailment died after their life-support machines were wrecked.

At Sunitidevi Singhania Hospital. Was Dighe's popularity so great that it triggered this violence, or is the Sena finding it difficult to control forces which it had trained and unleashed?-VIVEK BENDRE

The police pleaded helplessness. "This was a sudden madness. Their loved one had died. It was a spontaneous reaction," Thane Police Commissioner S.M. Shangari told Frontline. Shangari, who is under fire for the force's inefficiency, defended his position saying, "It happened during the time of Ganesh Chaturthi and we did not have the entire police strength. Many men were on duty in different parts of the city."

He claimed that besides Shiv Sainiks, hundreds of Thane's citizens and mediapersons were mixed up in the crowd. "We did not want to shoot at innocent people. Had the police opened fire, causing deaths, it would have led to a chain reaction of riots in Mumbai." A lathi-charge, he said, would have proved ineffective as the police were vastly outnumbered. Asked why tear-gas shells were not fired, Shangari claimed that the wind was in the opposite direction and therefore tear gas would have been ineffective.

But the Shiv Sena's terror tactics seem to be riding on a tail wind. Last month its activists attacked a Catholic priest in Thane, who, they claimed, had made objectionable remarks. The month before that they roughed up a college principal for not granting admission to some candidates. Each time an incident occurred, the police said they were unprepared or did not anticipate the violence.

On August 26, the violence began a little after 10-30 p.m. when Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray announced Dighe's death to a crowd of more than 1,500 people outside the hospital. Dighe, who had fashioned himself on the lines of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, ruled from Thane, a Sena stronghold. He had been admitted to the Sunitidevi Singhania Hospital the previous day after he was injured in a car accident; a fracture on his right leg needed surgery. As Dighe was a heavy smoker and a heart patient, various tests were done and the surgery was scheduled for the morning of August 26.

Doctors said the two-hour procedure was successful. According to the attendants of the hospital, Dighe was cheerful throughout the day. A little after 6-30 p.m. he suffered a massive heart attack and at 8-30 p.m. the doctors pronounced him dead. But they withheld the news in order to give the police time to make arrangements for controlling the crowd that had gathered outside the hospital. However, Shangari could not be contacted until 9 p.m.

After Uddhav Thackeray broke the news of Dighe's death the air was thick with rumours of medical negligence. As the crowd surged through the gates, even the few Sena leaders who made feeble attempts to stop the Sainiks beat a retreat. For the next three hours the mob went on the rampage. After destroying a blood bank, it set the building ablaze and would not let in the fire engine that arrived. The police reportedly looked on helplessly. The Rapid Action Force arrived two hours after the violence began, and by then the rampaging mob had spilled into the streets. The violence continued until noon on Monday. Cars were smashed or burnt, shops were stoned, and people were beaten in some localities.

"The mob fury in Thane was unprecedented," said Deputy Chief Minister and Home Minister Chaggan Bhujbal. "It was unexpected that Dighe, who was reported to be in good health, would pass away so suddenly. Moreover, the police did not anticipate that the Sainiks would destroy the hospital where their leader was being treated." Bhujbal announced a probe into the entire incident by the Additional Chief Secretary. A Shiv Sena shakha pramukh (branch head) was among the 36 persons arrested.

THE Sunitidevi Singhania Hospital is owned by industrialist Vijaypat Singhania, who heads the J.K. group of industries. It would take more than three months to restore the hospital to some manner of normalcy, he said and demanded an apology from Bal Thackeray.

While the Sena has tendered an apology, it vehemently denied accusations of orchestrating the mob. "Dighe was loved by thousands of people in Thane. Not all belonged to the Sena. This was an emotional reaction by his following," Sena leader Subash Desai told Frontline. "You cannot corner, blame and malign the Sena like this." Reacting to Singhania's demand that the Sena must pay for all the destruction, Desai asked: "Does he not realise that he has lost only material things. He can replace a broken glass but who can replace Anand Dighe?"

Dighe's popularity was best reflected in the fact that thousands of people came to pay their last respects in spite of a bandh that day in Thane. During the three decades that he was with the Sena, Dighe managed to attract a huge and loyal following. He was known to hold a durbar every evening at his Tembi Naka residence. Here he settled disputes on issues ranging from real estate to employment. Such was his power that no government official or police officer dared cross his path.

Dighe built his base at a time when political life was becoming increasingly criminalised. Using unorthodox methods, he was able to blend religion, politics and social work to virtually rule over Thane district and neighbouring rural areas. He successfully played the Hinduvta card and his supporters even bestowed on him the title 'Dharma Veer'. He was responsible for beating the Bharatiya Janata Party in Thane and securing the Lok Sabha seat for the Sena. The party has ruled the Municipal Corporation for four terms largely owing to Dighe's clout.

In 1989 he came into the limelight following the murder of Sena corporator Shridhar Khopkar, who allegedly cross-voted against the Shiv Sena in the Thane mayoral election. Dighe was directly linked to the murder. He was detained by the police but released later. All that the incident did was to put the fear of Dighe in partymen.

His brazen clout reached a point where he was even able to stand up to Bal Thackeray. The party did not touch him, for the Sena owed its victory in Thane to him. Dighe, however, never contested an election or aspired for any post. He had become the de facto Bal Thackeray of Thane.

Although several senior leaders attended the funeral, Bal Thackeray was conspicuous by his absence. The Sena said he had left to attend the funeral but was told by the police to stay away for security reasons. Thackeray's absence might have been deliberate, said a politician. "The Sena chief may have created him, but he could no longer rein him in."

In fact, the Shiv Sena is smarting under the impact of the episode. Was Dighe's popularity so great that it triggered this violence, or is the Sena finding it difficult to control forces which it had trained and unleashed? While the Sena is known for its strong-arm tactics, and could justifiably be blamed for such occurrences, it seems uncharacteristically embarrassed by the Singhania Hospital incident.

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