Lifestyle & Belief

India: Riot politics and free speech? Punish the cops and praise the demagogues


Supporters of India's Maharashtra NavNirman Sena Party attend a protest rally against the state government and police authorities in Mumbai on August 21, 2012. The rally was organised against the Maharashtra state's home minister and the commissioner of police for their handling of the violence on August 11 which killed 2 people in India's financial capital Mumbai.



Mumbai's top cop was made the scapegoat for the recent attacks on migrants from India's northeast, though he'd received praise from many quarters for preventing the violence from spiraling out of control. But the biggest irony is that his ouster comes at the insistence of one of the city-state's most abrasive, anti-migrant politicians.

Mumbai Police Commissioner Arup Patnaik was blamed for the riots, transferred and given a "promotion" to become managing director of Maharashtra Security Corporation (MSSC), the Hindustan Times reported Thursday. 

Describing the transfer as "routine administrative process", Patil said the file in connection with Patnaik's transfer was first moved by the state DG office on July 6, the paper said.

But the transfer comes too swiftly after calls for Patnaik's head for that to be believed. And it sends a disturbing message that Patnaik is taking the hit for anti-migrant violence, when his loudest critic was Raj Thackeray of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena -- a political party with a vicious anti-migrant stance. The message, as Indian politicians pressure Twitter and other social networking sites to censor their content to prevent the kind of rumor mongering that spurred the flight of some 30,000 northeasterners from Indian cities last week?

You can be as offensive and inflammatory as you want, as long as you're a member of one of India's woefully badly behaved political parties, and as long as you don't do it on the internet.

According to columnist B. Raman (and many others), Patnaik deserves credit for containing the riots -- not blame for letting them occur in the first place. 

"Patnaik deserves credit for bringing the situation quickly under control and for preventing over-reaction by his force in the face of the rampaging mobs," Raman, a former member of the Indian Police Service, writes for "Not infrequently, situations get out of control not because of the violent mobs, but because of over-reaction by the police in dealing with the mobs and disproportionate use of force by the police."  

According to the Financial Express, Patnaik's men controlled the rioting within 30 minutes without firing into the crowd, though two people were killed and more than 50 injured.

But even if we concede that others may be correct that Patnaik treated the mob too softly, and therefore allowed them to engage in widespread vandalism, it's ludicrous that he's facing the axe (okay, in the form of a "promotion"), while the state government and the rest of India continues to pretend not to hear or see Thackeray and others like him when they vandalize movie theaters, beat up young couples for breaching some arbitrary notion of morality, or encourage bigotry against outsiders.

Not only has he faced criminal charges related to violent acts committed during his anti-migrant agitations, he's openly insisted that violence deserves its proper place in politics -- using language that would seem to justify this month's "Muslim riots" in Mumbai as easily as the anti-migrant "Marathi riots" of his own goons.

"Isn't the outbreak of spontaneous outrage in a people's movement understood?" he wrote in a letter to the Indian Express. "Can anyone avoid the violence or damage to property even if it does not bring happiness? Wasn't Gandhiji forced to withdraw his agitation when a chowkie was burnt at Chauri Chaura?"