The fact that two young women can be arrested, one for a having an opinion and the other for liking that opinion on the social media site Facebook demonstrates how fragile the Indian concept of democracy can be at times. On Sunday, Shaheen Dhada made a comment about how death is a constant and a city cannot be brought to a standstill by one man’s death. She did not name the late Shiv Sena supreme Bal Thackeray, although the connection was evident. A friend of hers, Rini Srinivasan, clicked on the “like” option below Dhada’s post.
Following a complaint by the local Shiv Sena leader Bhushan Sankhe, the Palghar police arrested the two girls on Monday using sections of the Information Technology Act and the Indian Penal Code. The police initially applied Section 295a, which has to do with hurting religious sentiments then perhaps realised that the Shiv Sena is not technically a religion. So they switched to 505(2), which deals with promoting enmity between classes, including religion, race, caste, community and more. I am attributing thought to the Palghar police but that is a matter which needs thorough examination.
So enraged were the local Shiv Sainiks by this comment that apart from getting the girls arrested, they also vandalised a clinic belonging to the girl’s uncle, destroying equipment and cutting saline drips attached to patients. The police did not arrest any of those responsible for the damage until Tuesday, after the public outcry.
The Maharashtra police clearly needs a little crash course in the law, especially after they so cleverly applied sedition charges on cartoonist Aseem Trivedi only recently. They also need to be re-conditioned — this is a pipe dream — to understand that they do not exist to serve local political netas and bigger political bosses. Perhaps we need to stop supplying policemen for security detail so that they don’t get confused as to their purpose.
There is the other matter of the Shiv Sena. In spite of the fear that shut Mumbai down twice last week — first, when the news broke that Bal Thackeray was very ill on Wednesday and then when he did pass away on Saturday — everyone was very pleasantly surprised at how peacefully the massive funeral procession moved through the city. For a party that was so adept at violent protests, you felt the depth of the pain at the loss of their beloved leader. Several senior leaders, starting with Uddhav Thackeray, appealed again and again for peace.
The Palghar section of the Sena however acted true to type. It fell back on the tactics of violence and intimidation which the Shiv Sena thrived on. Unlike the lakhs of followers who were mourning in Mumbai, these Sainiks could not follow — or did not understand? — that call for peace. They did what they had learnt, not what they had been told to do.
Thackeray and the Sena used a very corrosive and toxic brand of politics, one that terrorised Bombay and then Mumbai for four decades. The Palghar incident emphasises core Shiv Sena tactics. The Palghar Sainiks unfortunately for them could not even hold themselves back long enough to give their leader a dignified farewell.
There are three problems with Indian democracy staring at us in the face here: curbs on freedom of expression like badly framed sections of the Information Technology Act, the moral degradation and incompetence of the police and the politics of violence which we have come to take for granted.
We are prone to take transgressions in our stride and move on to the next scandal. But we surely ignore cases like this at our own peril. Outrage on the social media is fine but it is not enough. Somewhere, we need to force elected representatives and salaried government employees to do their jobs. Or at the very least, understand them. Tall order, eh?
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona