The Shiv Sena has always been known to be a can-do party, not bothering with details such as laws and regulations. The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), being its off-shoot, is the can-do-better party. And as the two flex their muscles, the result is silence enforced by fear.
Even as Palghar is beginning to recover from the bizarre strike the Shiv Sena called in support of police officers who were suspended after they overzealously arrested Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Srinivasan, two young women who politely expressed their displeasure over the “voluntary” closure in Mumbai and its surroundings following Bal Thackeray’s funeral, comes the new development: MNS activists reportedly took a teenager, Sunil Vishwakarma, to the police station, seeking his arrest because he criticized MNS leader Raj Thackeray. The Palghar police officers are understandably in a quandary: If they do arrest the teenager, they risk being transferred; if they don’t, the MNS is capable of taking the law in its hands.
We have come to such a pass because successive administrations have become the arms of politicians and parties, and not of the law. The politicians who dream up Draconian laws (such as the far-reaching section 66A of the Information Technology Act) which deals with the sending of “offensive” or “false” messages, do so thinking that the law will be administered wisely and judiciously. And yet, the interpreters, administrators, and enforcers of such laws have shown repeatedly their incapability to act judiciously. Those out of favour with the politicians temporarily in power, those without connections, those who are vulnerable, and those who raise inconvenient questions, are the ones to be locked up and intimidated. When they get released, the town is brought to a standstill, and the judicial officers who grant bail are then transferred for doing their job properly. This isn’t a comedy of errors; rather this is a tragedy of disasters. The travesty is that politicians who have used megaphones to hurl hurtful language at various groups, including religious minorities, have rarely been charged, prosecuted, or punished—one such worthy might even get a memorial in one of the few open spaces left in mid-town Mumbai—and those who object to acquiescence with such glorification are instead threatened, if not arrested.
To set it right, first the state has to assert itself as the protector of rights: not the right of the offended, but the right of the one who expresses his or her views, even if that view is “wrong”. The state should side with the one who wants to speak, informing the others they aren’t obliged to listen. To do that, next, it will become essential to rewrite those laws, which allow busybodies to go and complain to the state that they are offended. It means doing away with section 153A of the criminal law. It also means that if demonstrators turn violent against someone who has expressed his or her views, charge those demonstrators. Use the law fully against them. Punish the ones breaking the law, not the ones exercising rights guaranteed under the law.
The rot runs deep, and it has gone on too long. The administration is unlikely to act; it will wait for directions from political masters. That, in the odd world we inhabit, means Raj Thackeray. He should tell his supporters that he is a strong man; the words of a teenager can’t hurt him. That way, he can start a virtuous competition with his cousin Uddhav Thackeray. And lift the city and its environs from the abyss.
Yes, one can dream.