Demagogue Dies Without Facing Justice, But Girl Arrested for Clicking ‘Like’ on Facebook
I was at a dinner table full of journalists over the weekend, with the conversation moving from Gaza to Syria to East Asia. Late into the night, I noted that one of the vilest figures in my lifetime had died this week – without ever facing justice.
Nobody at the table knew what I was talking about.
“Bal Thackeray - head of the Bombay-based, right-wing Shiv Sena party,” I explained.
‘Ah yes, the guy from India who died,’ was all they could muster.
“You know of course this is the guy who renamed and forever changed Bombay city, who directed a well-organized campaign of violence against the city’s Muslims, resulting in the deaths of nearly a thousand people during the 1992-1993 riots - yeah?” I asked.
‘Really?’ A table full of flabbergasted faces confronted me.
When it comes to India, the script tends to be so polished – world’s largest democracy, rising power, that sort of thing – that even fairly well-informed people across the globe have little idea about the uglier realities in modern India.
For nearly two decades, at dinner tables, bars, coffee shops and shishya stalls on different continents, I have tried to present the hidden script – with little success.
Sometimes in this business, when you have a complicated story to tell, you try to make it accessible for an international audience by putting a human face to complex issues. I now realize I could have made it a lot easier if I just relayed the yarn about the exploits of a certain Bal Thackeray.
A Chilling Legacy Lives On
In life and in death, Bal Thackeray was – and continues to be – the human face of everything that has gone horribly wrong with the dream of a pluralistic, tolerant, cosmopolitan and accountable India.
Right now, as we speak, the guy is stone, cold dead. Yet his chilling legacy lives on – just ask Shaheen Dhada, a 21-year-old Bombay resident, and her friend, Ruhi Shrinivasan.
Dhada was arrested early Monday for posting a comment on Facebook criticizing the shutdown of Bombay, India’s financial capital, over the weekend, following Thackeray's death. Shrinivasan was held for – get this - clicking the “like” button.
Here’s the post according to Indian media reports: "People like Bal Thackeray are born and die daily and one should not observe a bandh for that,” she wrote. Bandh is the Hindi word for shutdown.
Notice the 92-character post does not explicitly criticize Thackeray – it merely questions the complete shutdown of the Indian financial capital over the weekend.
According to the police, Dhada and Shrinivasan were arrested following a complaint filed by a local Shiv Sena activist accusing the girls of making “statements creating or promoting enmity” and inciting violence – charges their lawyer denies.
Following a court hearing Monday afternoon, the girls were released on bail. Dhada has since taken down the post and has apparently apologized for it – even though she doesn’t need to.
But that did not stop angry Shiv Sena activists from vandalizing a hospital run by one of her relatives, according to Indian media reports.
Nightmare in the Indian City of Dreams
This is how it works in India’s city of dreams, the birthplace of Bollywood, the uber polis of the world's largest democracy.
This is how Thackeray – or “Balasaheb” as he’s known by his fawning, worshipful, often thuggish supporters – has operated in life and in death.
Violence, or the fear of violence, is what enabled a one-time newspaper cartoonist to rise to xenophobic demagogue stature, publicly threaten various groups (especially Indian Muslims), stoke deadly riots, proclaim his admiration for Hitler, emulate his hero’s fascist techniques of wielding political violence – and get away with it.
Thackeray died at 86 of natural causes having never faced justice – not for lack of proof, but because the Indian state was afraid of the consequences of putting a man like him in jail.
Here’s what the official report on the 1992-1993 Bombay riots, which killed around 900 people, had to say about justice – or the lack thereof – following the city’s worst massacres.
“Even after it became apparent that the leaders of the Shiv Sena were active in stoking the fire of the communal riots, the police dragged their feet on the facile and exaggerated assumption that if such leaders were arrested the communal situation would further flare up, or…’Bombay would burn.’”
Notice how a strongman-politician who incited violence, dies without ever facing justice. But one girl is arrested for posting a Facebook comment criticizing the city’s shutdown following his death and her friend is detained for clicking “like” – nice.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What It Means to Me
It was fear, not respect, that drove India's commerical hub into an involuntary bandh mode. As shopkeepers, vendors, taxi drivers, theater owners and businessmen across the city well know, if the Shiv Sena decides to go on a mass strike, you shutdown shop – or you will be beaten up and/or your property destroyed. Simple.
The truly insidious part though is not just the Shiv Sena’s ugly politics and the even uglier political tools of fear, blackmail and protection rackets they wield in India’s wealthiest city.
It’s the extent to which the city’s – even the nation’s – elites have groveled and kowtowed to the Don Corleone of Bombay.
At Thackeray’s funeral service on Sunday, the lineup of national political figures, Bollywood stars, starlets, businessmen and industrialists was impressive.
If they had any questions about Thackeray’s culpability in an array of crimes, they did not say.
The media coverage – nationwide live coverage of the final rites of a very local political figure – was also notably lacking in balance.
To be fair, there were a number of dissenting voices of ordinary Indians – on Facebook among other platforms.
In a letter to the chief minister of Maharashtra, Justice Katju, chairman of the Press Council of India and former Supreme Court judge, protested the arrests of the two girls over a Facebook post.
“To my mind, it is absurd to say that protesting against a bandh hurts religious sentiments,” said Justice Katju, before adding that the Indian Constitution guarantees free speech and warning that “this arrest itself appears to be a criminal act”.
A number of Facebook users were quick to support the girls with several people urging their friends to cut and paste the infamous Facebook quote on their walls.
A couple of folks who had posted critical posts wondered if half the city would end up in jail.
“There’s a loud pounding at my door,” joked a well-known journalist who had spent the weekend criticizing Bombay’s Dear Leader on a variety of news channels.
Shortly after I heard the news of Thackeray’s death on Saturday evening, I posted the following comment on Facebook: “Good riddance – the end of one of the vilest figures of my lifetime. A minute’s silence for the victims of his criminal rhetoric - including Bombay, a city he renamed and irrevocably changed, and the state that afforded him a lifetime without facing justice.”
But then I’m oceans away from India’s city of dreams and I don’t have to fear a knock on my door - so I can click "like" as and when I like.