On the night of March 18, a group of youngsters attacked the Trombay police station in suburban Mumbai with glass bottles and paver blocks, injuring 15 policemen. The mob also set a police jeep on fire. The police resorted to a lathi charge and fired plastic bullets at the mob, injuring two.

The trigger for the violence was an image posted on Facebook by a person identified as Arvind Chinwa that denigrated the Kaabah, the holiest shrine of Muslims, which lies in Mecca. Chinwa has been arrested as have 29 others accused of the attack, who have been charged with attempt to murder. Three minors have been sent to a juvenile home.

Why did the situation get out of hand?

Cheetah Camp is a sprawling Muslim-dominated slum in northeastern Mumbai, infamous for its high school drop out rate and for widespread drug abuse. It falls in M-East ward – the poorest ward of the city’s municipal corporation. It became a tinderbox last week due to irresponsible and immature political leaders on one side, and a clueless police force on the other.

Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party swept the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls, Facebook and WhatsApp have been inundated with high-pitched communal messages. Yet, the police in this area, which is classified as sensitive, came to know about Chinwa’s offensive Facebook post only late on Saturday night, after it was brought to their notice by aides of Shahnawaz Shaikh, the newly-elected All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen municipal corporator from the area. Shaikh is also under arrest.

Arresting Chinwa and filing a First Information Report against him took over an hour-and-a-half, which is fairly routine given the way police stations work. However, for the restive, swelling crowd of youngsters outside the police station, this was too long.

“The police could have just called us,” said Abul Hasan, who runs a school down the road from the police station. “A similar volatile situation had arisen in 2004, and the then inspector in charge of law and order had asked some of us to come and address the crowd over the police wireless system. That had worked.”

Qazi Qari, the Imam of the nearby masjid, is furious at the behaviour of the local youth.

“If their religious feelings were hurt by the Facebook post, they should have met responsible people in masjids,” said Qari. “We could have gone to the police and handled the matter. What they did was wrong.”

But rather than approach religious leaders, the youth chose to approach Shahnawaz Shaikh, a 33-year-old cable operator who surprised everyone when he defeated all the older parties active in the area in the recently-concluded Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation elections.

Shaikh’s family maintains that he did not go to the police station, but sent his aide Raja Edinbaro instead. However, senior police inspector Annasaheb Sonur, who has since been transferred, insisted that Shaikh was present outside the police station even though he admitted that he did not see him himself.

According to Cheetah Camp residents who were unwilling to be identified, the corporator was indeed outside the police station to begin with. Once the First Information Report was filed, he displayed it to the mob. But by then, the youngsters were too worked up to be placated by a piece of paper. Abusing Shaikh, they demanded that the police hand over Chinwa to them, and started turning violent. That is when Shaikh and his aides are reported to have disappeared, leaving the outnumbered local police to handle the frenzied mob. By the time the State Reserve Police was called in, a police jeep had been burnt.

(Photo credit: Hindustan Times).

Déjà vu

The incident is reminiscent of the Azad Maidan riot in South Mumbai in August 2012. There, a section of a rally called by religious leaders to condemn violence against Muslims in Myanmar and Assam, turned on the police and the media as rally organisers watched helplessly. But then Mumbai police commissioner Arup Patnaik took the stage and contained the situation. However, his restraint in handling the mob earned him a punishment posting which lasted till his retirement.

As in Azad Maidan, in Cheetah Camp too, community leaders did nothing.

“We have enough political leaders,” said social worker Babloobhai. “But when they saw the AIMIM [All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen] taking the lead, they decided to stay away, thinking: ‘You chose this Hyderabad party over us, now let it deal with the situation.’”

The MIM, led by MP Asaduddin Owaisi, is based in Hyderabad. It won two seats in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation last month, the first time the party contested the civic polls in Mumbai.

Unfortunately, there was no Arup Patnaik to handle the situation this time.

The outcome of the Cheetah Camp incident, therefore, gives one a sense of déjà vu. As happened after the Azad Maidan riot, resentment has overpowered remorse among most Muslims in the area. Everyone condemns the violence, but their pressing concern is the release of innocents and an end to what they term police “high-handedness”.

Abdul Shaikh is among those trying to get his son released. He and his wife insist that the boy had been at home through Saturday night, yet the police took him away the next morning. The father is afraid that the arrest and the charge may destroy his son’s future.

A 15-year-old bakery in the area has had to stop production because its workers, who were picked up from the bakery the morning after the incident and released in the evening, have left for their hometowns. Three are still in custody.

“They are workers from Delhi who sleep on the premises,” said the bakery owner who was unwilling to be identified. “Even a street brawl frightens them. Besides, the bakery works night shifts too. There’s no way they were involved.”

What troubles residents also is the crackdown on normal life. Roadside hawkers are allegedly being driven away even during the day, and shops that would remain open till late night are being made to shut by 10 pm even though, residents point out, liquor shops and bars are allowed to stay open till late.

The police deny these allegations.

“We are insisting that shops follow the timings written on their licences,” the senior police inspector told this reporter. “And we are arresting only those caught in the violence by CCTV cameras or those named by the boys in our custody.”

But is it not possible that the youngsters in the custody of policemen furious at having been attacked would blurt out any name?

‘Mumbai is not Hyderabad’

The crackdown has had another grave fallout in an area afflicted by high dropout rates. It has affected the preparations of students for the crucial ongoing Secondary School Certificate exams. “Normally, my staff would coach them till 10 pm,” said a principal. “But now, it is too risky for them to be found outside that late, so I’m sending them home at 8.30 pm.”

The incident throws up two concerns. After the Azad Maidan riot, community leaders had vowed to counsel youngsters from Muslim ghettos about the serious consequences of attacking the police. Obviously, nothing of the sort has been done at Cheetah Camp.

The second concern is the fallout of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen’s entry into Mumbai. “Mumbai is not Hyderabad,” many worried Muslims had said, after seeing the party’s volatile campaign for the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation polls in February. Their worry has proved valid.

MIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi addresses a rally in Mumbai in 2014. (Photo credit: IANS).

Cheetah Camp had seen one episode of unprovoked police brutality in the 1984 Bhiwandi-Thane-Bombay riots, but has since remained peaceful. “We played cricket on the streets in 1992-’93, when the entire city and even neighbouring Govandi was burning,” recalled the school principal.

But during the 2014 Assembly elections, and again since January this year, the atmosphere was communalised by the speeches of MIM leaders, say residents.

On February 9, at an MIM rally held in the run up to the municipal polls, speaker after speaker, using religious terminology, made references to “green flags uprooting saffron flags”, and recounted the injustices done to Muslims in Malegaon and Pune in Maharashtra and Dadri in Uttar Pradesh. This reporter received calls a few days after the rally from residents who said that they were working overtime to calm down young Muslims roaming around the area spouting inflammatory slogans.

The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen’s entire civic election campaign was about “them” and “us”. It exhorted Muslims to shed their fears and take on the system, under the party banner of course. That perhaps explains why youngsters offended by Chinwa’s post approached Shahnazwaz Shaikh and not their Ulema. The MIM corporator, who has two cases against him, of rioting and causing hurt by dangerous weapons, was seen as both religious and political leader.

The MIM effect

Given the Hyderabad-based party’s campaign, surely the local police should have been more alert? But the senior police inspector discounted any link between the campaign and the violent incident. Obviously, nothing’s changed among the city’s police force. Deposing before the BN Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry into the 1992-’93 Mumbai riots, policemen had denied any link between the charged communal atmosphere created by the Ayodhya campaign, and the riots that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

“It is the police we turn to when we are in trouble,” said Babloobhai. “Those boys were wrong in attacking them. But can’t the police show some generosity in dealing with them? Such a gesture will ensure that these boys never misbehave again.”

But the police are not exactly known for showing generosity to those who attack them. That, coupled with the lingering effects of the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen’s incendiary campaign in the city, and the current triumphant Hindutva mood across the country, makes one fear that the Muslims of Cheetah Camp are in for a long haul.