Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Assam riots protesters go on rampage, hold Mumbai hostage

Two persons died and 53 people, 45 of them policemen, were injured as south Mumbai witnessed unbridled mob vandalism for about an hour after a section of participants in a rally by Muslim organisations went berserk. The mob torched one police van and one television channel's vehicle besides damaging six other police vehicles, 49 BEST buses, a couple of other outdoor broadcasting vans and numerous privately owned vehicles.

The police opened fire after all other means to control the violence, including a lathi-charge and tear-gassing, failed. One of the casualties had suffered bullet injuries, and the other was crushed to death. Police commissioner Arup Patnaik said the cops had to fire five rounds to rein in the mob.

 Before that, however, two of the island city's arterial roads, D N Road and Mahapalika Marg, witnessed mob violence of a scale not seen in recent memory. Thousands from the rally, organised to focus attention on the violence against Muslims in Assam and Myanmar, spilled on to the streets, torching and damaging whatever they managed to lay their hands on. Several newspersons, including photographers Shriram Vernekar and Prashant Nakwe from The Times of India, were beaten up and Vernekar's camera was broken. Cops were singled out for specially violent treatment.

A senior officer said the probe, given to the Crime Branch later in the evening, was zeroing in on a group that came from Nehru Nagar. "This group could not enter Azad Maidan, and there were reports that it was the first flashpoint," the officer told TOI.

The violence and wanton destruction of buses and other vehicles went on for about an hour before the police decided they had had enough. A lathi charge and tear-gassing were followed by firing as cops chased back the crowd. A section fled towards Crawford Market, damaging more buses on the way, and some ran into CST. Train services had to be halted for some time as frightened commuters found themselves between the police and the mob.

Two persons, 22-year-old Mohammad Umar and 18-year-old Altaf Sheikh (one from Bandra and the other from Kurla), died while another person was admitted to St George's Hospital with serious bullet injuries. "Seven police personnel and one civilian have received grievous head injuries and are critical," said Dr T P Lahane, head of the JJ Group of Hospitals.

Traffic constable Shivram Salve was on bandobast duty and told TOI about how the force suddenly came under a hail of stones. "Most of my colleagues suffered head injuries. We were left shell-shocked," he added. Azad Maidan snacks stall owner Shantaram Bhanu saw one of the media vans being torched. "No one was inside. It all happened without any provocation," he said.

Private car owners said the mob forced them out of their cars before pulping them. Several of them, as well as BEST bus drivers and conductors, took shelter in buildings near Azad Maidan. "We were told we wouldn't be harmed and fled to a nearby building. But when we returned, every windshield and windowpane was broken," said T S Hindoyar. Many passersby ran to the State Institute for Administrative Careers campus beside Azad Maidan. "A huge mob was running into the lane and there was utter chaos in front of CST," said one of them. "We decided to wait and let two trains leave before boarding the next one," said Silas Liba, a tourist from Manipur.

The Crime Branch took up the probe into the violence late in the evening, and around 20 men were detained by the end of the day. The police have slapped sections relating to rioting, unlawful assembly and damaging public property on unnamed rioters. The administration sounded an alert in Mumbai as well as sensitive pockets in neighbouring regions like Thane and Bhiwandi. The police have been asked to stay on maximum alert on Sunday when the kin of the dead may be asked to take the two bodies.

 A look at the build-up to the rally reveals several failings that led to the conflagration. The organisers, Raza Academy, sought permission for a rally by 1,500 people but, according to some estimates, about 50,000 people ultimately turned up. Most of the protesters could not enter the venue and things worsened when the public address system failed. Officials later said the organisers of the rally had absolutely no control over the crowd and did not have any idea of the number of people who ultimately turned up.

But some former top cops also blamed the police for their intelligence failure in estimating the number of people and the intensity of the emotions on display. One of the injured policemen told TOI from his hospital bed that the mob was "uncontrollable" and that he and his colleagues were severely outnumbered. Officials later said that around 800 personnel were there to tackle the mob but "it was clearly not enough for a mob of that size and ferocity".

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