‘Only those who don’t understand demographic and social realities can criticise our actions’

Mumbai Police was panned for its handling of the January 3 bandh called by Dalit groups. But the police force has sought to defend its stance saying it took a professional and difficult decision to abstain from using force against the protesting mobs.

Joint Commissioner, Law and Order, Deven Bharti

Joint Commissioner, Law and Order, Deven Bharti tells Rashmi Rajput there was normalcy in the city within minutes after the bandh was called off. He claims the police were well prepared this time and negotiation with leaders helped in containing the violence. Excerpt from the interview:

The Mumbai Police has been widely criticised for the handling of the protest? Why were the police not in control?

Only those people who have a misplaced sense of history and a myopic understanding of demographic and social realities of their state can criticise our action. The expectation that Mumbai should exist in isolation, insulated from the churnings in the rest of Maharashtra, is a sheer folly and also an indication of the existence of some of us (critics) in complete denial mode.

Many residents from Mumbai participated in the bicentenary celebration at Bhima Koregaon. However, after the violent protests near Pune, didn’t the Mumbai Police anticipate a fallout on January 2 when the first signs of protest were noticed. Why didn’t the police act then?

It is a wrong notion that we were not prepared. We were fully prepared. That very night, local DCPs and the Additional CP (mainly eastern region) worked on it and they also interacted with people who had gone to Pune. The whole night senior officers were camping in areas with a sizeable Dalit population. People started pouring in and they shared their narrative. The incident had happened outside Mumbai and had a state-wide ramification. So, we had to take that in account. As I said earlier, only those people who don’t understand demographic and social realities can criticise our actions. Preventing clashes among the communities and loss of life was the priority and minimising the impact of the call for bandh, which had statewide ramifications, was our priority and I think we did succeed.

But at many places on the ground and even on social media people complained that the police remained mute spectators and allowed the protesters to run amok?

Mumbai has 93 police stations and only in two police stations (Powai and Chembur in eastern region) were there major destruction of properties. Our first priority was to ensure that there are no clashes between the two communities. Second, a sizeable number of women and children were part of the protesting crowd. So, force was judiciously used. The very harsh use of force could have resulted in a loss of life, and our priority was to ensure there is no loss of life because that could have taken another turn. Other than two or three police stations, there were no incident of violence where even a single property had been damaged was reported. Even in these two areas, we were able to contain them. They tried to ransack some area but there was no major violence reported.

But the public seems to be upset that the police did not act.

That is a perception, which has been created. I am talking to you on facts — other than the two areas, there were no cases of violence reported. It was the conscious decision of the Mumbai Police to use moderate force and not use very harsh force. The bandh was not called only for Mumbai, it was for the whole of Maharashtra. However, with Mumbai being the financial capital, any action or reaction here would have fuelled fire all across. We had that in mind. As far as the rasta-rokos are concerned, we chose the hard option. The easier option for us was to shut the city and for everyone to stay home, no offices open, no trains running and then there wouldn’t have been a single complaint. Till 11.30-12, everything was normal, trains and buses were plying. Disruption was reported only between 12 and 4 pm. The western and harbour lines did not have any problem and even on Central Railway there was a problem only at Ghatkopar station. When two railway lines are working, how can you call it as failure? 435 flights depart every day. Was it a good option to cancel all of them? Only 17 flights were cancelled. The perception was created by people who don’t understand realities.

But how did the mob manage to get violent in two areas (Powai and Chembur)?

We are probing this. In one area, the demolition of the Tansa pipeline took place where a lot of huts were razed. People from that area intentionally took up violence. We will take action against all and not a single hooligan who has destroyed any public or private property will be spared. We will look into it that each and every one is booked and brought to justice.

There are reports that there were orders to not use force on the mob? Was the Mumbai Police under any political compulsion?

Decision relating to law and order is a police decision — a pure professional decision taken by the Mumbai Police. Exercising it is a harder option. Doing lathicharge and firing is easier and we chose the harder option. Saving life was our priority. There were only two incidents of violence reported in Mumbai when the bandh was called across the state. There was not a single incident in Mumbai after the bandh was called off. In many places, there are still repercussions. But Mumbai came back to normal as soon as the bandh was called off. The moment it was over, it was over.

What about the mob mobili-sation? You think it was spontaneous or a premeditated act ?

How could it be spontaneous? A call for a bandh was given and all concerned parties and organisations supported it. Then the cadres mobilised it and the social media was used. Also, other means of communications were used to mobilise the crowd.

In its report to the Minister of Home Affairs, the Maharashtra Police has apparently said senior police officers were told to engage in talks with leaders of both communities. Didn’t the Mumbai Police fail in negotiating better?

Violence took place only under two police stations. At all other places, it went as per the negotiation. There was negotiation. Otherwise, do you think it could have been contained in small pockets? Like the Parksite area, which has a treacherous topography that made it difficult to contain the incident. There are illegal structures on the hillock and there are multiple entry points on the street. Even then we had deployed a large number of force. One should understand that we have a force of 50,000 and the maximum we could put is around 25,000 to 30,000 in one place. We have to think of other places too.

So far as investigations in the riot cases go, does the buck stop at those seen in the footage or will the roles of leaders and those who called for the bandh be probed too?

In cases where violence has taken place, we have added the section for conspiracy. And action would be taken against all those against whom evidence is found. We have arrested many and will not spare anyone who indulged into vandalism and will recover all the damages and loss from the organisers as prescribed in law. We have CCTV and video footage of such places and the process of identification and booking them in offences is in progress.

What about the organisers? Will they be booked?

Our case is that of violence. Organising a bandh is different and organising violence is different. Not to be misunderstood, all those who were found indulging in violence will be booked.

After this bandh, do you think that the protesters will be now be emboldened if there are similar protests in the future?

One has to study the nature of the protest. It was a state-wide protest, which had an emotional issue attached to it. Protesters were charged with emotions because people who were beaten up (in Pune) had come and narrated their stories. So, the issue was completely different.

A report carried by The Indian Express shows that quite a few who were arrested were young students pursuing professional degrees, and that there are allegations that police arrested many who did not indulge in violence?

We have enough evidence against those booked and arrested. There are CCTV footages. Our videographers were present at all the spots and action has been taken based on these evidence.

Why did the police deny permission for an event to be attended by Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mewani and JNU leader Umar Khalid, and also for a event featuring Sambhaji Bhide?

Our priority is to ensure that the law and order is intact. The atmosphere is charged and we don’t want any outsider to come and fuel it further. The decision of not granting them permission was taken to ensure there is no law and order breakdown.

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