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29 February 2024

Security stepped up in Mumbai over communal tensions

By Agencies


Security was boosted in India's financial hub Mumbai on Thursday after a top political leader accused of stirring up hatred against migrant workers was arrested and freed on bail.

Raj Thackeray, dubbed "Mumbai's Hitler" by national news magazine The Week, faces charges of promoting communal tensions in India's cosmopolitan business and entertainment capital of 18 million people.

"Additional security is in place," said P.S. Pasricha, police chief of the western state of Maharashtra, where tensions have been rising for two weeks after mobs began beating up migrant workers, leading to outsiders fleeing the state.

"All is calm across the state," he said in state capital Mumbai after violence Wednesday in which roving gangs set vehicles ablaze and killed one man.

In a day of high drama Wednesday, policed arrested Thackeray, head of the Hindu nationalist Maharashtra Navirman Sena -- or Army for Recreation of Maharashtra -- on charges of "promoting enmity between different groups."

Thackeray, self-styled promoter of "Maharashtran pride," has said he is expressing the feelings of the "Mumbai street" and has accused migrants of failing to learn the local Marathi language and swiping jobs from locals.

In freeing Thackeray, Magistrate S.K. Sharma ordered the 39-year-old to ensure "safety and tranquillity" and refrain from inflammatory speeches.

The arrest of Thackeray made front-page newspaper headlines in Mumbai.

"Thirteen days on, Raj held, gagged and freed," said the Hindustan Times.

Extra security forces were deployed where Thackeray enjoys most support, such as in central Mumbai and some suburbs as well as in Nashik town, where a local man died Wednesday after being attacked by a stone-pelting mob, Pasricha said.

Four Thackeray supporters were arrested over the man's death, police said Thursday.

Also arrested and later granted bail on Wednesday was Abu Azmi, a leader of the regional Samajwadi party, which has its base in northern Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state from where many migrants come.

Azmi, facing the same charges of "promoting enmity," said he had merely been seeking to defend "innocent north Indians being targeted."

Thackeray set up his party after an acrimonious split in 2006 with his octogenarian uncle Bal Thackeray, who leads the Shiv Sena -- Hindu god Shiva's army -- and who has in the past also delivered diatribes against outsiders.

The trouble worsened earlier this month when mobs started assaulting taxi drivers, some of whom are north Indians, as well as street vendors and small-time businessmen from outside the state. They even hurled bottles at the home of Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan, who hails from the north.

The latest tensions have dismayed many intellectuals who regard Mumbai as India's New York -- a melting pot of different cultures where poor Indians have traditionally flocked to make their fortunes.

"There's increasing evidence the pluralist foundations of this country... are being subverted by narrow-minded sectarian zealots," said Times of India columnist Jug Suraiya in a recent column.

But the tabloid Mumbai Mirror found in a recent survey that "Mumbaikars" believed their culture faces being swamped by outsiders.

Police chief Pasricha said 1,000 "preventative arrests" had been made in the past couple of weeks in a bid to avert violence.

State assembly elections are due in late 2009 in which northern Indian parties are expected to field many candidates.

Analysts say a turf battle between Bal Thackeray and Raj Thackeray is at the root of the problem.

The whole fight is over "who inherits the Sena legacy," said Suhas Palshikar, who teaches political science at Pune University in western India. (AFP)