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10 people killed as Bombay police open fire on mobs

Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Bombay

Person injured in firing It started out as just another morning.

The sun rose in the east. The morning cup of tea tasted pretty much the same as usual. The struggle against ennui, at the thought of going to work, was pretty much as difficult as it always is...

An hour later, R J Jadhav had become a statistic. In an agency report that read "10 killed, 13 injured in police firing."

"I was going to work," says Jadhav, tears of pain, sorrow, incomprehension and yes, fear streaming down his face as he lies in a hospital bed. "I saw a mob from the distance, they were shouting slogans against the police. I was minding my own business, and suddenly the police fired on us. I don't understand why they did that. I have six children, I earn Rs 2,500 a month and they tell me here that I will be a cripple for the next six months. How will I feed my children? How will we survive for the next six months, till I can get back on my feet? I don't know..."

Sudden, unexpected tragedies are like that. When all is said and done, the feeling you are left with is that you don't know...

"When I saw the police firing in all directions, I ran with my daughter, who I was taking to school," recalls Sanjay Ahire, another of the casualties. "I managed to get my daughter to safety, but a bullet hit my leg... I wish I knew why the police fired like that, in all directions, indiscriminately..."

Of course, Jadhav and Ahire are among the lucky ones -- they are still alive. 10 others, equally innocent, were not, however, as lucky. So, today, they are cold corpses in the mortuary, awaiting disposal.

All because of a moment of insanity, in which a person or persons unknown garlanded, with chappals, the statue of Dr B R Ambedkar, icon of the dalit community.

That happened late on Thursday night. By 7 am on Friday morning, a mob of around 1,000, primed for trouble, had gathered by the statue, at Ramabhai Ambedkar Nagar in Ghatkopar (East) in north Bombay.

By 7.30, the local police station had been torched -- the mob's grouse being that the police, despite having their premises almost in the shadow of the statue, had not bothered to remove the offending garland.

Police patrolling in the affected area Their ire only fanned by this, the mob was readying to torch three petroleum tankers when the police opened fire. At will, in all directions, irrespective of where the bullets went.

There was no warning. No preliminary attempts to disperse the mob. Just a hail of bullets, leaving in their wake the dead, and the maimed.

Police Commissioner Subhash Malhotra sees it differently. "The mob burnt down the table and chairs of the Ramabai police chowky, injured three policemen who were on duty and and then went near the eastern express highway to burn down the liquified petroleum tankers," he told Rediff On The NeT. "The police charged the mob with their lathis, and then lobbed teargas shells, but the crowd went out of control and therefore they had no option but to open fire. If the police had not fired, the mob would have set those tankers on fire -- and that would have resulted in immense damage."

The locals say this version is untrue. "The mob attacked the police station, but did not hurt any policemen," says Nitin Hamare. "And then the crowd moved over to the highway, to stop traffic and register their protest. The police opened fire, they did not lathi-charge the mob... look, one of the persons who died was an old woman, another was a 14-year-old... if the police version is true, what were they doing in a mob like that?"

Confront Malhotra with that statement and he says, "It is now the subject of an inquiry, whatever I have to say I will say after the inquiry is over."

Meanwhile, neither Chief Minister Manohar Joshi nor Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde, who handles the home portfolio, have had time to visit the site thus far. "They are in constant touch with the police," we are informed, "and are likely to visit the site late evening."

Joshi has, however, ordered a judicial inquiry into the incident, which sparked uproar in both Houses of the state legislature. The chief minister also announced compensation of Rs 100,000 to the next of kin of the deceased, and Rs 25,000 to those injured.

Former defence minister and BJP MP Pramod Mahajan, who represents Ghatkopar in the Lok Sabha, is also believed to be in touch with the police.

Not that the visit of a politician, or even minister, is likely to calm angry passions. Chhagan Bhujbal, leader of the Opposition in the state legislative council, drove down to Rajawadi hospital where the injured are receiving treatment. He was met by a hostile crowd and by the time he escaped, his car was minus a windshield, smashed by the mobs.

The situation is incendiary, with over 500 people gathered outside the hospital, waiting for the authorities to release the bodies of those killed.

Sheila Rokrade is one of the mourners, her face streaming with the tears that are all she has to offer up to the memory of her brother Sanjay Gangaram Nikam. And from the depths of her grief, she lashes out at everybody -- even the media. "Don't click my photograph," she says. "Tomorrow you will publish it, and then you will forget all about what happened here..."

residents of the affected area Weeping uncontrollably, she says, "My brother was going to work, when he was killed by policemen. He hadn't done any wrong. I will never trust these policemen again..."

And in this incendiary atmosphere, the police -- not exactly persona very grata in the area -- strive to keep things in control. No curfew has been imposed, though Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code is in force, prohibiting the assembly of more than five persons at any spot in the locality.

"The situation is tense, but under control," says the police commissioner.

And to keep control, 110 personnel of the Rapid Action Force, all of them bristling with arms and armaments, have been deployed in the area.

While I was touring the area, around 4 pm, I saw the police beat three people on their legs, as they were wandering around.

Tense, but under control, is right.

With the bodies due to be released any time now... with that likely to spark off the emotionalism of funerals... with the locals seething over what they see as undue use of force... the question remains, how long will the control last?

Photographs: Jewella C Miranda

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