It is the city that never sleeps. The no-nonsense industriousness of the Mumbaite is legendary -- from slum dwellers to the super rich, people mind their business because they are too busy making money to worry about anybody else. Public utilities are overburdened, but they work. It is the only city in India where power cuts are unheard of and people can still plan their day with the local train timetable as a guide.
However, Mumbai's indomitable spirit was badly shaken for ten days last fortnight over the needless drama about the arrest of Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray, for his incendiary writings in 1992 which allegedly fomented communal hatred.
Even after the serial blasts in 1993, irrepressible Mumbaites were on the streets the next day, gawking at the damage wreaked by the bombs. Seven years later, if Mumbaites went into a shell, kept their children away from school and preferred to squander their valuable causal leave by staying at home, it reflects a complete absence of confidence in the government. Chhagan Bhujbal, the Maharashtra home minister, may have ranted about 'Thackeray not being above the law,' but the people of Mumbai had no confidence in his ability to maintain law and order.
Indian Express editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta lamented the demise of Mumbai's spirit. Has Mumbai lost its spirit or is it simply smart enough to wake up to the new reality? That of politicians who will use the law to create mayhem, fuel fear and tension through intemperate announcements and allow the city to burn because of inadequate preparation. Why would parents risk sending their children to school when they had no confidence that the government would keep them safe? When even the communication networks collapse or are switched off at crucial times leaving people scared, hapless and without information.
Those of us who witnessed the blood bath of the 1992 riots would remember common rumour that Mumbai was allowed to burn for several days without summoning the army in order to discredit the then chief minister. This time too, notwithstanding the rhetoric, the Thackeray arrest drama was seen as nothing more than political vendetta. The law in India has never covered the powerful and the influential. In fact, it may be a good idea to ask who is not above the law rather than worry about who escapes its clutches.
The example of two former chief ministers of Bihar and Tamil Nadu – Laloo Prasad Yadav and J Jayalalitha -- having had to cool their heels in jail are exceptions. The biggest business houses have bankrupted nationalised institutions and got away with it.
Let us look at other examples:
Most politicians who directed the mayhem which followed Indira Gandhi's assassination got away despite eye-witness accounts of their involvement.
Win Chadda, the main accused in the Bofors scandal, was allowed to escape and has remained a free man for 13 years. The same goes for Ottavio Quattrochhi, whose close relationship with Rajiv Gandhi and his Italian spouse made him one of the most powerful men in Delhi in the 1980s. The Hinduja connection to the Bofors scandal has been a matter of much public speculation – yet the powerful brothers have been close to every Indian prime minister since Bofors and their business is unaffected. The slow legal process, reluctant investigation and clumsy enforcement has kept the law away from all of the accused.
In the Rs 5,000 crore securities scam of 1992, the politicians involved got away. In one case, I have in my possession papers relating to a Central Bureau of Investigation probe which outline adequate evidence against then minister B Shankaranand and could have led to the filing of a charge sheet in the Oil India Development Board case. Instead, he resigned and the matter was allowed to die.
Investigations into money being transferred out of the country through Nostro and Vostro accounts came to a halt, after the trail led to the nephew of a Vishwa Hindu Parishad bigwig. In this case too, the Enforcement Directorate had irrefutable evidence against the accused.
Then there is the allegation against then defence minister Sharad Pawar whose Nationalist Congress Party was out to nail Thackeray. He was accused of allowing two of the accused in the infamous J J Hospital shootout case to travel aboard an Indian Air Force plane. Something as serious as this was allowed to drop off the public perception radar after it became politically expedient to do so.
As for the Memon family – the key accused in the 1993 serial blasts which ripped Mumbai – they not only got away but are probably living comfortably in the city.
The underworld is even better off. Dawood Ibrahim, Chotta Rajan, Abu Salem and others live abroad and control their empire of crime, extortion, drugs and smuggling from there. Indian journalists glamourise these thugs, and hardly anybody discusses why a crack police force is unable to crackdown on these men. Bollywood movies vividly depict the nexus between the police and the mafia and nobody denies the truth of the basic story. At the same time their wives contest elections and are absorbed into the mainstream.
Even foreigners seem above the law -- even when arrested for grave anti-national activities. The five pilots caught air-dropping ammunition at Purulia in West Bengal were released last fortnight as part of the political negotiation preceding the Russian president's visit to India. There is no discussion in the press and no explanation to the country.
At the time of going to press, Veerappan, the notorious sandalwood smuggler who inhabits the forests dividing Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, has kidnapped Dr Rajakumar, a cine icon and cult figure of Bangalore.
It is commonly believed that the smuggler's deep links with the police and politicians allow him to operate in the jungles with audacity and complete impunity.
This is just a sample of people who made headlines, but escaped the law. The number of smaller scamsters who get away because the government does not even register cases against them are innumerable. In fact, it would make better sense to ask how many of the nation's mighty and powerful are ever troubled by the law. The rules are meant for the ordinary man. In the circumstance, should a government not be forced to demonstrate their ability to control the law and order situation before they indulge in empty political vendetta?