ON August 28, Nikhil Wagle, the owner and Editor of the Mumbai-based Marathi daily Mahanagar, was beaten up severely and his face blackened with engine oil allegedly by Shiv Sena activists. Wagle, the attackers claim, made derogatory remarks about former Chief Minister and Shiv Sena leader Narayan Rane. Two of Wagle's colleagues were also beaten up in the incident.
Nikhil Wagle, Editor of Mahanagar.
A week earlier, Sajid Rashid, the Editor of the Hindi edition of Mahanagar, was stabbed outside his office, reportedly by members of an Islamic fundamentalist organisation. Rashid earned their ire for his editorial campaign against the custom of divorce or triple talaq. In another attack on mediapersons, on September 2, Shiv Sena activists roughed up two reporters of Jain Television while they were covering a Shiv Sena protest against the Indian Railways' ban on singing of bhajans on trains.
The spate of attacks is disturbing because not only it is an assault on the media and the freedom of expression but the timing indicates it is perhaps politically motivated. Fundamentalist forces in Maharashtra seem to have decided to use every opportunity ahead of the Assembly elections to get their messages across. The State goes to the polls on October 13 this year.
Nikhil Wagle and his colleagues Yuvraj Mohite and Pramod Nirgudkar were in Malvan, Narayan Rane's constituency, on a visit to a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) when the attack took place. Speaking to Frontline, Wagle said that he had met a few local journalists and activists in an informal gathering where they discussed the criminalisation of politics. "I admit I criticised Rane and his involvement in criminal activities. But I was mainly explaining to them that they must unite and write about such things at the local level. Besides it was a private meeting." The next day, Shiv Sena loyalists accosted the three journalists at a restaurant, blackened Wagle's face and beat them up. Wagle alleged that the attackers would have burnt him alive if it had not been for some people who called the police. "It seemed like an attempt to murder," he said.
NIKHIL WAGLE is one of Shiv Sena's betes noires. Over the past decade he has criticised the Shiv Sena's communal propaganda consistently. He saves his most vitriolic comments for Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray. Because of this he has been the victim of the party's muscle power at least half a dozen times. The party has allegedly threatened the staff and ransacked the office of Mahanagar several times. "But this is the first time I have been severely beaten physically. Clearly, an organisation that thrives on muscle power needed little reason to rough me up again," Wagle said. Wagle said that in spite of such blatant violence directed at him, not even once has an arrest been made even though several first information reports have been filed. At Malvan he faced a similar situation with the local police refusing to arrest the miscreants although eyewitnesses named them.
"The failure of the administration to take immediate action against the perpetrators is appalling," said Jatin Desai, a journalist and former general secretary of the Bombay Union of Journalists. "Why is it that Shiv Sena hoodlums get away every time?" It was only after a delegation of prominent citizens and activists belonging to 30 organisations met the Chief Minister and the Home Minister did the State administration arrest four people in Malvan. The Chief Minister has also conceded the demand for a Criminal Investigation Department probe into the case and the booking of the culprits under Section 307 (attempt to murder) of the Criminal Procedure Code.
Narayan Rane has denied any involvement in the attack. He accused the Congress of involvement in the incident. He claimed that the party wanted to destabilise his constituency on the eve of the elections.
IN the case of Sajid Rashid, the police say they are "close" to nabbing the culprits. According to Muslims for Secular Democracy (MSD), a group of prominent Muslims in Mumbai, since early July the Urdu Times, a Mumbai daily, has been carrying out a hate campaign against Rashid for his writings. Rashid had informed the police about the threats that he had received. Yet no protection was given to him. And until the MSD raised the issue in the media, the police were unwilling to take anyone in for questioning. The attack on Rashid was ostensibly for his writings, but it is clear that it has more to do with the build-up for the Assembly elections.
The Shiv Sena-BJP combine lost badly in the last Lok Sabha elections in Maharashtra. It was routed in Mumbai, which is considered a Shiv Sena stronghold. Soon after the loss, Thackeray announced that both parties paid dearly for abandoning Hindutva.
"They have already begun instigating all kinds of trouble," said Nikhil Wagle. Last week they took out a protest at a local railway station against the railways' ban on singing bhajans on trains. Shiv Sena supporters shouted slogans calling the government anti-national and anti-Hindu for imposing the ban. "If this is any indication of the events to come, unfortunately in the run-up to the elections we are going to see a lot of communal tensions and definitely a rough election ahead," said Wagle.
Mumbai journalists have fought against the Shiv Sena's tactics. In 1991, in a show of solidarity and strength, the Mumbai media staged a huge rally outside Sena Bhavan, the headquarters of the Shiv Sena, to protest against one of the first attacks on Wagle. In fact, three journalists were assaulted badly by Shiv Sena activists after the rally. One journalist's jaw was broken in the scuffle. In 1993, the national press came together once again to demonstrate outside Sena Bhavan against the Sena's terror tactics against the media. And in 1994, Mumbai's journalists blacked out news on the Shiv Sena as a mark of protest after Shiv Sainiks beat up two journalists who had walked out of a press conference called by Bal Thackeray.