Malegaon, a city synonymous with strife and communal disturbance. Located in Nashik district, the city with a population of about 14 lakh and a long history of major communal riots and bomb blasts. Notable among those are the 2001, 2006 and 2008 bomb blasts.
Repercussions of every major communal outbreak in the country are almost always felt in Malegaon because it has sizeable populations of Dalits, Muslims and Hindus. Aggressive politicisation of communal issues has for several decades now led to violence here. This is the reason why the city presents a formidable challenge to law enforcement agencies.
Yet, over the past week as violence erupted in several cities of the state over the Bhima-Koregaon issue, Malegaon remained peaceful despite disruptive forces that tried to provoke violence.
A range of efforts were taken under the leadership of Harssh A Poddar an IPS officer presently posted as the Additional Superintendent of Police, Malegaon to ensure that the city remained insulated from the state-wide disruptions.
Advance preparedness for sudden law and order outbreaks
Since taking charge Poddar has ensured the reinforcement of the ten police stations in the city, such that they remain prepared for large-scale disturbances that may occur suddenly. Regular riot-control drills, checks on the arms and ammunition available in the police stations and strengthening of the local intelligence networks sends a message that the police is prepared to handle contingencies swiftly and effectively.
The Malegaon police has laid special emphasis on ensuring that police preparedness is visible at all times in the city. Specialized riot control vehicles such as Vajra and Varun as well as vans fitted with CCTV cameras are deployed across the city every time tension erupts. As soon as news about the Bhima-Koregaon incident began to percolate, the police installed temporary CCTV cameras at all sensitive junctions of the city. According to Poddar “In large scale disturbances, it can be a challenge to identify and accost the rioters. Pre-installed CCTV cameras ensures that irrefutable evidence is present to identify and book unruly elements.” Unfortunately, despite several proposals the city and its sensitive nature does not have a permanently installed CCTV network.
While coercive measures are necessary for miscreants who use situations such as the Bhima-Koregaon incident to disrupt peace, it is equally important to win over the large majority of the populace who are ‘stakeholders in peace’. The economy of the city is fueled by power looms and textile commerce. Law and order outbreaks can be a major setback to commercial activity. In Malegaon, the police engages with community-leaders through peace committees at the police station and city level. It has also actively engaged the youth of the city through an innovative project called Udaan that provides free career guidance to students.
Once the riots erupted, the police forged contact with leaders of all communities and persuaded them to channelize the protests in a peaceful manner. Poddar maintains that contacts established with the youth through projects such as Udaan helped them isolate rowdy elements who often resort to violence.
Systematic and sustained preventive actions
Cities are often plagued by habitual gangsters who use periods of unrest as an opportunity to foment violence. Malegaon had several criminal networks, members of which had multiple cases registered against them including those relating to illegal arms. Over the past few months, the police in Malegaon have systematically monitored the top criminals in each police station area. Those found to be active have been externed from the city under provisions of the Maharashtra Police Act. As many as 52 hardened criminals have been externed from the city limits in recent months, reducing organized criminal activity in the city.
Prompt response mechanisms
On January 2, the day after the incident in Bhima Koregaon, flash mobs began to gather at various junctures in the city, attempting to forcibly close down shops in the city. Senior police officers were dispatched forthwith to contain these reactions and divert the crowds towards peaceful protests.
Communal riots are a situation when the true mettle of any police organization is tested to the extreme. A balance of legally coercive actions and targeted community police can go a long way in ensuring peace even in the most challenging of cities, Malegaon over the past week has been a good example of this.