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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Arresting Narayan Rane is irresponsible. But a little too rich for BJP to lecture on free speech

The Sena is clearly the aggressor in the Rane episode and the Uddhav Thackeray government must step back but when it comes to victimhood for political remarks, it's the clanging of the pot and the kettle.

By: Editorial |
Updated: August 26, 2021 8:14:52 am
It is well known that the Sena and Rane are intimate enemies.

In the last 20 months that the Maha Vikas Aghadi coalition has been in power in Maharashtra, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has made a conspicuous effort to project himself as a sober leader and the Shiv Sena as an outfit that has evolved from its street-fighting days to take on the mantle of a party of government. That careful image construction, still incomplete, was severely dented Tuesday when the state police arrested Union Minister Narayan Rane and the Yuva Sena, the youth wing of the Shiv Sena was unleashed in response to his decidedly intemperate remarks against the chief minister. The brickbatting outside Rane’s Mumbai home, the multiple FIRs filed against him, and his theatrical arrest, were part of an unprecedented drama that spoke of outright abuse and misuse of state power to settle political scores.

It is well known that the Sena and Rane are intimate enemies. Rane, a former Sainik and chief minister, was ousted from the party for opposing Uddhav’s anointment as Balasaheb Thackeray’s chosen successor. When Rane was picked by the BJP for one of four Jan Ashirwad Yatras in the state, it was expected that he would target the Thackerays to prepare the ground for the upcoming civic polls, including for the all-important Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. At first, Sena leaders seemingly took the mature view that he should be ignored, even if his inaugural programme of the tour – a visit to the Balasaheb Thackeray memorial in Mumbai’s Shivaji park — was seen to be aimed at provoking the Sena. But even before he made the offensive remark that set off Tuesday’s events, the police had, without naming him, started to stack up FIRs against his rallies for violating Covid protocols. After the remark, it was almost as if the Sena calculated that it could make more political capital by reverting to type, flagrantly weaponising its cadres and the government.

If the Shiv Sena has got it terribly wrong, however, the BJP seems ill-suited to mount the moral high ground. It is not just that its own decision to field Rane was precisely aimed at generating heat in Maharashtra, where it has not been able to shake the coalition government despite trying to do so. Its high-pitched denunciation of Sena heavy-handedness even as it distances itself from Rane’s controversial remark — Devendra Fadnavis compared Sena action to the Taliban, while party chief JP Nadda alleged violation of constitutional values — are at odds with its own governments’ proven preference for blunt instruments against speech it doesn’t agree with. At the Centre and in the states where it is in power, the BJP has shown a troubling intolerance of speech that doesn’t match its definition of what should be spoken or heard. So dissent becomes “anti-national,” criticism becomes derogatory, the IPC the state’s most potent tool to squeeze legitimate spaces. The Sena is clearly the aggressor in the Rane episode and the Uddhav Thackeray government must step back but when it comes to victimhood for political remarks, it’s the clanging of the pot and the kettle.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on August 26, 2021 under the title ‘State and street’.

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