I have not been able to make up my mind on whether we should have laws against the kind of things Raj Thackeray says. Quite clearly, conspiring to commit violence should be punished. If I were to pick up a phone and ask a hitman to kill someone, I cannot claim free speech protection. I don’t see how anyone can claim free speech protection if he asked a crowd of people to do the same. The problem is that when people “incite violence” they do not use very precise words. A judge has to consider hidden meanings and effects of those words on “reasonable people”, and a person who listens to Raj Thackeray and then goes out to beat up North Indians is, by definition, unreasonable.
What I am sure of, however, is that it is not necessary to arrest Thackeray to stop the violence or prevent future violence. Also, I am quite sure that arresting him in this way is counter-productive.
People call the events that occurred in Mumbai “mob violence”. To an extent, they are correct. There were mobs, and they went around committing violence. But we have long known that the actions are much less spontaneous than what the term suggests. It is the middle level leaders who plan, organize and lead those beatings and burnings. They do it because they can get away with it, and because those things are impressive accomplishments on a resume when they want to stand for elections. The footsoldiers who actually indulge in the violence may be sincere or cynical, but the middle level leaders are invariably cynical, and they are in it for what they can get out of it.
The common excuse that the police provide for why they cannot punish the guilty is that they cannot put entire mobs in jail. The thing is, they don’t have to. If they round up the ringleaders and make sure that the cases against them are vigorously pursued, that is all that is needed.
Now, if those ringleaders were sincere believers in whatever cause they are organizing violence to achieve, then jail terms for them would have been counter-productive, because it would make martyrs out of them. But then, if those folks were sincere believers, they’d be seriously pissed off when they find Raj Thackeray roaming free. Not only that, they will be even more pissed off when they find that when the political situation changes and he needs North Indian votes, he changes his tunes -and of course, the political situation in India changes more frequently than the weather in England.
So the point is that arresting mid-level leaders but not the top level leaders is actually a pretty workable strategy – in fact, it is better than having token arrests of the top leaders, rare or no prosecutions and absolutely no convictions. It is the worst of the worlds. Thackeray gets to be a martyr without actually suffering a jail term. His followers get enthused and he gets an aura of invincibility around him.