A little past 11 am on Monday, the Supreme Court, hearing Karnataka’s petition asking for modification of the Apex Court’s 5 September order, asked the state to release 12,000 cusecs of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu every day till the next hearing on 20 September, 2016.
Initially, many in Karnataka rejoiced that the state had been given a relief as it had to release 12,000 cusecs of water instead of 15,000 cusecs every day according to the earlier order. But soon it dawned upon everyone that the Apex Court had asked the state to release water until the 20th of the month—that is for five extra days. Thus, Karnataka in totality would be releasing more water than a total of 150,000 cusecs that it would have released until 15 September, going by the 5 September SC order.
Soon after, around 12.30 pm, first reports of the backlash emerged. A Tamil Nadu registration number bearing truck was set ablaze near NICE road toll booth in south west Bengaluru. This was the start of a riot that stretched for more than 12 hours, a riot that the city had not witnessed since it became the famed IT capital of the country.
Soon multiple reports emerged of trucks being set ablaze, establishments with Tamil Nadu connections being targeted and roads being blocked by agitators. Fearing trouble, schools shut down abruptly and asked parents to take their children home. IT companies and start-ups asked employees to stop work and get back home safely. Bengaluru’s metro service, the Namma Metro, suspended service. The city’s public transport corporation, the BMTC stopped the majority of its bus services across the city. Cab drivers didn’t log on to Uber or Ola, neither did autos. The city came to a standstill.
The riots were largely sporadic incidents around west and south west Bengaluru. In Timber Yard Layout, a mob of more than 100 had set five trucks ablaze, some of them carrying plywood. The local police, outnumbered as it were, came under stone pelting and caught in this cross-fire were innocent and clueless civilians and journalists, including this one.
On Mysore Road, at various places, the roads were blocked, tyres were burnt and any trucks bearing Tamil Nadu registration number plates were set ablaze.
With the situation getting out of hand, the Bangalore police commissioner, by 5 pm, imposed Section 144 across the city. The special riot control unit of the Rapid Action Force, Karnataka State Reserve Police, Quick Response Teams, City Armed Reserve, ITBP, CISF all of them numbering around 15,000 were pressed into stopping the riots in the city. They could not.
By sunset, there were more reports of violence. 42 buses belonging to KPN Travels were gutted in the inferno after miscreants hurled petrol bombs. Several other vehicles were also damaged at various points in the city; a few showrooms also suffered extensive damage due to stone pelting.
As the city was slipping into an uneasy sleep on one of its most violent days, it became clear that it was not over yet. The riot had taken its first casualty: 25-year-old Umesh Kumar was killed in police firing after a mob at Hegganahalli in west Bengaluru tried to torch a police patrol jeep. Another person was seriously injured. Anticipating further trouble, Bengaluru police commissioner, N.S. Megharik immediately declared a curfew in 16 police station limits of the city — a first for Karnataka’s capital in this century. This brought on the city an uneasy calm.
By the end of the day, 78 trucks and buses were completely gutted and nearly 50 vehicles were damaged. Industry body Assocham claimed that Karnataka, specifically Bengaluru, suffered losses to the tune of Rs 22,000-25,000 crore from damage to public infrastructure and interruptions in transport and business.
A desperate Karnataka Chief Minister, Siddaramaiah wrote to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa, seeking protection for Kannadigas in her state and also put out a video message appealing for calm. Siddaramaiah said that every Kannadiga was pained that the state had been at the receiving end of unfair allocation as far as Cauvery water distribution was concerned but people should not resort to violence. “I appeal to people in both states to maintain calm. Despite this if someone indulges in vandalism they will be dealt with an iron hand,” he said.
By Tuesday morning, the Union government had sent additional paramilitary forces to the city after a telephonic conversation between CM Siddaramiah and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh the previous day. Except for a couple of stray incidents, the city largely remained peaceful and limped back to normalcy.
DID THE STATE LOOK OTHER WAY?
The riots that started around noon in the western and south-westerns parts of the city, went on for hours, with the police nowhere to be seen in action for the initial few hours. The Special Forces called in were deployed only by evening.
At the Timber Yard Layout in south-west Bengaluru, where this reporter was present, the mob had set four trucks on fire and while the trucks were reduced to ashes, neither the fire brigade nor the police made it to the place. The jurisdictional police, which came under stone pelting from the mob, started hitting the streets and acting only after the Rapid Action Force was deployed in the late evening. At several places, the police reportedly showed absolute restrain while the situation demanded them to deal it with an iron hand.
Head of Aarin Capital and Bengaluru resident, Mohandas Pai hit out at the state government for being lax in not anticipating the trouble and increasing security after the order by the Supreme Court: “We know that these places where the riots happened and Mysore Road are prone to trouble. Why didn’t the state government deploy more forces there? By the time they deployed the forces, enough damage had been done. The Supreme Court order is definitely a blow to the state, but the state government cannot allow lawlessness.”
To prove that the state had not gone soft on hooliganism, more than 300 people were arrested and booked, while the Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) of West and Southwest Division was transferred.
The BJP has hit out at the state government, saying it failed to take adequate measures. City MLA and BJP spokesperson S. Suresh Kumar says that the state government failed in anticipating the riots: “They were caught off guard, they should have made necessary law and order arrangements keeping in mind the chequered past over the issue and violence witnessed in 1991.”
SOCIAL MEDIA AND WHATSAPP
Ever since the Supreme Court ordered the Karnataka government to release 15,000 cusecs of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu, there have been largely peaceful protests in Mandya and Bengaluru every day. So why did the protests turn violent on Monday? By Saturday night, several WhatsApp messages and posts on Facebook showing one Santhosh, an engineering student in the south Bengaluru locality of Banashankari being thrashed by a fringe pro-Kannada group went viral. Santhosh was attacked and made to apologise under duress for posting photographs of Kannada stars during a Cauvery protest and ridiculing them and making derogatory comments. Several news channels on both sides of the border picked up the video and played it on loop.
Similarly, there were other videos including one which showed a Bullet bike on fire which social media messages attributed to the Cauvery protests. While in reality it was an accidental fire reported a few days earlier. Along with the videos, some instigating and inflammatory messages went viral on WhatsApp groups, Facebook and Twitter.
This perhaps triggered a backlash in Tamil Nadu as the Tamil news channels aired the videos, and by Monday morning most of the Kannada news channels carried images of Kannadigas being attacked in Rameswaram, their vehicles being vandalised and hotels owned by Kannadigas coming under attack in Chennai. This again was played on loop.
The Bengaluru City Police are truly pioneers when it comes to the use of social media in policing and it can be safely said that they are ahead by miles in this aspect when compared to their counterparts in India. Bangalore City Police’s Twitter handle @BlrCityPolice has more Twitter followers (307K) than New York City Police Department’s Twitter handle @NYPDnews (235K).
But unfortunately, this social media-savvy police department failed to sense the anger that was being fuelled on by social media and was going viral. On 12 September, all Twitter handles related to Bengaluru City Police started to send out messages asking citizens not to believe rumours on social media. The city police commissioner’s Twitter handle, @cpblr tweeted, “Please do not pay heed to rumours floating on WhatsApp reg #CauveryProtests. Rely on @BlrCityPolice & @blrcitytraffic for authentic updates.” But perhaps it was too late as the fire on social media had spilled on to the streets of the IT city.
We definitely have not heard the last in the Cauvery water sharing tussle in this monsoon season. The Chief Minister has written to the Prime Minister, seeking his intervention, but the BJP sees it as a political ploy. The BJP spokesperson says that the Congress state government is doing politics on a sensitive issue: “When the state agreed to release 10,000 cusecs as a goodwill gesture and then later agreed to obey both the court orders and the matter is pending in court, how can the executive or legislature or the Prime Minister intervene? They are trying to pass the blame on to the Prime Minister.”
In the meanwhile, the Supreme Court will once again hear the matter on 20 September, where Karnataka will be hoping for a relief. But the state is pinning its hope on the special leave petition that Karnataka has filed challenging the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal award given in 2007. The final hearing is on 18 October.
But the latest riot adds to the chequered and often violent history that the two states have had over this water sharing tussle, which is more than a century old.