Monday’s targeted violence which descended into a free-for-all by night as fringe elements took over the city to protest the Supreme Court’s direction to release Cauvery water to neighbouring Tamil Nadu is going to hit brand Bengaluru hard.
Protestors went around targeting Tamil Nadu-registered trucks in response to an attack on a few Karnataka-registered vehicles in Rameshwaram at the southernmost tip of the mainland this morning, by late afternoon they found enough ammunition as Karnataka could not secure any relief from the Supreme Court, which modified its original order to release 15,000 cusecs every day over the next 10 days to 12,000 cusecs per day till September 20.
This order instigated the mobs as they ran around crying injustice meted out to Karnataka and indulged in selective targeting of Tamilian-owned businesses in east, southeast, and west Bengaluru.
While the police were caught unawares, the protestors seemed to have come well-armed with sticks and petrol cans to break truck and bus windshields and set them afire. While the police were outnumbered, Mysore Road witnessed the brunt of the action as at least a hundred vehicles, including luxury buses run by two of south India’s biggest operators — KPN and SRS Travels — were set afire by cheering mobs.
A trucking company, Gokulraj Transports, too became their target. Together, these three companies lost as many as 60 vehicles, which were completely gutted.
The protestors forced the city to a standstill, creating panic among its residents. Kiran Kumar, a techie, had to change three modes of transport after he left his Whitefield office to reach home to Hebbal as his young son’s school sent an SMS asking parents to pick up their children as school buses would not be operating.
On the way, I saw a Tamil Nadu-registered Polo Vento car being smashed by a mob and they were all ready to set it on fire. Nobody came forward to help the driver. The car looked new and the occupants seem to have been forced out as the doors were still open and engine running. It was a very sorry sight as nobody dared to try stop the mob.
Since the Supreme Court’s previous order directing the state to release 15,000 cusecs daily, tensions had already been rife in the city and southern Karnataka in general. It had also led to a bandh call and life was thrown out of gear even two days prior to the call, especially on the Bengaluru-Mysore road were farmers staged a protest against the release of water. At the state’s borders, thousands of trucks with Tamil Nadu registration plates lined up and bus services were withdrawn as the police thought it wiser to prevent their entry than to wait for violence to occur.
Chief Minister Siddaramaiah had said he would have to order the release of water to respect the Supreme Court order but would appeal. Today’s appeal fell through and stoked the fire that has been burning for over a week.
Like Kumar, thousands of office-goers left work to pick up their wards as educational institutions suddenly shut in anticipation of violence, which also resulted in a huge traffic jam in the city’s central business district. Meanwhile, the mobs had a free run and entered Mantri Mall in Malleswaram and Gopalan Mall on Mysore road and forced it shut. They even entered Convergys’ office on Bannerghatta road and forced employees out. One employee, on condition of anonymity, said the women were petrified as a group of 20-year-olds barged into their well-guarded office. She said:
They just entered our office and asked how dare we work instead of sympathising with them. Some of them reeked of alcohol and the women were so scared that they grabbed their belongings and ran out, only to find the road outside blocked for many hours. In the absence of any transport, we walked some distance and found some city buses in operation.
The police also added to the confusion by denying on their Twitter handle that Section 144 or prohibitory orders were being enforced. Later, many city police station areas were brought under Section 144, but the move has not given the public any confidence.
Firing was also reported in a few places after teargas shells failed to drive mobs away.
Incidents like these trouble the conscience keepers of the state — all ITeS giants in their own right — but after Biocon head Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw was forced to delete her tweet last week and indulge in damage control when activists targeted her, today no one dared to speak out.
Shaw herself came on television looking a bit at a loss for words. “I have never seen this kind of mindless violence and enforced protests. This is not the way a democracy functions,” she said rather mildly.
What was unsaid and privately agreed upon by many of these giants was that it will take many months for brand Bengaluru to get over the mindless cycle of violence and bandhs which has the city in its grip. Social media was abuzz with one question: why is Bengaluru going the Kerala and West Bengal way, with disruptions becoming all too frequent? As the world’s back office, it’s not a good sign at all, said another IT honcho who had been monitoring the day’s events on television.
At the end of the day, thousands of city residents who had to pass by the troubled areas to get home had to sleep over with kind-hearted colleagues and friends near their workplaces. Media professional Sindhu K was one of them. “I plan to go home early tomorrow morning. I hope the cabs are back in business,” she hoped, even as the entire city prayed for getting back to business by Tuesday.