The attack on Sudheendra Kulkarni for organising the launch of former Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri’s book is only the latest reminder that the idea of Mumbai is under siege. Be it outbursts and attacks on “outsiders”, on migrants from the south and the north, or the bans on, in no particular order, the observation of Valentine’s Day, dance bars, lingerie mannequins and beef-eating, there is a steady and continuing erosion of its liberal, cosmopolitan spirit. This has been accelerated by the inability or unwillingness of successive state governments to resolutely take on communal, communitarian and parochial groups. This failure has consequences, not just for a city that has always dreamed big, but also for the country whose aspirational and international face it represents.
Just days before it attacked Kulkarni, the Shiv Sena’s thuggery had prompted the cancellation of a concert by Pakistani musician Ghulam Ali. Both instances should have caused severe embarrassment to the BJP, which also rules at the Centre and for whom the Sena is an alliance partner. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis hastened to assure that “the state will provide full protection to the programme”, but given his government’s blemished record on the protection of individual freedoms and liberties, it seemed a tepid guarantee. Not surprisingly, the concert organisers showed little confidence in the state’s assurance. Later, Fadnavis appeared to almost grudgingly offer security for the book launch, warning, in the same breath, against any “anti-India propaganda”.
A city that is seen to so frequently bow to the diktat of vigilante groups cannot hope to achieve its ambitions of rivalling a New York or London and transforming itself from a mere megacity to an international finance centre (IFC). Like other cities, Mumbai too is a site of convergence, of intense collaboration, innovation and opportunity, not least because of its dependence on migrants and the egalitarian promise that anyone from anywhere can make it big. But more and more, instead of Mumbai reaching out to its young and restless, it is threatening to shrink into an archipelago of neighbourhoods. The high-powered committee that assessed Mumbai’s IFC potential noted in its 2007 report that it “needs to be seen… as a welcoming, cosmopolitan and cultured metropolis” to realise its goal. Mumbai — and India — cannot demand a place at the global high table while limply acquiescing to bullying and chauvinism. Its politicians appear to have forged a multipartisan consensus on illiberal politics. The challenge for those who want to save the city is to resist the tide.