December 31, 2008 12:23:16 am
In early 1993 when communal violence was spinning out of control in Mumbai, a public meeting was called at Flora Fountain, the centre of the old business district, to which many, including familiar faces from glossy society magazines, came. Within hours, or so it seemed, an effective action plan was put in place. Not for nothing was Mumbai known as one of the world’s most enterprising cities. Socialites used their formidable contacts to lobby politicians for space and vehicles to reach essential supplies to victims. Young professionals pressed fire services and the police to attend to distress calls. And housewives were recruited to make food packets for those flooding railway stations to flee the city.
Pragmatism and empathy were evident in ample measure. Indeed, if one looks at the civilian response to the 1993 violence in Mumbai, particularly at the mohalla committee programme that was later set up to liaise between community leaders and the police to prevent a recurrence of trouble — it seemed clear that Mumbaikars, when required to, could negotiate with hard politics on the ground.
It is this previous experience that makes the outpouring of public sentiment following the 26/11 attack in Mumbai so baffling in its naïveté and in its apparent lack of social responsibility. Rallies, candles, banners, SMS and chain mails about unity can be said to represent a well-intentioned but fairly unproductive show of sentiment. At the other extreme are the calls to stop paying taxes and new formations seeking a more fundamental change in the “system” but with little awareness of their role in creating it; the language used is deeply anti-political and the perceived solutions are self-serving. Commentators have rightly criticised these tendencies so amply demonstrated by Mumbai’s elite, and yet the fact that so much has changed in a short span of 15 years leads one to suggest that there is perhaps more here than meets the eye.
Many have assumed that it is the attack on luxury hotels that evoked such a heartfelt reaction among Mumbai’s citizens. Even if it is true, it is a narrow interpretation. Consider the facts: at one time most Mumbaikars lived in or commuted to South Mumbai for work, shopping or education. Today the Mumbai Metropolitan Region stretches over 4355 sq km; the overwhelming majority of its 19.7 million people — including the rich — live in suburbs and townships each with their own bazaars, multiplexes, hotels, schools and offices and never need to head downtown. For a majority of Mumbaikars then, the sight of the burning Taj was not just about the burning of a hotel; it was also a reminder of the past.
It is significant how many people began to call Mumbai “Bombay” in the wake of the attacks. It was as if, like a precious possession stashed away to hide it from the ill-intentioned, the name was pulled out of its hiding place and flaunted on television, in print and in conversation. It was a reminder of how long the city has been under siege from the forces of religious and ethnic chauvinism; the thugs who vandalise cinema halls and academic institutions; rough up doctors and school principals, disrupt plays and art exhibitions, use foul and abusive language and who enforce nomenclature at the cost of disconnecting the city from its past.
Likely as not, the terrorist attack on “CST” may have evoked a far more sentimental reaction had it not been stripped of its old name, Victoria Terminus, redolent of history and nostalgia, thereby reducing the magnificent edifice to just another station. The severity and scale of the 26/11 attacks however shocked even Mumbai’s self-appointed guardians, the Shiv Sena and its other avatar, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena into inaction. For the first time in 20 years, their relentless rumble of threatening disapproval was silenced. And in that brief interregnum, ordinary citizens seemed to find their voices again.
What they had to say however made it clear that we are not going back in time. In the anthology, Bombay and Mumbai: The City in Transition (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003) sociologist Sujata Patel claims that two kinds of modernity were evident at one time in the city : an indigenous elite cosmopolitanism and a creativity spawned by a largely Marathi-speaking working-class movement.
One could suggest that in the post-liberalisation scenario, those two phenomena have been reproduced as crass and anti-modern versions of themselves: one became the moneyed elite, increasingly preoccupied with status and glamour and the other the violent so-called sons of the soil. If one accepts this interpretation then the blame for the blinkered approach of Mumbai’s haves cannot be attributed to them alone but has to be placed in the larger context of the liberalisation process.
In the last two decades, aspirations towards wealth and glamour have increased by leaps and bounds with the ultra-rich acting as the poster-boys of this revolution. Their role as flag-bearers and the extreme visibility awarded them have created a somewhat skewed perception of their significance both within their rarefied world and outside. To some extent it can be argued that it was always so but the intensification of this tendency has made an enormous difference. Mumbai’s older elite made the advertisements; today’s elite are the advertisement. And one cannot expect stereotypes to see beyond themselves.
The thinking has to come from elsewhere. Not enough thought has been given, perhaps, to liberalisation’s social and political ramifications. The attacks of 26/11 have spurred much reflection about our vulnerability in many areas: security, the treatment of minorities and so on. It is time also to look at the relationship between classes. To try and find a way that enterprise and competitiveness can be retained without losing empathy; to regenerate the human connection that once glued together this city of islands whatever be its name — Bombay, Mumbai, Bambai…
Shah is a Mumbai-based writer
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