December 7, 2002
We live in a terribly violent society. And possibly the intensity of this violence is felt more sharply in urban centres as exemplified in Ahmedabad and Delhi.
Although it is true that urban violence is inseparable from larger global trends such as the phenomenal growth of religious fundamentalism as well as misdirected rebellion manifesting itself in mindless terrorism, yet there is something specific about our urban centres that promotes a violent mentality.
Urbanity was supposed to destroy rigid, primordial identities and lead to the emergence of a new, open, accommodative and pluralistic culture. It was also believed that urban centres would represent scientific rationality, techno-industrial progress and a vibrant civil society filled with an active public sphere and life-affirming cultural institutions. But now we find that our urban centres are becoming increasingly insecure, tension ridden and pathological.
A significant reason for this crisis lies in the formation of a mass society. The gigantic scale of the big cities, their vastness and anonymity and, above all, the temporality of all associations and relationships have caused a high degree of alienation and rootlessness.
In such a society (or what David Riesman would have regarded as the ‘lonely crowd’) the soothing effect of secure cultural bonds declines. Not surpassingly, for a large section of the urban population, everyday life becomes excessively routinised, fragmented and devoid of a higher purpose.
It is this existential agony, meaninglessness and homelessness that tend to cause a violent, paranoid and insecure mind-set. It begins to strive for ‘saviours’; it seeks to invent a new ‘home’, it seeks to identify a distinct and clear enemy who can be blamed for all tragedies and misfortunes.
No wonder it entertains cultural stereotypes and gets easily affected by fundamentalist forces because these are the forces that always promise ‘instant salvation’ at the moment of uncertainty. The result is widespread sado-masochism.
Another major fact of our urban centres is that they are terribly unequal. For instance, if we look at the social profile of urban inhabitants we find rural migrants leading a ghettoised existence in overcrowded slums, a nervous middle class desperately trying to cope with the doctrine of the ‘survival of the fittest’ and a tiny affluent class possessing all the instruments and technologies of privilege and domination. This brutal hierarchy and asymmetry cannot generate a sense of cohesive community. Instead, it is bound to give birth to envy, jealousy, hatred and mutual suspicion. Furthermore, consumerism stimulates the desire for material goods which, given the available economic resources, are really difficult to obtain. Thus there is theft, robbery, murder and pornography.
There are three things that can be done. First, we need egalitarian and symmetrical development that would decentralise opportunities, resources and privileges so that organic links are established between the city and the village. As a matter of fact, cities cannot escape violence if villages continue to decline. A decentralised developmental model is needed which would restore equality and symmetry in our social landscape. Second, in order to promote a vibrant civil society, we need to create new urban communities through neighbourhood clubs, cultural organisations, local libraries, film centres and theatre groups so that the anonymity of the mass society is challenged and people can come out of their isolated existence and express themselves in a shared public sphere.
Third, intellectuals, voluntary organisations and cultural activists need to work on a participatory culture. It is through an aesthetic engagement with shared memories and folk traditions that we can create new forms of urban culture that can overcome the seductive influence of an aggressive consumerism.
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