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Was 26/11 related to Bombay or India?

by Sujata Patel, 15 December 2008

print version of this article print version — 15 December 2008

In 1992 after the riots and before the 1993 bomb blasts in Bombay, we organised a seminar on the city and its changing identities. The seminar was held at an ‘interesting moment’ and people who attended still remember it. It was almost as if the events of late 1992 (the maha artis and the pogrom against the Muslims that followed the demolition of Babri Masjid) had propelled everyone to start thinking about the city in new ways- its cosmopolitan imagination against the increasing importance of identity politics, the declining proportion of its organised working class in context of its new service economy, the growing conflicts confrontations and violence across slums and middle class neighbourhoods and yet a solidarity binding its citizens through its vadapav culture and fascination for Bollywood.

Since the last week’s horrendous tragedy, a lot of people have called to ask me what this means to Bombay. The reason being that the media and various commentators are suggesting that this event is as significant as 1992-1993. But is it? Certainly the terrorist strike has dented the city’s reputation as an economic capital of India, (most commentaries have discussed the huge losses to the business communities but seem to have forgotten the daily wage earning workers) as a tourist centre and as a vibrant energetic city full of confidence and trust in its self.

The 1992 pogrom against the Muslims involved concentrated effort by politicians, policemen, and residents of the city to target the Muslims whether old or young whether rich or poor. The 1993 bomb blasts was an equally inhuman and calculating violent intervention. Behind this pogrom were issues that ranged from real estate to petty quarrels. And both acts indicated active involvement of Bombay’s citizens against another group of its citizens. It also showed that the image of cosmopolitanism that the city carried was a mirage and at best a lived experience of a small minority of its citizens. But there was a collective recognition that this cosmopolitan culture needed to be revived and reconstituted as it represented the city’s essence, vitality and creativity.

The assault last week was not an attack on the city-it did not involve the complicity of its citizens but it was an attack on India and revealed the country’s vulnerabilities today. It indicated that its governance and authority structures is ruptured and hijacked to satisfy personal interests by whosoever is the group in command for the moment. What we needed on Wednesday night was a disaster management programme. What we saw was a complete breakdown of decision making, line of command, complicated by communication and information chaos. The state was nowhere in the picture-rather private channels were organising the information and sometimes also spreading misinformation placing those who were caught in between at huge risk. There was no consciousness of the ‘public’ in any of the minimal interventions that the government made. And after it all ended when it did intervene, it was through symbolic gestures. Again the concern for the ‘public’ was missing; it was the elite that were listened to.

For long the elite in the city have been demanding that the city be run by a CEO in the manner of London or New York as if such changes will settle the issues of decision making and line of command for ever. Rather it may destroy whatever democracy is available and functioning at the local level. For in spite of the personalisation of authority structures, citizens have been able to mobilise their corporaters to intervene in local ward level issues, in small law and order problems thus ensuring that varied issues that affect the people are represented and that a vibrant democracy prevails.

Certainly we need a new system that functions and is efficient but we need one which is accountable not only to a few but to all the citizens. Our cities are huge (more than 35 of them with population over 1 million). More than fifty per cent of Mumbai’s population live in overcrowded dense slums where access to water, sanitation and living space is at premium What we need is to envisage new systems of representation that combines their aspirations for better living with decentralised decision making, accountability and transparency.

It is therefore extremely disturbing to hear on TV channels that the need of the hour is to introduce new terror laws even if it means giving up one’s liberties and making our democracy authoritarian. The example given generally is to emulate the USA after 9/11. But what did USA do after 9/11? The USA attacked Iraq. Just lets take a moment to think what has happened there, in Afghanistan and in Pakistan as a result. Also let us also look what have been the implications of the new law that has been introduced on the rights and liberties of individual citizens especially the poor, the African Americans and the other minorities. The cases filed across the US against the government indicate that it has taken over extensive rights of its citizens for itself. We are a new democracy. Can we sacrifice our future for the insecurity of the moment?

This assault also revealed the deep fracture that characterise our country at this point. It is to do with its attitude towards the minorities and particularly the Muslim community. The representations of Muslims in modern institutions are abysmal and are related to their educational status. Also huge proportions of them are from OBCs and suffer from both economic and religious discrimination. Policies to create spaces for them have been minimal. And with the state and its institutions become personalised and its officers having hijacked these to cater to their caste and community (read Hindu) interests, discrimination against the Muslims and targeting them for all ills have become common.

In 1992 and 1993 Mumbai showed a dark side to India. However from its embers it rose to assert its creative cosmopolitan and vibrant side. This history needs to be recapitulated and refreshed. Given the huge population that people our cities, no security personnel can make us safe. Safety and security can emerge from personal and group vigilance and therein lies the future for both Bombay and for India.

Sujata Patel is a sociologist at the University of Pune and coeditor of three books on Bombay