Mumbai, as most global cities tend to be, is not a city; it’s many cities within a city, to borrow the phrase made familiar by the late urban historian and conservationist Sharada Dwivedi and architect Rahul Mehrotra in their path-breaking volume Bombay – The Cities Within. I recall an exciting and enriching conversation, which started off as a journalist’s interview and evolved into a typical Sharadaesque dialogue, about the cities within, days before the volume was released.
These cities within Mumbai, or “inner areas” as urban theorists call them, were the first places to witness and experience the devastating cycle of violence and counter-violence set off after the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. The anguish and angst of Muslim protestors clashed with the celebration and euphoria of the Hindu groups. As we mark two decades of the darkest chapter in the city’s contemporary history, it is pertinent to ask: can the city sink into that abyss of communal violence and counter-violence again? Or, for a commercial city, are communal riots so expensive that the commercialisation becomes its insurance against communalisation morphing into riots?
There have been a number of occasions in the last 20 years when communal peace could have broken; the pre-trouble edginess returns every now and then. The 92-93 riots, it is now well accepted, led to a never-before gentrification and ghettoisation of the then Bombay; these process have gathered momentum in the last few years making Mumbai a rapidly globalising city that ironically witnessed more gentrified and exclusive enclaves, more cities within the city. This, a section of urban historians argue, has led to better communal cordiality between Hindus and Muslims. It is, of course, debatable.
Mumbai may not have had a riot on the 92-93 scale since but it does not mean that there will never be another. The reasons are many: a deeply prejudiced police force, unresolved issues between communities at the local level, simmering discontent among many Muslims that the perpetrators of the 92-93 riots have not been penalised in any way, visible radicalisation in certain areas among members of both communities, fanatical religious and a few political leaders shamelessly exploiting the discontent or prejudices, and above all, successive governments willing to hunt with the hare and hide with the hound.
Above all, it’s possible because Mumbai has not been rid of what social scientist Paul Brass calls an “institutionalised riot system”. Brass, having intensively studied the communal fabric and riots in Aligarh for years, and observed it in other Indian cities, should know a thing or two when he states that riots do not happen, they are made to happen; that riots are necessarily a planned, orchestrated and institutionalised phenomenon.
Communal violence is embedded in a certain kind of provocative public discourse, a deliberate attempt to accentuate the differences between Hindus and Muslims, rising militant nationalism and similar factors, he argues.
Many or all of these factors are present in the many cities of Mumbai of 2012. They can only be countered by an institutionalised system of governance geared to counter the “institutionalised riot system. But, of course, such a system hardly exists in our city. The many cities of Mumbai have figured out, or are figuring out, how best to maintain communal cordiality, or a veneer of cordiality. It’s, of course, no match for the “institutionalised riot system”.