Why Mumbai did not stand up

  • Smruti Koppikar, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
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  • Updated: Jan 09, 2013 11:57 IST

Indeed, traditional inequalities, such as unequal treatment of women in sexist societies and even violence against them, or discrimination against members of other racial groups, survive by the unquestioning acceptance of received beliefs…Many past practices and assumed identities have crumbled in response to questioning and scrutiny," writes Dr Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate economist, socio-political critic and author, in his book "Identity and Violence".

The "questioning and scrutiny" on women's safety, security and place in public life in India have been relentless, heart-warming and promising, but largely limited to Delhi. Mumbai has expressed very little - actually negligible - rage, disgust and desire for change in law and governance on women's safety issues.

This isn't a Mumbai-versus-Delhi contest, which is at the best of times a futile debate. This is about Mumbai, the once reformist city that did not stand up to be counted. This is about the de-politicisation of the city, where years before the flame of nationalism was burning bright, mill workers, factory employees, students and a few women marched in protest against the incarceration of Bal Gangadhar Tilak by an insensitive British regime.

There was some noise the day the Delhi gang rape victim died but it was limited to the usual suspects - activists, women's groups' volunteers, a few opportunistic politicians even. College students, workers, professionals were conspicuously absent from the scene.

It's not that Mumbai is free of crimes against women; sexual harassment in public places is the new normal, rapes and other heinous attacks against women are routinely reported. Perhaps the situation is not as grim as in Delhi, but Mumbai could be a far safer city than it now is.

The regular litany of reasons have been trotted out: Mumbaiites have no time for such protests, the city demands a staccato treadmill-like lifestyle that leaves no room for political and social engagement, commerce and the earning of daily chapatti takes precedence over all else, and the rest of it. There's some truth to this, but the reasons for Mumbai's reluctance goes beyond the mundane.

The last few years and the last few state governments have robbed Mumbai of, among other things, two vital inputs: public places, geographically close to the seat of power, where large-scale protests can be held and sustained for days; and political mobilisation at college and university levels that inevitably followed the clampdown after a series of kidnappings and ugly battles on campuses in the late 80s and early 90s.

Ergo, at least two generations of Mumbaiites have grown up without any political engagement, public articulation of social issues and the experience of participating in social change. The youth do not have the appetite for agitations and politics, the city's stupendous workforce has no time for these. And, the Left-controlled trade union movement is rather marginal. The de-politicisation of citizens is inevitable and complete.

Who then will come out, protest, march, scream, scrutinise and question, except the small numbers that usually do? It's a pathetic comment on a city that once led social and political reform in the country.


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