One of the giddying changes in a new India is that we now live in an age where the newsworthiness of an event lasts hours or days at the most. By that yardstick, writing about the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena’s agitation last month is a definite no-no. This article has had to wait this long as distance is the only way to separate the hysterical media coverage of the actual disturbances with the larger, more disquieting aspect of those ten days. The aspect of what a difference there is from the perception of Bombay to the reality about it. <b1>
In all the juvenile, lopsided, sensation-mongering television media coverage (each and every news television channel disgraced itself) of the ‘event’, three facets went without almost any discussion. The first facet is to do with the mythicised, so-called ‘resilience of the proud Mumbaikar’. We heard so much about it during the train blasts of July, 2006. Yet, when I went on to the trains the next day and did a story, what emerged were not heroic Bombayites putting on their Superhero cloaks and striding onto the local trains with a collective spirit of never-say-die, but wary mothers putting their children on to trains because there was no other way to send them to school; women jumping into the ladies’ compartment because missing work meant losing precious leave; men rushing to catch the 7.10 because they had salaries to earn, families to feed. All of them, without exception said, “What else can we do?”
More significantly, they also expressed the feeling that the city should not give in to terror tactics, with some going so far as to say such terrorism would never work in Bombay as Bombayites did not get scared so easily. Impressive, but an absolute untruth. We Bombayites are among the most cowardly citizens of this country. Here’s why. Our courage was manifest during the bomb blasts because the enemy was nameless, faceless, some perpetrators of ‘international terrorism’. We leapt to speak with indignance, defiance, even patriotism, in the aftermath of 26/7. Where were we this time?
Which one of our citizens, our high-octane celebrities, our media-savvy politicians spoke out with indignance, defiance, patriotism? Not one, with the exception of Kumar Ketkar who tersely called the disturbances — and I paraphrase — a transparent stunt to get political mileage. Why didn’t we speak out? Welcome to the psychology of the coward who loudly abuses the bully only once he has disappeared around the corner of the street.
Never will a Bombayite stand up to an enemy who will remember your name and your face. We cowered in the confines of our houses when Muslims were being eliminated by a conspiracy between right-wing Hindu political forces and saffronised members of the Bombay Police in 1993. We turned our backs and ran home when Dalits and right-wing Hindus clashed last year (another example of gleeful, misrepresentative television reporting), and have done so again. Because we are scared of any enemy that is known, that is local.
But why blame only us when our politicians have let us down time and again? When they displayed such cowardice that night after night on television we winced to see the embarrassment and shame on the faces of senior police officials who were left with the blame of inaction last month?
The other equally — if not more — sad conclusion that one can draw about this city and its citizens is that when it comes to controlling political battles on our streets, we have no confidence in the police. Whenever a top-ranked police official in any major metropolis seeks to calm the fears of its citizenry with hard facts only to achieve next to nothing, it simply means people have no faith in his juniors on the ground. Joint Commissioner of the Mumbai Police, K.L. Prasad, appeared on television assuring Bombayites that incidents of stone-throwing and taxi-breaking were isolated and ridiculously small in number.
Yet all of us in Tardeo (where no violence was reported) shut shop and ran home. Not to mention, Andheri, Worli and even Altamount Road. Because we remember reports of police inaction we have read. Because we remember the findings made by Justice B.N. Srikrishna in his commission’s report on the communal role of some Hindu policemen during the 1992-93 riots. Because we remember constable Sunil More raping a teenage girl in broad daylight at the Marine Drive police chowky.
Yes it’s confirmed. Bombay has entered the vicious cycle of a citizenry at constant loggerheads with its protectors. Finally, there is the media-concocted myth of the famous ‘fabric of Bombay’. What fabric? The fabric that has been routinely torn to shreds by riots from, to cite only recent history, the post-partition carnage to the riots in the 1960s to the riots in the 1980s to the riots in 1993 to now?
What fabric? If there has been any fabric, I have certainly not witnessed it in my 37 years here. Ours is a city that lives together out of one-half sheer convenience and one-half sheer selfishness. What you will hear from most people in this city is, “Jab mein kuchh banoonga to mein thela bechke hotel banaoonga.” Or “Jab mein kuchh banoonga to Bandra mein do BHK khareedoonga.” Or “Jab mein kuchh banoonga to us director ki ma ch___ne wala hoon.”
“Jab mein kuchh banoonga...” “One day when I make it, I will.” That’s what binds this city together. That’s all. Sure, within it you will find a million kindnesses, a million creative solutions, a million things that work miraculously better than any city on Earth. But none of it from any encouragement from our politicians, our institutions or our collective spirit. There would be no point of this article if I felt there was no hope. There is. But for that first we will have to say: Yes, I am a coward. Yes, I am selfish. Yes, I have no hope from our politicians. But I have not broken any law. I have not harmed anyone. Then why am I scared? If everybody else is willing, I am prepared to take a stand against bullies. I am willing to stand up to that man with a rod in his hand. I will not back down. I will not feel fear.
How much more will you take, Bombay? This is one of the last chances we have. It’s now or never.
Rahul Bose is a Bombay-based actor and director