Mumbai is delightfully different. At Davos, Mukesh Ambani says that Mumbai is for everyone, while Anil Ambani had earlier declared his admiration for Narendra Modi’s Gujarat, which wants to keep certain people out on pain of death. Rahul Gandhi chimes in and is threatened by the Shiv Sena which, in the meantime, has been told off by the national right for threatening pan-Indian unity. Amitabh Bachchan does an Anil Ambani and is warned off by the Congress which says, with unusual heat, that Modi is a tropicalised Milosevic. And the good, the bad and the ugly are all out in force and dominating our TV screens.
But do we need to debate civil rights at all? It only offers mileage to needy people like Uddhav Thackeray and Narendra Modi. Modi desperately needs an image makeover now that communal politics is passé. And the people of Maharashtra have expressed their views on the Thackerays through the ballot box, not allowing them to lead a government after the 1994 elections, when they capitalised on the 1992-93 Mumbai riots.
Civil rights are unambiguously defined in the Constitution. Mumbai’s Senas and the Gujarat government have impugned that Constitution, which guarantees rights to life, liberty and freedom of speech. We should indeed applaud Mukesh Ambani, Rahul Gandhi and Shah Rukh Khan for taking a stand. When business and political interests trump ethical and human concerns, speaking the truth is indeed a radical act. But should we not also ask, what has the law been doing all this while? It comes down on you like a tonne of bricks if you trivially disrespect the tricolour, though it is just the symbol of India.
Nothing much happens if you disrespect the Constitution, the founding document of India. Why are the Gujarat cases allowed to linger? Why do convictions for the Mumbai riots show a communal bias? And why is the law so slow to move against the Thackerays?
The issue about Mumbai’s cabbies having to know Marathi raises a contrary question: is it unreasonable for Marathis to expect their state capital to be recognisably Marathi? The metros are going multicultural because of increasing labour mobility. Twenty years ago, it was execrable to be Marwari in Kolkata, aggravating to be a ‘Madrasi’ in Delhi and impossible to get by without kunja Tamil in Chennai. That is no longer the case, but Chennai remains Tamil, Kolkata is unimpeachably Bengali and Delhi is butter chicken north Indian. Mumbai, on the other hand, has been culturally contested territory from the days of the Marathi-Gujarati language riots, and of the very first mafias. In fact, its cosmopolitan diversity is a microcosm of an incredibly variegated nation.
How does one square growing metropolitan multiculturalism with the linguistic basis of states which supports the idea of a single predominant regional culture? Should the major cities stand apart from the states they govern, islands of multicultural churning rising from monoculturally flat hinterlands? A lot of people in Mumbai believe this has already happened, and they are willing to defend their new habitat from the violent, monocultural Senas through political debate.
But when civil rights are attacked, debate becomes redundant. Mumbai should rather insist on legal action, with the vehemence with which it demanded security after 26/11.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine
The views expressed by the author are personal