If there is one thing that the last two decades have taught anybody who loves Bombay is that our city is no stranger to misfortune and disaster. In 1992 we had unprecedented and bloody communal riots. In 1993, serial blasts rocked the city, killing hundreds. The terrorism has continued sporadically ever since — the biggest recent blasts were two years ago — but when the bombers have given us a rest, the elements have taken over. Three years ago, the city nearly drowned after the biggest deluge of the century.
Such has been the spate of disasters that a special term has been devised to describe the city’s ability to cope: “the spirit of Bombay”. And while that now sounds like a horrific cliché, it does nevertheless accurately capture the ethos of this great city.
In 1993 when charred bodies piled up on the streets, the citizens of Bombay did not lose themselves in recrimination and grief. They got on with their lives.
Only once before have I felt Bombay rock and heave with anger. And that was in 1992 when the city burned and rioters ran wild in the streets. Nearly everybody in Bombay felt that the carnage could have been avoided. The police force had failed, the government took too long to call in the army and the Centre seemed indifferent to the fate of Bombay.
Much of the anger was directed at Prime Minister Narasimha Rao who either went into a coma or simply did not give a damn. But no politician was exempt from the public rage.
We hated the Congress where a quarrel between the Chief Minister and the Defence Minister prevented the government from responding quickly. We blamed the BJP whose supporters had brought down the Babri Masjid and set off the spiral of violence. And we loathed Bal Thackeray whose goondas roamed the roads, killing people at will.
In our view, the politicians had failed Bombay. And it was only a matter of time before they failed India.
Well, that time has come. 4 stages of terrorism
Not since 1992 have I felt so much public anger and outrage directed at the political class. People do not blame politicians for terrorism. We understand that this is a global phenomenon. We accept also that every attack cannot be anticipated or prevented.
But the Bombay attacks are different. Surely, they were not unexpected? After bomb blast after bomb blast and attack after attack, India’s politicians must have known that the city was at risk. And yet the authorities reacted to this attack exactly as they had reacted to all the previous ones: with astonishment and ineptitude.
How many bombs need to go off, how many innocents need to die before politicians realise that they have been elected to defend the people of India?
Consider the US. Nobody blamed George Bush for 9/11. And for all his faults he was able to ensure that there would be no terrorist attack for the next eight years. Or think of England. The country was shocked by the 7/7 bombings. But politicians assured people that there would be no repeat and indeed, there’s been nothing since. Think of Indonesia. The Bali bombing has not been followed by any terrorist attack on that scale.
I can think of only three countries where terrorism reigns unchecked: Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
Of those three, Afghanistan is at war and Pakistan is a failed state.
How is it possible that India, which we are constantly told is an emerging superpower, is on par with those two chaotic basket states? Isn’t it sad that even Baghdad saw fewer deaths last month than Bombay?
Are you surprised that people are so angry?
The fury against politicians is not directed at any individual or any single party. Rather it is an all-round rage against the entire political class.
Of course the ruling party gets it in the neck — with Shivraj Patil cast in the Narasimha Rao role. But so does the BJP. When Gopinath Munde arrived at Nariman House, there was widespread outrage over his attempt to seek a photo opportunity. When Narendra Modi turned up at the Oberoi to announce that he would give Rs 1 crore to the family of the slain ATS chief he had slandered in life, there was public revulsion. Even L.K.Advani was needlessly vilified for refusing to travel to Bombay on Manmohan Singh’s plane. (It was because Singh was not sure that he would make it to Bombay that day.)
I thought the SMSes about Raj Thackeray summed up the mood of India. Thackeray had no role to play in the aftermath of the attacks but the murder and the mayhem put his politicking in context. Bombay was not defended solely by the Marathi manoos. It was defended by Indians who protected other Indians — while this particular Marathi manoos — or perhaps that should be Marathi mouse — cowered at home.
The BJP has tried to turn terrorism into a political issue, suggesting indirectly that the government is not acting against terrorists because it is scared of losing the Muslim votes. The Congress has retaliated by pointing out that many of the terrorists are in fact Hindu extremists.
But what the public response of the last few days tells us is this: we don’t really care. As far as we’re concerned, they’re all the same. Of course the Congress is culpable for the Bombay attacks. But then, were things very different during the BJP’s term when Parliament was attacked?
The message from the people of India is that we are fed up of politicians who use terrorism as an excuse to win votes. We are fed up of the way they seek to pit Muslim against Hindu over the dead bodies of victims of terror in the cynical hope of winning the next election. We are fed up of their incompetence. And we are fed up of their tendency to play politics when they should be doing something to protect us.
Some of this is, I concede, unfair. We are not always sure of what we want. People complained in Bombay that there was no visible political leadership. And yet, when politicians turned up on the streets, they were derided. Some Bombay personalities called Manmohan Singh’s TV address ‘robotic’ and demanded charismatic leadership. But when Narendra Modi — probably India’s most charismatic politician — appeared, the people of Bombay acted as though they wanted to throw up.
So yes, public anger is not always rational and it’s not always fair. But then, what anger is? We resort to rage only when we’re confronted by injustice and are frustrated by our inability to make things better.
And God knows, we have enough to be angry about. We begin each day, unsure of how it will end. We say goodbye to our children each morning, not really sure when we will see them again. We hear a car backfiring and think immediately of bullets. We go to malls and wonder if terrorists will strike. We cancel our trips because we’re not sure that hotels are safe.
It was not supposed to be this way. This was supposed to be the Indian century. We were to be the objects of the world’s envy. Instead, we are now the subjects of its sympathy. What use is it to build a thousand malls if we are too scared to use them? What is the point of a million new cars if the roads are too dangerous to drive in?
In some strange way, I suppose, it is just as well that the terrorists chose Bombay and not some other Indian city. At least, Bombay knows how to take misfortune and is capable of bouncing back. But which of us can deny the citizens of Bombay their right to anger and rage? They’ve had enough and they shouldn’t have to take it any more.
In that and in every other significant way, we are all Bombayites today.