Tuesday, November 27, 2012

26/11 and the dark side of globalisation

Yesterday, Mumbai commemorated four years of 26/11 with speeches and homilies and the kind of rituals that India is famous for. The security measures we have managed to implement since that day are also largely limited to speeches and rituals. On ground, little has been done to prevent another 26/11.
Mumbai’s ambitious coastal security plans are largely just that, plans. The patrol boats have technical issues, the bulletproof vests are still being purchased, bomb squad vests turned out to be substandard ‘Made in China’ ones, costal police stations still don’t exist.
All this is only to be expected. If a system as a whole is sick it is silly to expect it to suddenly start working perfectly after one kick.
Procurement throughout the government is mired in corruption and controversies. The police force is struggling to deal with modernity and technological change, quite apart from corruption and rampant political interference in transfers and postings. It is understaffed, underpaid, and insufficiently trained.
Instead of making serious efforts to restore basic systems to health, our leaders appear keen to perform some ritual cutting of ribbons that would magically fix everything.
This is emblematic of the Indian mindset.
When corruption is recognized as a problem, a Jan Lokpal Bill starts being touted as a magic bullet. When terrorism is a problem, a new National Counter Terrorism Center becomes the magic cure. For everything, the emphasis is on some shiny new therapy. Meanwhile the body itself continues wasting away.
Reasoned thinking would force one to conclude that basic systems and processes must start to work efficiently before the larger issues can be reliably solved. In a broader context, this would have to happen across South Asia for terror attacks to stop.
Most terror attacks emanate from Pakistan. In that country, the systems are weaker than here. Democracy is fragile, the courts dare not act against terrorists – the rare judges who have passed judgments against terror groups have had to leave the country and go underground – and even journalists are routinely subjected to lethal attacks. 
Indian Right-wing extremists, who see all of Pakistan as one, don’t seem to realise any of this. 
All indications are that the democratic government, large sections of civil society and media, and many traders and businessmen are in favour of better ties with India. It is in the interest of all Indians to extend the hand of friendship to these sections in Pakistan. This reality was recognized by the BJP as much as the Congress. Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani both made efforts to reach out to them.
Renewing such efforts will be especially important in the next two years, as US and Nato forces leave Afghanistan, and the situation in the region starts to deteriorate.
It is likely that Afghanistan will return to a state of chaos, with Taliban gaining influence. Everyone knows this and is preparing for it. The security establishments of India and Pakistan will find their interests colliding. The terror groups will find space again, and possibly return to action with renewed vigour.
It is important that India gets its basics right in policing and security before 2014 to prevent murderers like Ajmal Kasab slipping in. At the same time, the country must pursue peace with Pakistan, move towards peace in Kashmir, and stay out of military engagement in Afghanistan. The Americans may want us to get in deeper there, but that is fraught with danger. The Soviet Union failed there; the US and NATO have failed. There is no reason for us to enter that minefield.
All this talk of foreign affairs may seem far away, but it is not. Kasab came here from Karachi because he was motivated to fight for Kashmir. The Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and ISI are said to have launched the attack with an eye on Afghanistan, because Pakistani forces were being forced by the Americans to fight the Taliban. Another theory says the LeT was losing cadres to the Taliban and wanted to stop staff attrition. An American named David Headley did the site mapping. The whole thing was quite international.
It was a manifestation of the dark side of globalisation. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Late Bal Thackeray, man of peace?

In his lifetime, Balasaheb Thackeray was a divisive figure, known for his vitriolic remarks against South Indians, North Indians, Biharis, Muslims ... pretty much anyone who was not his beloved Marathi manoos. In death, remarkably, he became, at least for a day, a unifying figure, a man of peace.
Thackeray’s funeral procession started from his home in Bandra East and surged into the adjoining neighbourhood of Mahim, an area dominated by Muslims with a smattering of Christians, Parsis and others. People lined the roads. There were men in skullcaps and women in burqas. All shops were shut, and even water was hard to come by. Some among the Muslims provided drinking water for the masses in the funeral procession.
Further down the road, a small church, the Victoria Church, was having Sunday service. They wanted to hold a small prayer for Thackeray; the procession halted briefly for this, and a quick service was held on the pavement near the vehicle carrying the body.
At Matunga, a predominantly South Indian neighbourhood, similar scenes repeated themselves. Sikhs, who had kept their gurdwaras open to all for food and shelter, joined the procession at some places. There were slogans in Hindi of “Balasaheb amar rahe”. North Indians and Biharis were there in that crowd too.
It wasn’t just the Marathi manoos who turned out for Thackeray’s funeral. That crowd of a million was also a crowd of Mumbaikars.
The entire procession was peaceful. It was Mumbai’s syncretic culture that shone through in the end.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Balasaheb, Bombay and Mumbai

Bal Thackeray’s influence on Mumbai is not easy to comprehend. How did a man his colleagues at the Free Press Journal in the early 1950s knew as “mild-mannered and meek” come to be the tiger whose fear stalked Mumbai in life, and indeed, even in death?
Old timers who’ve known him down the years can offer some clues to why. P.K. Ravidranath, a former colleague of Thackeray’s who knew him as a cartoonist in 1952, and through the years after, says, “He was the one who gave the Maharashtrian an identity of his own in his own capital city”.
Mumbai came to be capital of Maharashtra only by and by. It started life during the Raj as a British city, capital of Bombay Presidency, which included the present states of Gujarat and Maharashtra, parts of Karnataka, and Sindh in Pakistan. The city then was truly cosmopolitan, and its leading lights other than the British were mainly Parsis, though it produced illustrious exceptions like MA Jinnah and BR Ambedkar.
When linguistic states were formed after independence, Bombay was not intended to be a part of Maharashtra by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. He wanted it to be a union territory like Chandigarh. It took years of agitations by the Samyukta Maharashtra movement to reverse that.
The identity of the city, therefore, was a mixed and contested one. There was a sizeable Gujarati population, a Sindhi population, a Tamil population, and people from along the Konkan coast down to Udupi, Mangalore and Kerala, among others. People from the hinterlands of Mumbai who migrated to the city often found themselves at the lower end of the social ladder, battling for jobs with migrants from elsewhere. They did not always fare well.
Thackeray the cartoonist created a character out of these people. While his senior RK Laxman created the Common Man in his cartoons, Thackeray created the Marathi manoos as an identity in Bombay politics. It was this demographic that he then came to represent.
Back in the 1950s and 60s, Bombay was an industrial city, with textile mills dominating. The politics of the city was a contest between the Congress and the communists. Workers’ union leaders were powers to reckon with; even in 1982, Datta Samant, who led the textile unions with their lakhs of workers, could easily bring the city to a halt, and did.
Bal Thackeray won his following, some say with tacit support from the ruling Congress in the early days, from among the same people who might otherwise have become communists. The creation of a political space based on his ‘sons of the soil’ slogan was the singular political achievement of Thackeray, and explains in some part why many among the Maharashtrian masses see him as a demigod of sorts.
It is because he championed their cause. He empowered them and gave them dignity; they may have remained poor, but they were no longer powerless. They had to be given respect, even if it was only out of fear. Denigrating them as ‘ghatis’ was no longer free of consequences.
In his person, and by creating a larger-than-life image, Thackeray also came to symbolize the collective power and pride of these masses. He is therefore an icon in the purest sense of the word.
His politics has been fractious, divisive, and often bloody, and his legacy in the shape of a changed identity for Bombay, which he renamed Mumbai, is unpalatable to many. But it is small surprise that Mumbai held its breath when Thackeray had trouble breathing. The lives of this man and the metropolis were that closely entwined.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Why Mumbai shut down over Thackeray rumors

It was a dull, grey morning that broke over Mumbai on Thursday; the city was wrapped in a post-Diwali haze. A silence and stillness at odds with the festivities of Diwali had descended. A city that never sleeps seemed to not have woken up. And all it took was a rumour.
Shopkeepers, taxi drivers, office goers, clung to their phones asking each other if Balasaheb Thackeray, the chief of the Shiv Sena, had indeed died. In Bandra East, the suburb where Thackeray’s house is located, crowds had started gathering the previous night; now they swelled. Shops across most parts of the city remained shut. Taxis and autos were few.
Outsiders to the city wondered what was going on. Why should the natural death of an old man of 86 lead to fears of rioting?
The short answer is that the man is a demigod to multitudes in this city. They would congregate in thousands to mourn him when he dies, and grief might turn to anger at the slightest provocation. It has been known to happen before.
When the Kannada film star Raj Kumar died in Bengaluru in 2006, of a heart attack at the age of 77, there were riots. Eight people including a policeman were killed, at least 20 vehicles were burnt, and damages ran to crores of rupees.
Thackeray is more of an icon in Mumbai than Raj Kumar was in Bengaluru. He has been a colossal presence in the city for the past 50 years. Not that any Mumbaikar would need a survey to tell him this, but, love him or hate him, he is the biggest icon of Mumbai. This was borne out by a survey conducted by Tehelka magazine and TNS in 2007. Mumbaikars voted Thackeray as “The biggest icon of Mumbai”. Amitabh Bachchan, the biggest superstar Bollywood has ever seen, came second. Sachin Tendulkar was third. Shah Rukh Khan made a very distant fourth.
Thackeray also made the top three in the list of most hated figures in Mumbai; he was third behind gangsters Dawood Ibrahim and Arun Gawli.
He has always been a strongly polarizing figure. His position as most loved and much hated means he arouses strong passions. It would therefore surprise only the politically naive or the ideologically blinded if Mumbai grinds to a halt, with sporadic incidents of violence, when Thackeray passes away.
His followers have a history of violence, and they have in the past rioted when one of their leaders died. This was in 2001; Anand Dighe, the most powerful Sena chieftain in Thane, wound up in a hospital with a broken leg following a road accident. He died the next day from a heart attack. He was 50. His followers, who suspected medical error because they couldn’t imagine their leader dying from a broken leg, ransacked the hospital and burnt it down.
In Mr Thackeray’s case, such an outcome is less likely, because his followers know of his old age and ill health. However, don’t expect business as usual for at least two days of his passing, whenever that happens. Cities don’t let go of icons easily.