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The City in Action: Bombay Struggles for Power

Locality, Power and Identity in Bombay City Mariam Dossal Here is a collection of essays by an eminent historian whose research and illuminating insights into crowd behaviour, changing forms of political activity and evolving identities have greatly enriched our understanding of Bombay city and its citizens. These 13 essays published earlier in journals and edited volumes are now accessible in a single important book. Jim Masselos

Locality, Power and Identity in Bombay City

Mariam Dossal

ere is a collection of essays by an eminent historian whose research and illuminating insights into crowd behaviour, changing forms of political activity and evolving identities have greatly enriched our understanding of Bombay city and its citizens. These 13 essays published earlier in journals and edited volumes are now accessible in a single important book.

Jim Masselos’ period of study extends over 150 years, from the 1860s to early 2000. It was during these years, writes Masselos, that Bombay city “metamorphosed from a colonial port city under foreign rule into a metropolis and the prime commercial node in an independent Indian nation”. To make for greater chronological clarity, the essays are placed in three sections: ‘The City in a Time of Empire’, ‘The City in the Time of Gandhian Resistance’ and ‘The City in the Time of Independence’. Bombay city as much as its inhabitants, are the protagonists of this study.

Each essay seeks to go beyond the spin-drift of events to reveal the depths beneath. Each examines the composition of the crowd and its complex and changing nature, as different social groups reacted to events in their localities, in their ‘mohallas’, ‘wadis’ and ‘gallis’. Changes at the local level affected public life in the city as a whole.

Power in the Mohallas

In the essay entitled, ‘Power in the Bombay “mohalla”, 1904–15: An Initial Exploration Into the World of the Indian Urban Muslim’, Masselos suggests that the mohollas, wadis and gallis were “much more than merely a geographical entity of a street or inter-link network of streets, lanes and alleyways; but also signified a social entity and often had a corporate existence”. It is here that the people lived their lives and constructed their identities. Tensions and conflicts that surfaced in these localities

book review

The City in Action: Bombay Struggles for Power

by Jim Masselos; Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2007; pp 414, Rs 695 (hard cover).

reflected the concerns and grievances of specific groups that dominated Bombay’s political and cultural space.

Masselos urges us to look beyond stereotypes that so often figure in public discourse. The term “Bombay Muslims”, for instance, is best used as an “umbrella term”. In the early 20th century it subsumed no less than 14 distinct sub-groups of Muslims, including Memon, Bohra and Khoja merchants and craftsmen of Sind, Gujarat and Kutch as well as Konkani shipwrights and peasants, and Julahas from the United Provinces, each possessing a rich linguistic and regional inheritance. Not to recognise this diversity is to flatten and homogenise, thereby losing out on a deeper understanding of events as they unfolded in the city.

It was on this complex urban stage that street violence, and communal tensions erupted in various localities of central Bombay during the years 1904-08. As increasing numbers were mobilised, sporadic acts of violence assumed greater significance. Masselos has paid special attention to the emergence of local leaders who responded to and raised new issues. Some took advantage of inflamed passions to promote their political careers. The newly formed Muslim League seized the opportunity to mobilise support for the party in Bombay’s mohallas, and acquired a larger urban and national presence.

Power in its various manifestations is the core concern of the book. Power exercised at both formal and informal levels, be it by government officials, municipal corporators, leaders of community ‘jamaats’ and trade unions, or by self-appointed leaders of street gangs and underworld dons. It is the central dialectic that enables an in-depth inquiry into social and political change in the city.

Dramatic Events

The 1870s, a dramatic period in the city’s

history, is the subject of Masselos’ second essay. Flush with funds and confidence resulting from the cotton boom, the municipal commissioner Arthur Crawford dreamt great dreams for Bombay city. However, July 31, 1865 the day of Crawford’s appointment, coincided with the news of the American Civil War having ended. Almost immediately thereafter, demand for Indian raw cotton by the cotton mills of Lancashire plummeted, sending the city into a financial tail-spin. Funds for his ambitious civic plans not being available, Crawford sought to raise money through the collection of long-standing municipal dues. Opposition grew and gathered momentum leading to the ratepayers’ agitation and to Arthur Crawford’s resignation in October 1871. Street meetings, public debates, newspaper reports and other forms of protest by the ratepayers brought civic issues to the fore and raised civic consciousness. Increasing numbers of Bombay’s inhabitants demanded that the public, rather than the officials, approve infrastructural projects.

In each essay, Masselos’ concern is to engage with an important event in the city’s history and to deconstruct it. He opens it up for closer investigation, urging us to probe deeper into the diversity and contradictions underneath the surface of dramatic events. In doing so, he draws extensively on the writings of leading anthropologists, cultural theorists and urban historians, such as Pierre Bourdieu, Gustav Le Bon, and Charles Tilly, to name but a few. Masselos urges other historians to join him in this endeavour to make historical analyses richer and deepen our understanding of the past.

Crowds and Crowd Behaviour

Illuminating insights into “crowds” and “crowd behaviour” in revolutionary France and Luddite Britain owe a great deal to the writings of social historian George Rudee. Masselos undertakes a similar study of crowds in Bombay, emphasising the need

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to comprehend their changing nature and composition, as well as the shifting hierarchies and power alignments within. He recognises that it is not enough to examine crowd behaviour only in its dramatic moments of violence and protest, but also in its more routine, silent and everyday moments. An example of such crowds would be the hundreds of thousands in the city who commute daily by bus and train. Their collective experience is worthy of investigation, because it would tell us a great deal about the manner in which Mumbai is managed and the class interests of those at its helm.

An important essay in the book examines the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1893, which by coincidence occurred exactly 100 years before the riots of 1992-93. Both dented Bombay’s cosmopolitan image, and their effects continue to be felt. Masselos uses the effective device of recounting the experiences of a single individual, the Hindu clerk, Bhayee Sett N Bhasker Madhow Sett, on the day the riots began. Caught unawares in the violence that erupted on the streets, Madhow Sett to save himself was compelled to change his dress, his class, his religion, even his gender: in short, to reinvent himself and assume new identities within the space of a few hours! He also had to traverse parts of the city which until then were unknown to him and was exposed to a wide range of experiences, that ranged from violent and aggressive behaviour to unexpected acts of kindness. It is not just crowds, shows Masselos, but individuals too that get transformed, especially in disturbed times.

Masselos reads the riots of 1893 as an active and changing text, rather than as a single phenomenon following a predictable path. During 1893, a series of Hindu-Muslim confrontations took place in different localities of Bombay city. Each could be studied individually, yet each was a part of the whole, which together coloured the political psyche of the city, and had long-lasting consequences. Newspapers and rumours played a critical role in the spread of violence, as the manner in which events were reported formented prejudice and stereotyped communities. When the police commissioner Vincent referred to Muslims as “infuriated mobs of Musalmans”, he stamped a certain

Economic & Political Weekly december 29, 2007

character on the entire community and contributed to the growing sense of alienation and fear between groups of Hindus and Muslims. Hindus too were referred to as “warrior Hindus”. The essay enables us to see the process by which communities were increasingly distanced from one another – to the point when a few decades later, it would be possible to speak of unbridegeable differences and justify the two-nation theory.

By all accounts the plague of 1896-98 was one of the most dramatic of events in Bombay’s history. A great deal has been written about it but Masselos’ contribution is to stress the importance of public and private space and the cultural divide which existed between the British and the Indians. Measures to contain the epidemic and to heal the sick led to confrontations between the inhabitants and officials. Visits by doctors and sanitary inspectors who undertook house searches and compulsory vaccination were resisted. The disease itself was viewed by the colonial authorities as one that affected not merely the individual, but implicated an entire family and locality. Congested and unhygienic conditions in Indian homes and in the Indian towns were believed to be the root cause of the epidemic. In turn, government’s efforts to contain the plague were experienced as an invasion of sacrosanct family and personal space. The protests were thus, as much a standoff between two cultures, as they were instances of conflict between government officials and the people.

Nationalist Consciousness

The essays in section two deal with nationalist politics and a growing nationalist consciousness in Bombay city in the early years of the 20th century. The liberal leadership of Pherozeshah Mehta and the Bombay Presidency Association had given way to leaders with more radical programmes of change, such as Annie Besant and Bal Gangadhar Tilak and their Home Rule Leagues. With this change, the possibility of a single city wide organisation representing the interests of different classes in the city seemed remote. It was on this fractured political stage that Mahatma Gandhi arrived and made a difference. Diversity gave way to more cohesive action.


An astute political strategist and master of innovative forms of political mobilisation, Gandhi used the ‘hartal’, the parade, the procession and innovative forms of political defiance such as the production of salt, and the principle of satyagraha, to mobilise large numbers for the freedom movement. In the process, a new political role was carved out for Bombay city.

During the Civil Disobedience movement, religious festivals such as Coconut Day, Ganpati Chaturthi, Diwali, Dussera, Eid, Parsi New Year and Christmas, were seen as opportune moments to celebrate “secular festivals” such as National Week, Tilak Day, Gandhi and Flag Raising days, to mobilise people and spread the message of freedom. Patriotic songs sung at the ‘prabhat pheris’ were yet another innovative form of political mobilisation. Bands of people paraded the streets at dawn, singing songs of freedom, at that hour of the morning when traditionally ‘bhajans’ and other devotional songs were sung. Dawn and the image of sunrise, referred to in the songs, linked beauty and freshness of the new day with the country’s political awakening and the promise of happiness and plenty that a free India would bring. Some songs lamented the lethargy of the people questioning: “How long will the inhabitants of Bharat remain asleep?” and exhorted them “Wake up at least now. O people of India”.

In his essay on ‘Bombay, August 1942: Re-readings in a Nationalist Text Masselos’ concern is the use of rhetoric during the Quit India Movement in 1942 to understand how those who opposed the raj represent(ed) themselves and their actions. While government’s actions and prejudicial views were reported extensively in the official press, it is underground literature that reveals the extent of growing political opposition. This literature, “took various forms, from broadsheets, single sheets printed on both sides, to cyclostyled foolscap pages. Some were written in English, others in Gujarati or Marathi, and others still were bilingual, partly in English and partly in one of the other languages. When underground presses were discovered and clamped down, many came to be typed or copied by hand and distributed, each message carrying the request that they be similarly copied and passed on.” Police and other reports too tell the story when information is culled by a careful reading between the lines.

More overt forms of growing opposition to government included attacks on grain shops, trucks carrying grain and sugar depots. The attacks on public utilities increased and in a number of places, telegraph lines and poles and mail boxes were destroyed. More serious were the attacks on police ‘chowkies’, some which were set on fire as increasingly the police became a target of public hostility.

Freedom and After

With August 15, 1947, came independence and freedom. The city was transformed into a theatre of celebration, in the streets, in public places and in homes. The mood, writes Masselos, “…was of intense goodwill and all of those who participated in the rites of passage, were wildly enthusiastic. It is hard not to use superlatives in describing the happenings in Delhi and Bombay, and in the other places, where

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communal antagonism had not broken out. In Bombay, for instance, people celebrated continuously over two days and through two nights.” There were fireworks, lighting of the city, torchlight processions and parades. Nightclubs “did a roaring trade as did the deluxe hotels with their special Independence Day dinners and their cabarets. Outside, the less wealthy danced in the streets and gasped at the illuminated buildings.” In places traumatised by violence and bloodshed, “there were no lights and the celebrations were limited to austere flag raising ceremonies”.

Just as contradictions dogged independence, so too did affect celebrations held on the country’s first Republic Day in January 1950. Communists in Bombay’s working class mill areas used the occasion to protest against the anti-worker policies of government. Other Republic Day celebrations too were seized as occasions to vent frustration and anger at government’s insensitivity to people’s suffering. This occurred in 1973, when severe food, power and water shortages racked many parts of the country and affected millions of people. Complexity and contradictions mark the effort to understand group behaviour and understanding becomes more challenging with the increase in numbers.

To make sense of developments in the present-day Mumbai, requires all the skill that a historian can muster. What continues to be shared in the city’s public culture, what remains distinctive about its localities, in what ways has the shrinking of open spaces affected life in the city, and how has the aggravated hunger for space contributed to criminalisation of political life are questions that now demand to be addressed.

Riots of 1993

Masselos suggests “the use of a mental map that is not based on a simple twodimensional grid of localities, ghettoes or enclaves, but one that is three-dimensional, allowing for the differences between those who live on the ground and in relationship to it and those separated in pukka buildings and in various forms of highrise structures”. He sees the economy as “a kind of black hole drawing more and more energy from the surrounding countryside into it”. Acute housing shortage and

Economic & Political Weekly december 29, 2007

economic disparities are keys to reading the

map. Equipped with such tools, Masselos

investigates the horrific riots that engulfed

the city in January 1993. In his view they

“acquired a form not quite like any that

have occurred in the city’s history until now.

Perhaps, they might be classed as the first

postmodern riots in the city’s history.” Masselos’ reason for seeing the 1993

riots as different is because: A sense of interconnectedness between the differing sections of the city’s population as a whole was replaced by a sense of interconnectedness with certain parts only of the population, not all of it. The sense of separateness as represented in the communal antagonisms was what emerged as uppermost in the riots. Similarly, diffusiveness and lack of central and government control was equally demonstrated during the riots and to telling effect in terms of the cost to lives and property. The consequences of the disorder are such as to lead to a questioning of the nature of the global city, the postmodern urban phenomenon. The flipside of such developments, the underbelly of postmodernism, is disorder, separateness, antagonism, destructive rampages against property, and lethal vengeance and killing of people perceived as other, apart, and different. And as these riots showed, there was not one but many axes by which difference and otherness was determined, not one but many agendas and likewise many messages

conveyed in the lootings, burnings, violence, and killings of the January events. One may question this way of under

standing the riots of 1993 and differentiating them from the riots that had taken place in earlier years, such as those of 1946 when religious sentiments were inflamed and Hindus and Muslims lynched each other and government intervention was ineffective. It seems here that Masselos is trying too hard to fit the events into a postmodern paradigm. But that apart, this collection of essays provides thoughtprovoking and insightful analyses into Bombay city and the patterns of people’s behaviour over a century and a half.

His is no mean achievement, for the city even in the 19th century contained the most diverse range of communities, languages, dress and customs of any city in India. A complexity that has multiplied many times over in the 20th century. It was also a city celebrated for its cosmopolitism, a cosmopolitanism which is endangered even as the city stakes a claim to being a global city. Masselos cherishes this cosmopolitism even as he details its diversity and difference, seeking to locate the many impulses that unified and helped raise national consciousness and achieve freedom. In sum, it is a remarkable collection and one which leaves the reader with a much deeper understanding of not just Bombay’s history and its spirited, people but the history of the country’s national movement.

Call for Papers

International Conference on: “Micro Finance-Achievements, Prospects and Challenges”

Department of Economics, Jamia Millia Islamia (A Central University) New Delhi – 110025, India

Analytical and Research Based Papers on various aspects of Micro Finance are invited as per the following schedule for the International Conference to

be held on 25.11.2008 to 27.11.2008.
1) Last date for submission of abstracts
(not more than 100 words) – 30th June 2008
2) Last date for submission of full papers – 1st October 2008
3) Contact:
i) Professor M.S. Bhatt
Chairman, Organizing Committee Email:
ii) Dr. B. Srinivas Email:
iii) Website:

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