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Wounded Mumbai

The 13 July bomb blasts in Mumbai have posed questions once again about the vulnerability of the city to terrorist attacks. But everyday life is itself terrifying for the majority in Mumbai. It is a terror to which you get inured; you do not even think of it as terror. One of the key issues in dealing with the vulnerability of Mumbai is of enhancing a sense of citizenship in all residents, and not just the privileged. It is the erosion of that sense of association with the city, exacerbated by divisive politics, that needs to be addressed - not to deal just with external terror attacks, but to tackle the terror of people's daily lives.

COMMENTARY
Wounded Mumbai Kalpana Sharma riot. But communalism, sectarian politics, divisions along religious lines, are now well entrenched. Mumbai’s famed “cosmopolitanism” is just a chimera – a nostalgic harking back to a past that has

The 13 July bomb blasts in Mumbai have posed questions once again about the vulnerability of the city to terrorist attacks. But everyday life is itself terrifying for the majority in Mumbai. It is a terror to which you get inured; you do not even think of it as terror. One of the key issues in dealing with the vulnerability of Mumbai is of enhancing a sense of citizenship in all residents, and not just the privileged. It is the erosion of that sense of association with the city, exacerbated by divisive politics, that needs to be addressed – not to deal just with external terror attacks, but to tackle the terror of people’s daily lives.

Email: kalpanasharma@epw.in

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city bleeds. Three bombs rip apart some of its many congested locali ties. Twenty people die, 131 are injured. And the residents of that city collectively ask: Why? Why here? Why now? Why us?

The 13 July serial blasts in Mumbai’s Zaveri Bazaar, Opera House and Dadar were not the first. The city has a list of significant “terror” dates: 1993, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2008 and now 2011. The 13 July blasts were not as devastating as the previous ones. Many more were killed in the serial blasts that ripped through the city’s “lifeline”, its commuter trains, on 11 July 2006 and even more on 12 March 1993. Yet each time terror strikes Mumbai, people still ask the same question. Why?

The answer to that question is neither simple nor obvious. It has been hovering in the air for decades. It is rooted in the city’s history, its trajectory of maldevelopment and its politics. Yet, the relevant question is not “why” but “what”, what terms like “terror” and “security” actually mean for Mumbai’s residents.

The first terror strike took place on 12 March 1993 when 13 huge RDX-laden explosions shook the city from its southern tip in Nariman Point to the Santa Cruz airport in the north. Hundreds were injured, 257 people died.1 On 13 March, the city got back to work – much as it did on 14 July 2011. But something changed then. And Mumbai has never been the same again. The 1993 serial bombings sent out a clear message. They came within weeks of the end of the worst communal riots Mumbai had ever seen, the post-Babri masjid conflagration that stretched from the night of 6 December 1992 right up to the end of January 1993. The majority of those killed were Muslims. The serial blasts sent out a message – that the victims of the targeted killing would not sit back and accept their fate.

Since 1993, barring minor eruptions, the city has not seen a major communal

July 23, 2011

long since faded away. Today, there is a visible physical division in much of the city although so-called “mixed” areas still remain.

Intersection of Divides

Apart from the communal divides, the new ones that have grown since 1993 are economic. And both intersect. No other city in India exposes in such vulgar starkness the gap between the rich and poor. The imagery is as pervasive as it is clichéd. Glitzy high-rise buildings stand indifferently next to squalid slums. Working class areas are being transformed into playgrounds for the wealthy.

Yet, this is a divide that has not produced a violent response, so far. Writer Gyan Prakash suggests that “The thread that holds together Mumbai’s disparate social, cultural, and political fabric is the everyday practice of human interactions”.2 It is true that economic interdependence and the challenges facing most individuals as they negotiate a city like Mumbai engender a certain level of tolerance. But this tolerance is only on the surface. Dig deeper and you see the borders and dividing lines, the separate localities, the absence of mixing, and the suspicions about “them” that surface at the slightest provocation. There are times when “them” can also mean the poor, the migrants, the outsider, the Bangladeshi, basically anyone who reminds the privileged that Mumbai is a city of the poor, of struggling people, that it is a century away from being the “global city” of some people’s dreams.

Apart from Mumbai’s cosmopolitanism, another fable is Mumbai’s famed “resilience”, trumped up by the media after each such terror attack. It is as meaningless as the talk of cosmopolitanism. Mumbai is not resilient; it is a city without choices. Resilience is not a choice here; it is a necessity, essential for survival in a city where almost everyone is scrambling for space, for air, for water, for food, for work, for shelter.

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Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

Is Mumbai “dogged by the demons of terror” as some television channels put it the day after the recent bombings? Is Mumbai more vulnerable than other cities in India? Not really. Other cities have also been hit by terror attacks. What makes people in Mumbai feel as if their city has been singled out is the dramatic nature of the three big terror attacks – the 1993 serial blasts, the 2006 train bombings and the 2008 terror attack on locations in south Mumbai. In that sense no other city in India has experienced anything of this size and proportion, or frequency.

Terror of Daily Life

But there is also the terror of daily life in the city, one that kills and maims many more than a single terror attack. More people are killed in accidents on Mumbai’s trains each year than in a single attack.3 New investments in enhancing public transport, used by almost 90% of the city, are always too little and too late. So what exists

– the trains and buses – are simply not enough. A daily commute is just one of the daily terrors of life in the metropolis.

Every monsoon hundreds of people in the city are killed – by disease, by crumbling buildings, by retaining walls built to protect precariously perched slum settlements that collapse, and by flooding. There is no romance in the monsoon for half the city that lives in impermanent or dilapidated housing.

When there is no rain, there is no water. The daily terror of finding enough water is something that people in cities around India understand. But in a city where so many live in slums, the torture of ensuring that you are around to catch the stream when it flows (with water being released only for a few hours everyday) is a daily challenge that women, in particular, must overcome. It generates on a daily basis high levels of tension, of suspicion and of violence. But there is always enough water for the few who have private “lap pools”.

For Mumbai’s Muslims, the 1992-93 riots permanently altered their relationship to the city. Now, routinely, they experience a special brand of terror each time the city experiences a “terror” attack. There are marked localities where the police round up “suspects”, often former members, sympathisers, or even friends of sympathisers of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). They are hauled over to the police station for questioning, sometimes detained for several days without charge. The police justify this saying this is part of their job. For the community that sees it happening repeatedly, it is a reminder that they will never be accepted as trusted citizens of the city.

There is also the terror that every “north Indian” vendor feels each day that he ventures out with his wares in this city of growing intolerance. Could this be the day when goons from the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena or the Shiv Sena will decide that his wares have to be trashed and he has to be given a beating in full view of television cameras to teach “outsiders” a lesson that they are barely tolerated in “Amchi Mumbai”? If one adds up the daily levels of violence that are being perpetrated in the name of cleaning up Mumbai, or making it more livable, they would easil y exceed the violence of the repeated bombings.

Special Brand of Violence

In the last two decades, it is this special brand of violence that often surfaces without any warning, and whose victims are always those who are denied citizenship of the city and who cannot fight back, that has terrified thousands of ordinary, hardworking people in Mumbai. Tragically, it is precisely these people who fall victim to the bombings. In the crowded by-lanes of Zaveri Bazaar and Opera House, many of those who were injured or died were street vendors. It was the same story in 2003, when serial bombs went off in the car park near the Gateway of India and once again in Zaveri Bazaar.

The question of security constantly resurfaces after a bombing. Are Mum bai kars insecure? Has the government failed them in providing security? Who is to blame for the recurring pattern of “terror” attacks?

In Mumbai today, old neighbourhoods where people knew each other, are rapidly being replaced by indifferent so-called “modern” housing, where people lock themselves out of the city and their neighbourhood. A city where housing opened out onto the street in the classic mixed neighbourhood is now increasingly becoming one where gated communities build their own disconnected yet apparently “secure” world. That security consists of high walls, CCTV cameras and security men that screen those that do not fit the profile of these housing estates. The highly monitored sanitised world is deemed to be “secure”.

Yet ask slum-dwellers how they view security. They will tell you that they are secure in their neighbourhood because everyone knows everyone else, no outsider can enter without someone noticing the person, and at times of need most people come out to help. Gadgets like CCTV cameras cannot enhance their sense of security. What they want is “secure” housing, a place where they do not need to worry about the municipality’s demolition squads, or the designs of a builder wanting to redevelop the land on which they have lived for decades. No one speaks of that kind of “security”.

They want security from the people who set fire to a slum. That is also terror of a kind. People lose their lifetime of belongings. A builder steps in to redevelo p the land. And those who lived there peaceably for generations are told they have to prove their “eligibility” by producing the very documents that have been destroyed. Can there be anything more terrifying than finding yourself homeless and documentless in a city like Mumbai? Everyday life is terrifying for the majority in the city. It is a terror to which you get inured; you do not even think of it as terror.

None of this diminishes the sadness, anger, helplessness that attacks like the 13 July bombings bring out in the ordinary citizen. More so when they learn that funds allocated for enhancing security lie unused and that even the chief minister of their state could not reach the police chief for a full 15 minutes after the first bomb went off because the cell phone networks were jammed.

Clearly, the issues of funding, of governance, of intelligence failures, etc, have to be addressed. The talk that follows each incident ends up leading to no perceptible change, thereby enhancing people’s sense of despair and their cynicism about the political class. Yet, even if Mumbai had efficient policing, more CCTV cameras, an efficient intelligence gathering system and an efficient state government, there is no guarantee that the attacks would

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
July 23, 2011 vol xlvi no 30

COMMENTARY

stop. The factors that are responsible for India’s vulnerability go beyond one city in the country.

At the same time, as the focus has turned on Mumbai, the vulnerability of Mumbai needs to be addressed. And one of the key issues is of enhancing a sense of

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citizenship in all residents of the city, not just the privileged. It is the erosion of that sense of association with the city, exacerbated by divisive politics, that needs to be addressed – not to deal with external terror attacks, but to tackle the terror of people’s daily lives.

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Notes

1 http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/india/ database/mumbai_blast.htm.

2 Gyan Prakash, Mumbai Fables, HarperCollins, 2010, p 324.

3 See Cehat website on accidental deaths and injuries on Mumbai’s trains “5,513 Railway Deaths in a Single Year of 2002-03”: http://www.cehat.org/ railwaypil.html.

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July 23, 2011 vol xlvi no 30

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

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