Saturday, November 28, 2009

26/11 and all that anger

The little girl selling candles outside the Taj Mahal hotel was having the best time on November 26. No one quibbled when she asked for Rs. 10 for each candle. All kinds of Mumbaikars bought candles from her and others like her, and lit them ritualistically outside the hotel. Every now and then they would pause as they noticed one of hundreds of photographers positioning themselves to take the definitive picture of Mumbai in mourning a year after the terror attack.

While several thousands of Mumbai’s residents thronged the area in front of the Taj, a virtual wall made up of vehicles with generators separated them from another ceremony on the other side of the plaza around the Gateway of India. This was the VIP mourning session. The aam admi was kept out and Mumbai’s police were tasked with the job of ensuring that this distance between the important and the unimportant remain intact.

The November 26 anniversary in Mumbai was a spectacle in more ways that one. The candle lighting was predictable. Since the Jessica Lal murder case and Rang de Basanti, this form of remembrance, magnified by the electronic media, has now become a virtual norm. But the anniversary went beyond that.

The city seemed to be under siege again, or at least its southern part, as streams of important people went from one location to another paying homage to the dead while the police waved their hands and blew whistles to keep the roads clear for them. Earlier in the morning the flag march by the Mumbai police, when a part of the busy Marine Drive was blocked off at peak traffic time, failed to either awe or to reassure Mumbai’s harried citizens.

Omnipresent at every location was the OB van and dozens of journalists and cameramen. The media circus was on full display and was as much an object of interest as the events. Assorted groups with their own agendas used the presence of the media to put forward their messages. So a group from the BJP shouted slogans like “Phansi do, phansi do” demanding that the lone surviving terrorist Ajmal Kasab be hanged. The Hare Rama Hare Krishna brigade sang bhajans and danced around. An old poster, created after the 1992-93 communal riots by a garment manufacturer in Dharavi, the late Waqar Younis, showing four young boys depicting four different religions under the slogan “Ham Sab Ek Hain” was held up by a woman accompanied by a young man with a cutout of India and a national flag. Within minutes a crowd had gathered around them. And so on. It was a mela of personal messages and agendas. And somewhere in the background was the memory that a year ago the structure before which all this was happening had been under siege in one of the most spectacular terror attacks seen in India.

The odd slogans apart, what one did not sense was any anger. Disappointment, yes. But not anger. Not of the kind expressed a year back. So what had happened? Had people changed? Or had the anger drummed up at that time subsided because it had not been channeled into anything constructive? Of course, if you believed what you heard on television, Mumbaikars apparently were angry. Some of the talking heads on TV—the famous and the glamorous – declared repeatedly that they were angry and fed-up with the government and the political class.

Strikingly, those who said they were not angry were people who were still grieving a personal loss. People like Ragini Sharma, the wife of a ticket collector who was shot down at CST station. Or journalist Sabina Sehgal Saikia’s brother, who suggested that people needed to move on beyond anger.

Unfortunately, Mumbaikars have not moved on beyond anger or disappointment to any kind of engagement or effort to change the system. Venting is the easiest form of expression and the electronic media, in particular, now gives the famous and the ordinary a chance to do just that. But what is achieved at the end of all that except an accumulation of hot air?

In the Lok Sabha elections earlier this year, one person did attempt to engage with the system. Banker Meera Sanyal stood for elections as an independent candidate in the sincere belief that the anger expressed following November 26 would translate into votes for someone like her. Nothing of the kind happened. Her supporters deluded themselves up to the last minute. Ms Sanyal lost her deposit. Ms Sanyal has to be saluted for at least taking this step but have those who convinced themselves that she would win because she echoed the sentiments of people upset about the events of last November understood why she lost?

The elite and the middle class in a city like Mumbai are convinced that if they speak, the rulers must listen. So if they shout and say they are angry, those in power should shake in trepidation and immediately set about making changes. If they ask questions like “Why didn’t the NSG use tear gas in the Taj while tackling the terrorists?” they must be given a studied response even though the question arises from complete ignorance about how such situations are handled.

In between such questions being raised on prime time television, there is little or no engagement with the realities of the city. Some are engaged – and they are always the people who speak some sense. But their numbers are few, not enough to make a dent in the city’s development plans, to break the growing and obvious nexus between builders and politicians, to impact the course of decision-making on issues vital to people’s daily existence. The few exceptions are where people have decided not to sit back and protest but to organise and resist. Thus the residents of Gorai in northwest Mumbai, for instance, successfully prevented land acquisition for an SEZ that would have destroyed the lives and livelihood of thousands of fisherfolk and farmers. But apart from a handful of such examples of successful interventions in changing policy, Mumbaikars continue to demonstrate amazing indifference to their surroundings and only wake up periodically when disasters hit them – a flood, a bomb blast or a terror attack.

The problem with the hype around anniversaries like November 26 is that it is only hype. When anger does not lead to constructive engagement, not only does it dissipate but it also serves no purpose. If there is anything we should learn a year after November 26, it is this, a truth that has been self-evident for decades in this city.

(Also read my column on The Hoot on the media and 26/11 --


Girish Shahane said...

Kalpana, I think Meera Sanyal also fell prey to a misunderstanding. She stood for election to parliament, though decisions affecting Bombay are taken in the state assembly and the municipal corporation. She had nothing to say about national issues, her agenda focussed solely on Bombay, and yet she chose to contest an election which had very little to do with the city's development.
In a way, it was also an elitist gesture: for the head of a big bank, being anything less than an MP would be infra-dig: at least that's the way I interpreted her campaign.
That she got a low number of votes wasn't surprising; the likes of Madhu Mehta had exactly the same experience in the past. Mehta stood from South Bombay on a plank that found favour with Cuffee Parade professionals and received, if I remember correctly about 5000 votes.

Kalpana Sharma said...

Girish, I'm not sure it was a misunderstanding. I think her supporters felt someone like her was "fit" for Parliament and not the local bodies. This is the problem. This false hierarchy without any understanding of the nature of politics or how the system works. And the expectation that people will turn to such individuals just because they are different from the died in the wool politicos. Madhu Mehta at least dabbled a little bit in politics by associating with the Swatantra Party and was already a known public figure by the time he stood. The current middle and elite classes in this city believe that they can bring about change without engaging in politics.