by Naresh Fernandes
Yasmin Shaikh was taking her evening stroll along Worli Seaface when a colleague called to tell her that a particularly violent gang war had broken out across south Mumbai. Shaikh immediately phoned her local police station to get more information. When they told the lawyer that the city was probably in the midst of yet another terrorist attack, Shaikh knew what she was expected to do. She contacted several of the 25 people who serve with her on the Nagpada unit of the Mohalla Committee Movement Trust and they spread out through their neighbourhood, putting up messages on blackboards on more than a dozen street corners asking residents to stay calm and urging them not to believe rumours. She spent the rest of the night calming anxious neighbours.
It is an exercise Shaikh has repeated many times over the past 14 years. She’d gone through the same routine on July 11, 2006, when blasts went off in local trains, and on August 25, 2003, when bombs went off at the Gateway of India and in Zaveri Bazaar. On these occasions and at several other volatile moments since 1994, when mohalla committees were established across the city, Shaikh and her colleagues have managed to hold the peace. Said Shaikh, “We have the responsibility of taking care of our own mohallas.”
The committees were among the citizens’ initiatives that sprung up in the aftermath of the three blood-soaked months of communal violence that seared Mumbai’s soul late in 1992 and early in ‘93. The riots of December ‘92 and January ‘93 killed more than 900 people, the majority of them Muslim, and culminated in a series of retaliatory bomb blasts on March 12, 1993, that left 257 Mumbaikars dead. The carnage overturned Mumbai’s long-cherished notion of itself as a cosmopolitan city that was magically immune to the atavistic passions that ruled other parts of India and exposed several systemic problems, especially an acute anti-Muslim bias in the police force. The shock that accompanied this realisation was just as intense as the anguish many Mumbaikars experienced after the terrorist attacks in November, which – like the violence 16 years earlier – highlighted many flaws in the city’s administrative apparatus.
But though these two sets of events have had a similarly explosive impact on Mumbai’s psyche, the manner in which citizens have responded to them couldn’t have been more different. In ‘92-’93, citizens groups quickly began to collect evidence to show where exactly the administration had gone wrong, and mounted pressure on the government to fix the system. Three independent fact-finding reports were issued. The mohalla committees followed shortly after. The brainchild of activist Sushobha Barve, the committees aim to help the police regain public trust and keep the peace by calling on the help of prominent citizens in each area in moments of tension. Despite the state’s failings, Mumbaikars knew that only the government had the funds, the staff and the mandate to tackle their problems.
By contrast, the protests and text-message slacktivism after the November attacks seem naïve in their rejection of the political system. For instance, signboards at the December 3 rally at the Gateway of India – an overwhelmingly middle-class gathering – called upon participants to stop paying taxes and stay away from the polls on election day. The variance in Mumbai’s reaction to the violence of ‘92-’93 and the November attacks highlight fundamental changes in the city’s character in the intervening years. But there’s a silver lining: the initiatives started 16 years ago could provide pointers on how to deal with the present crisis.
The period between the two crises coincides with India’s efforts to restructure its economy. The country’s new economic policies have included large-scale sales of socially owned assets, observers say, pointing out that this ideology of privatisation has had a crippling effect on Mumbai’s sense of the public. The city’s upper middle classes are increasingly attracted to gated communities and have chosen cars over public transport. “With liberalisation, there’s been a movement toward exclusive spaces,” said Teesta Setalvad, who was so shaken by the ‘92-’93 riots that she gave up her job as a journalist with a business magazine to start Sabrang, an organisation that combats communalism. “There’s less socialising in public,” she said. “Everyone now meets in fancy coffee houses.”
Though approximately 77 per cent of Indians remain under the poverty line, the country’s middle classes have benefited disproportionately from economic liberalisation. But this has only served to make them insular, some observers say. “The Great Indian Middle Class has been earning, buying, travelling and interior decorating but they haven’t looked to see what’s happening around them,” said Meena Menon, the vice president of the Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti, a mill workers’ union. In ‘92, the city’s middle classes embraced a much wider range of concerns, Menon maintains. “It was more cosmopolitan in class terms,” she said. “There was a camaraderie that Mumbaiites were very proud of. Everyone spoke for everybody.”
This isn’t to suggest that Mumbai’s middle classes have become entirely apathetic. Since 1998, when the municipal corporation started the Advanced Locality Management programme, the city has seen a rise in activism around civic issues. The corporation’s website says that citizens have formed 658 Advanced Locality Management groups that liaise with the authorities about garbage and sanitation. But Menon and others point that these groups have a limited focus. “It’s about their own neighbourhoods,” she said. “It isn’t universal.”
It’s a view that Gerson da Cunha, the convenor of the citizens group Action for Good Governance and Networking in India, accepts immediately. “We stick to areas we know and people we know,” he said. “Our role is to make the middle class more politically conscious.” To be fair, Menon points out that AGNI was among the groups that supported her union in its decade-long battle to demand that the 600 acres of mill land in central Mumbai would be properly planned, creating more open space and public housing. Still, when the Supreme Court ruled in May 2006 that mill owners could develop their 54 plots piecemeal, most Mumbaikars had no idea about the enormity of the opportunity that had been lost. This lack of knowledge mirrored the city’s lack of will to force significant change the previous year, when a cloudburst left 447 people dead and showed conclusively how our development plan had been completely undermined by builders in association with corrupt bureaucrats and politicians.
With the concerns of the middle class becoming increasingly centred on its own well-being, it isn’t surprising that the young people who thronged the Gateway on December 3 were clueless about how to respond constructively to the crisis. Shaikh, who was among the thousands of people who turned out for the rally, said that the mohalla committee movement to which she has devoted more than 15 hours each week for the last 14 years has taught her that there’s no substitute for hard work.
Among the reasons for the longevity of the committees, which now exist in 26 of the city’s 86 police-station jurisdictions, is the continued attention of middle class volunteers like Shaikh and former police commissioners Satish Sahney and Julio Ribeiro. Like Shaikh, Ribeiro has been associated with the committees ever since they were set up. Even though he’s 79 years old, he drives to slums in distant suburbs once or twice a month to address meetings, in addition to other administrative responsibilities. Representatives of all the committees exchange ideas at a monthly meeting in Worli. He said that the committees have been successful because they’ve acknowledged that the police have a vital role in keeping the peace, and have forced the authorities to work closely with citizens. The mohalla committees have also been sustained by the fact that their vision for communal harmony cuts across class lines, he said. “The middle class must realise that this city has a very vast underclass class that must be taken in partnership,” he said. “You won’t get progress in the city unless you include them in any initiative.”
A few days after the Gateway rally, Shaikh said that though she was impressed by the energy of the young participants, their anger wouldn’t come to anything unless it was channelised effectively. “To hold the government accountable, you need to have organisation,” she said. “And the only way to sustain an organisation is by devoting time to it. It isn’t easy.”
Mr Fernandes is Editor, Time Out. This piece appeared in Time Out Mumbai, and is reproduced with his permission.
The initiatives that emerged after the 1992-’93 riots could teach Mumbaikars how to focus their outrage at the November terror attacks.
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