Sunday, February 10, 2013

Mumbai Two Decades After: Landscapes of Exclusion, Mindscapes of Denial

Mumbra, as seen from Google Earth

My essay in Vol - XLVIII No. 07, February 16, 2013 of the Economic and Political Weekly on the demographic and attitudinal changes Twenty Years after the Bombay Riots.

Mumbai Two Decades After:
Landscapes of Exclusion, Mindscapes of Denial
(in: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol - XLVIII No. 07, February 16, 2013) 

Twenty years after the communal riots of 1992 and the serial bomb blasts of 1993, Mumbai finds itself demographically changed. Muslim families are being forced to move to distant suburbs. The "outside" becomes peripheral to the lives of the men and women inside the new enclaves, especially the young males brought up in the restrictive practices of the ghetto, who use it for unrestrained risk-taking.

In December 2012, several families staying in a relatively poor neighbourhood of Nalasopara, one of Mumbai’s western suburbs, got a rude shock when they saw that the electricity bills listed their address as “Chhota Pakistan”. While a section of the media expressed outrage, the usage of this term is not unusual (except for its appearance on an official document generated by an agency of the state). Despite the fact that this neighbourhood did not have any significant communal history, the appellation, odious as it was, generalised the presence of a significant group of Muslims living close to each other. The name then can be comprehended as a common, rather than a proper noun.

When it comes to Muslims the city works with labels. Exclusionary descriptions like “Chhota Pakistan”, “Chhota Bangladesh” or “Laden Nagar” have sunk deep into the consciousness of Mumbai’s citizens to the point that these can be used to direct autorickshaw drivers when you want to go there. It is likely therefore that the Maharashtra State Electricity Board (MSEB) used this term unselfconsciously and therein lies the insidiousness. After the blood-shedding of 1992, which turned gorier in 1993, Mumbai has seen shifts in its demography. However more than the physical ghettoisation of Muslims into certain areas of the city, it is in the mental maps created as a result of this that the city has been reorganised. There are areas where “they” live. There are places where “we” do not go.

It is 20 years since the riots that rocked Bombay in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhya. Mumbai has hardly experienced reconciliation since. The punishment for its perpetrators has been handed out only fitfully along a perpetually winding road. Children born in 1992-93 have now reached adulthood. For many of them, there has been very little interaction with people outside their own community. Both Hindus and Muslims have been brought up on separate memories (and mythologies) of the riots in some cases known by the places affected like the “Radhabai Chawl”, “Suleiman Usman Bakery”, “Hari Masjid”, and on separate senses of the self and of the other.

It is also 20 years since the old regimes of state control gave way to the laissez-faire of liberalisation. While it allowed for mobility towards relative affluence and unbridled consumerism, it also legitimised the exclusion of those it left behind. The enterprise afforded by the new paradigm combined with the increased mobility of transactions made possible by the information technology explosion has taken up much of the mind-space, especially in the last 10 years, occluding the fact that the events of 1992-93 left behind unfinished business. The city moved on, taking those who moved on with it, and those who did not simply sank to the bottom. Now after 20 years it is the flotsam of superficial normality that gives us the space to look back.

Separate Spaces and Practices

A majority of the riot victims were Muslim (900) but many more Muslims were hurt, traumatised, dis-housed and eventually stigmatised. Any effort to appreciate the changed city has to be made from their perspective. The riots were followed at first by a long silence, stretching into many months. This was briefly punctuated by the serial blasts of March 1993, which left 250 dead. Before the city could get back to normalcy, shifts in the location of Muslims had begun to substantially alter its demography. Places like Mumbra (near Thane), Jogeshwari east, Powai and Kurla began to see the influx of Muslims relocating from central Mumbai (from areas like Tulsiwadi, Asalpha and Ghatkopar) and seeking refuge in areas with co-religionists. The refuges turned into enclaves as more and more Muslims settled there permanently and then turned into ghettoes. Many areas became Muslim-dominated only because the Hindus moved out of there. Examples of this are areas like Naupada and Behrampada.

These newer, substantially Muslim, neighbourhoods contrasted with those that were earlier seen as Muslim areas in Mumbai. The city has traditionally been a “mosaic of subcultures”, to use a term by the urbanist Chistopher Alexander (C Alexander, S Ishikawa and M Silverstein (1979), A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, New York: Oxford University Press) to describe a place where people “choose to live in, and still experience many ways of life different from their own”. Places in the city could always be described in religious or linguistic terms (Bohra, Marathi, Jain, Roman Catholic), but the edges to these areas were always amorphous. In a neighbourhood like Masjid Bunder for example, cross streets differentiated communities. Most Muslim localities were like this, several of which are located at the eastern port end of Mumbai.

After 1993, these older localities continued as before without significant shifts, and slowly these commercially dominant areas returned to some semblance of business as usual, but things had substantially changed in the attitudes of the rest of the city towards them. The old collegiality and willingness to do business with whoever was as willing had vanished, and bitterness for the other was pervasive. Neighbourhoods now developed hardened edges, with overt displays of community and religious identity in the public realm that over time became entirely separate in their spaces and their practices.

This bitterness is the direct outcome of a sense of victimhood among Muslims. It is fuelled by a discourse amongst them that only Muslims died during the riots and that the perpetrators were not only free but flourishing with many of them rising to political office. This alienation plays out in two ways. First, in the form of fatalism that reconciles them to a belief that justice will never be done, so one should move on with one’s life in whatever manner possible, that religion is the only solace and that “Allah will take care of all things”. Meena Menon, in her survey of the lives of those affected by the riots (Riots and After in Mumbai: Chronicles of Truth and Reconciliation, Sage Publications, 2011) writes that the alienation from the majority community has led to many Muslims “huddling together in the ghettos (with a) reluctance to talk or meet on this issue and a feeling of lethargy and hopelessness”. The second form of alienation borne out in many subsequent interactions with the state (mainly the police) leads to the view that the world outside their ghettos (whether physical or of the mind) is somehow no longer theirs. There is a tremendous loss of confidence in society (according to Menon), in the judiciary, the police and even in the media.

The vacuum created by the exclusion of communities has, according to urban researcher Sarover Zaidi, been filled over the years by a modern form of Islamisation wrought by several ultra conservative Sunni and Shia academies and phirqas with strong forms of organisation and mobilisation and who have steadily gained support on the ground. They have played on the sense of despondency in the Muslim communities, especially in the newer settlements on the periphery of the city by bringing in a sense of purpose and activity, but one ensconced squarely within the rubric of their specific communities. The erstwhile spirit of cosmopolitanism has been further challenged by their infiltration into Sufi cultures that had always existed in Mumbai, resulting in Hindus retreating from these places and making space for Wahhabist tendencies, fixing identities and sapping its syncretic strength. The Muslim enclaves have thus been reinvented economically and socially (bound by a kind of conservative homogeneity), where order and transaction are common law. Quotodian operations are internalised, creating a kind of self-sufficiency thus increasing isolation from the world outside. The very exclusion that these communities are subject to has been made into the subject itself. The world outside is a different place.

The Badlands

In this restrictive world view, the spaces outside the ghettos are the badlands. Not only places where individuals will be shunned for who they are, but where legal recourse, when needed, may be denied. The flipside of this is that the badlands transform into a myth-world where the common-law discipline of the ghetto no longer exists, and one may freely roam its streets ignoring (or flouting) both the laws and the civilities of quotidian metropolitan life. This is seen especially among younger Muslims, who having been brought up conditioned to this mindset, and straining under the restrictive practices of the ghettos, use the city outside for unrestrained risk-taking. It is a common sight to see young children (all male) travelling on the roofs of commuter trains or performing peer encouraged stunts outside its doors, riding two-wheelers recklessly, breaking traffic laws, ruling the night, as it were, with drag-racing along the Marine Drive. This behaviour is indexical of a larger world view, and as these youth grow into adults and take their place as producing members, the city that they inhabit becomes more and more peripheral to their existence.

For Muslim women, the restrictions are manifested in two ways both inside the ghettos and outside in the wider world. Within the community, women are conditioned and coerced to conform to whatever prevalent tehzeeb is accepted as common law, and this is seen mostly in sartorial prescriptions and limited or mediated mobility. The necessity to partake in the membership of the community and its rituals become mandatory. Outside too, Muslim women are instantly foregrounded because of their distinctive hijab, the burkha or rida (as in the case of the Bohras) and thus singled out. Stereotypes kick in instantly and make these women subject, at the same time, to exclusion and to self-consciousness.

No Place for the Other

Four significant events in Mumbai have left their mark (and scars) on its denizens, each contributing to an evolving language of “otherness”. Mumbai has never been free from communal rioting. Even within living memory, the riots of 1969, 1981 and 1984 stoked the flames between Muslims and Hindus, never allowing them to see each other with empathy. The 1992-93 riots alienated the two communities more than before and consolidated separate positions within Mumbai. The riots were followed by the serial blasts of March 1993, and as it became clear that they were the handiwork of the Mumbai mafia led by Dawood Ibrahim, the generalisation of Muslims not only as “the underworld” but as “terrorists” came into common usage. The impression of the “terrorist living next door to us” became further entrenched with the seven bombs that went off in suburban trains in Mumbai in July 2006, killing 200 citizens. The “26/11” attacks of 2008 that led to the death of 164 Indians and foreigners conflated the image of terrorists and Pakistanis into a common cautionary rhetoric that coloured all dealings with Muslims in the city.

The city outside has reinvented itself too. While not ghettoised to the extent of the Muslim localities, identities are redefined and represented in overt and covert assertions of religiosity or cultural convention. In 2008, a family in a housing society in Andheri was denied water and electricity by the other (predominantly Jain) members because they were Muslim. This situation continued for two years before it became public knowledge. Housing societies in Mumbai routinely prevent inclusion into their membership on the basis of religion, language and dietary habits. Such discrimination was legitimised in 2005 by the Supreme Court allowing housing societies to sell or lease apartments to those of a single religion, citing the freedom of association under Article 19(1)(c). Today this is manifest in an across-the-board rejection of Muslim families seeking homes in mixed neighbourhoods. Whether for ownership or for lease, housing to Muslims is routinely denied by mutual consent. House agents are instructed to accept offers from anyone except “Mahommedans”. Muslims have to fall back on homes within the enclaves, further hardening the demographic edges between communities in the city.

Despite the large-scale building activity that is currently underway throughout Mumbai, the only projects advertised by real estate developers “friendly” to Muslims are on the fringes of the city in places like Badlapur, Nalasopara and Mumbra. The one exception to this in the heart of Mumbai is the Bhendi Bazaar redevelopment project, currently underway, that is propelled by the affluent community leaders of the Bohras. More than 200 buildings in the dense inner city are being developed to rehouse around 20,000 residents over a period of time. This project too hardly represents the city, and is conceived mainly as a haven for the Bohra community. It is a given that Muslims seeking housing in Mumbai will only find it within Muslim areas.

Consolidated and Carved

The earlier ethos of secular coexistence is no longer sacrosanct even though no riots have occurred in Mumbai on the scale of those in 1992-93. This is despite the provocation of repeated serial bomb blasts in the city some targeting specific non-Muslim communities. Even the 60 hours of violence perpetrated during the Mumbai attacks of “26/11” have not resulted in retaliation against Muslims in Mumbai. Ever since 1993, several engagements between Muslims and Hindus have been mooted and practised (by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and even the Mumbai police), but these have at best contained violence, not effected reconciliation.

The ruptures are too deep for darning and have not been helped by the perceived absence of justice and an ongoing sense of repression and surveillance. Journalist Naresh Fernandes who covered the riots of Mumbai said in a recent meet to remember those events that “by not dealing with these injustices, we have begun to deal with other injustices”. There has been a normalisation of attitudes, a legitimisation of differences and spaces in the city have been carved, created and consolidated for “us” and “them” to operate in well-defined separation. Meanwhile outside the stereotypes predominate unhindered.

While returning from this meeting which recalled those bloody months I caught a taxi from Churchgate to Bori Bunder. Another taxi cut into our path and my driver remarked sharply “Bhendi Bazaar ki paidaaish lagti hai!” (Has to be the spawn of Bhendi Bazaar!). I looked up startled, meeting his eyes in the rear view mirror. And noticed the vermillion daub between his eyebrows.

The essay is also posted on the link here.

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