Category Archives: opinion

Bombay’s Blame Game: On the Recent Floods

Originally published as an editorial in DNA (Daily News and Analysis), Mumbai, 5 August 2005.

Who is really to blame for the floods and chaos in Mumbai this week? The monsoon downpour last week was not strictly a natural disaster. It was a man-made crisis, and the public have spent the past week searching for explanations and solutions to this human disaster. The answers provided have ranged from the opportunistic to misinformed, and almost all are lacking in a longer term perspective on institutions, particularly those concerned with urban infrastructure in Mumbai.

The latest assertion, by environmentalists and activists opposed to the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, is that the overflowing of the polluted Mithi River can be solely blamed on reclamations for the Sea Link and the Bandra-Kurla Complex. While this is plausible, the claim is being made without any scientific or ecological evidence to substantiate their arguments about the effects of reclamation. But then where are the real experts? In a city which boasts some of the nation’s finest institutes of technology — insular enclaves of global expertise which rarely interact with the city’s public problems — very few academics or qualified engineers are to be found raising their voices.

Continue reading Bombay’s Blame Game: On the Recent Floods

Should Mumbai be a City State?

Originally published contra the case made by J.B. D’Souza on Should Mumbai be a City State? in TimeOut Mumbai, 10 April 2005.

There are several arguments routinely invoked about making Mumbai into a City State. They go something like this — for most of its modern history, Bombay was an island off the coast of India, a cosmopolitan port city with enterprising migrants and bustling industry and commerce — symbolic of India’s engagement with the world, rather than with its rural countryside.

This pre-Independence Bombay is now viewed with sepia-tinted nostalgia by heritage enthusiasts and the media as an innocent age of civic order, a beautiful city which existed before the filth and chaos of democratic politics. Bombay became the victim of narrow linguistic politics when Maharashtra was formed in 1960. Since then, the story goes, public culture has been parochialised by Marathi chauvinism and mismanaged by vote-bank-seeking politicians. The beautiful city is now a horrible mess, and this situation must be reversed through bold action, to make it a world-class metropolis again.

The economic rationale for creating a new City State is the counterpart to this narrative — that Mumbai is denied an equal share of the revenue it generates (which the Centre invests elsewhere in the country), that the city’s resources are otherwise plundered by rural politicians and illegal migrants who don’t care for the city, that new industries are locating elsewhere, and we cannot keep up either with Singapore or Shanghai, or even with Bangalore or Hyderabad. Something must be done to avert what the media have recently termed the “death of the city”, and statehood for Mumbai seems like a bold solution to a host of very real problems affecting the quality of life and governance in India’s biggest city.

Continue reading Should Mumbai be a City State?

The Metaphor of Middle-Class Scorn

Originally published in Satyam Online, 1 March 2000.


In his first few years occupying the Chief Minister’s chair in Bihar, Laloo Prasad Yadav was found of recalling that, in his father’s village, the local upper-caste leaders would sit in similar thrones, and his father could not dare to come near the Brahmins and sit on a chair like them. That would have signified equality. His father and other backward and lower castes had to approach their caste superiors as humble supplicants, their faces averted and backs hunched, and sit at the feet of the lordly Brahmins.

Laloo’s claim to power, he seemed to be saying, was not just based on the boring details of parliamentary procedure such as the number of votes he or his allies polled. Rather, he incarnated the inversion of the brutal caste and feudal hierarchies of agrarian society, the awakening of the wretched of the earth. His rustic idiom of political expression, the discourse of the masses, was the only language he knew how to speak, and one that he took to the heights of the state, whose all-important symbol was the gaddi of power.

The Symbols and Substance of Power

What he did with this power is another story, one that we all are familiar with. As with the recent Assembly election, the middle-class is always ready to write off Laloo as more symbolism than substance. Our media never tires of representing him and his followers as corrupt and glowering peasants drunk on a power they for some reason seem not to deserve, considering Bihar’s present ills — the massive scandals, caste and class warfare, criminalisation and administrative collapse that have become synonymous with Yadav raj. When several years ago Laloo was hauled off to jail on corruption charges, his wife became an object of similar scorn. She was condescendingly portrayed as a hoodwinked pativratta, running the state from her kitchen, with too many children than is considered decent.

Why this particular hatred and fascination with Laloo, when there are thousands of other equally loud-mouthed and corrupt politicians who are deserving of similar derision? Laloo first came to power standing defiantly alongside his former colleagues in the Janata Dal, all of whom had risen simultaneously with the new politics of lower caste and lower class empowerment, in the legacy of Jayaprakash Narayan’s social justice movement and V.P. Singh’s implementation of the Mandal Commission reservations. While early in his reign, Laloo provided housing to the masses and made other pro-poor overtures, most importantly through his example showed them that the could control their own destinies.

Democracy and Insubordination

His irreverance is legendary — planting vegetables and grazing cattle in the prim gardens of the Chief  Minister’s official residence, or chomping a huge paan and regally spitting while conducting interviews with posh journalists from Delhi. A new type of politician of the television age, Laloo craved such opportunities, the chance to caricature himself for the camera, as the unreconstructed Other of the mannered and educated classes, the veritable metaphor of Underdevelopment — the oily and uneducated peasant whose spittle just stained your finely starched kurta.

While the middle-class elites would turn away in disgust and fear of this jungli, it is mistaken to see these performances as signs of a villager who could not forget his backward ways — it was a clear message to the poor that their way of life was as powerful and meaningful as that of the elites.

Laloo always knew that he was both the object of fascination of the better-off — because the Other always conceals the repressed desires and anxieties of the Self — as well as their worst nightmare, because his antics reminded the middle-classes of their irrelevance in a democracy where only numbers count, and even the media can’t hide that depressing fact. If Bihar is, according to the recent NDA slogans, a jungle raj, then Laloo styled himself the jungle ka sher.

Jab tak samose mein aloo rahega, tab tak Bihar mein Laloo rahega

It remains to be seen whether Laloo’s brand of insubordination will ever bring a real change to the lives of the poor. It seems not. But last week, Laloo’s staying power was again roundly underestimated by every political formation in the country.

While unlike the aloo in our samosa, one day Laloo might himself go, he and his ilk have had a permanent effect on our democracy, a change that it would be foolish to ignore. Political and social institutions are never neutral. For the powerless, the state is synonymous with the dominance of certain castes and classes whose hegemony are made to seem permanent. When the hierarchies on which this control of institutions are themselves swept away through the logic of popular democracy, their institutions might similarly be shattered. In regions like East UP and Bihar the social order, based on the brutalities of poverty, casteism and landlordism, is being overturned with an equal amount of ferocity and violence, and not a little showmanship

The Historical Past and Political Present

Originally published in Satyam Online, 24 February 2000.

Constructing contingent memories as authoritative, and transforming the many threads of the past into a coherent narrative, the discipline of history is one of the most important fields of modern social thought. As an endeavour of the present, with its ongoing debates and revisions, history is inevitably concerned with claims to present-day power and representation. The controversies which have recently dogged the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) in the past several years are thus not simply an academic issue, but a fight for control of our collective memory and identity.

Let us not misunderstand this dispute, as many have, as one between the “Western” and “Indian” versions of history. Nor is it really a fight over saffron or secular historiography. While no one can deny that the intensified assault on administration, education and public life by the Hindu Right in the past few months is a terrifying phenomenon, this issue goes beyond simple ideological postures and academic methods.

Sarkari or Sarvajanik History?

Last week, two volumes of the ICHR-sponsored Towards Freedom series of books on the freedom struggle, edited by the noted social historians Sumit Sarkar and K N Panikkar, were withdrawn from publication by the Oxford University Press under official pressure from the nodal ministry for education, Human Resources Development (HRD). Continue reading The Historical Past and Political Present

To Privatise or Saffronise?

Originally published in Satyam Online, 12 February 2000.


In the past several months since the NDA coalition has eased itself into the saddle of governance, our media has waxed eloquent about a newfound stability of the ruling alliance. The easy passage of the bundle of reform bills in the Winter Session of the Lok Sabha was advertised to the public and to the world as a prelude to a new round of liberalisation.

The showcase of the much-awaited “second generation” of economic reforms will be the upcoming Budget Session, to open at the end of February. Compared to the messy coalitions of years past, it seems now that the BJP confidently straddles the centre of the Indian political fulcrum. However, amidst the booming bourses and the hype around the visit of US President Bill Clinton, we should not be misled. The events of the past several weeks, notably the protests over Deepa Mehta’s film Water, and the announcement of the privatisation of Modern Foods and Indian Airlines, all give clues to the real fragility within the ruling party. The connection between these two events is not just incidental — Arun Jaitley holds both the Information & Broadcasting portfolio as well as that of Disinvestment.

Sanskriti or Swadeshi?

Last week, on the banks of the Ganga, one never heard a whisper of that other inflammatory slogan of the Sangh, opposing foreign economic domination and calling for swadeshi. This would have been truly radical, and dangerous for the new regime. We can rest assured, through Vajpayee’s “liberal” stewardship, that the strident slogans of culture and Hinduism will increase, and the politics of class will be silenced as the next wave of reforms approaches.

Earlier this month, political pundits were surprised to see the Prime Minister hitting out at Pakistan on several counts — for trying to disrupt the economy by flooding the country with counterfeit currency, by claiming that India was ready to match any nuclear threat in kind, and demanding the return of Occupied Kashmir. To this was added Vajpayee’s blessing of the RSS as a cultural and not a political organisation, to which the Governments of HP, UP and Gujarat responded by lifting the ban of their employees participating in the RSS.

Vajpayee’s tilt to the Right had less to do with these issues, than with an internal tussle in the BJP ranks, between the hardline saffron faction controlled by L K Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi and the so-called moderates, represented by Jaswant Singh, Arun Jaitley and others. Central to the Prime Minister’s calculations now is keeping this unwieldy ship together, to navigate it through the unrest that will be generated by the next wave of reforms.

Sabre-rattling against Pakistan, and the free hand given to the extremist wing of the Sangh Parivar as seen last week in Banaras, has placated the hardline saffron faction. And most importantly, it has wedded them to the agenda of privatisation favoured by the so-called BJP liberals.

Privatisation and Saffronisation

The showpiece of the new economic policies will be the privatisation of the public sector, foreshadowed by the two test cases floated earlier this month by Jaitley, and the further retreat of the state from its basic responsibilities towards the poor — subsidies to basic commodities which are now being cancelled; the WTO-dictated removal of import duties on basic food products which will have disastrous consequences for farmers throughout the country; and the withdrawal of responsibility for primary services like health and education, which the BJP Vice President J. Krishnamurthy has claimed the state has no business in providing.

If, according to Arun Jaitley, the state has no business providing bread for the people, and Krishnamurthy claims that the state should free itself from ensuring their literacy and health, one might ask whose Government is this then?

On the eve of the new Budget, the RSS and VHP could have mobilised its ranks on these issues, which redound most centrally on the livelihood of the masses. Instead they chose a soft target like Deepa Mehta.

This has saved the BJP from a major schism on the eve of one of the most important Budgets to be tabled in several years, one that will crucially determine India’s terms of engagement with the global economy. But one wonders what makes a bigger difference to the beleagured people of Banaras. Is it the rise in the prices of basic commodities, the further erosion of social services, the attack on organised labour — all of which will be floated in the new Budget — or the cultural sensitivity of an English film that will probably never be screened outside of some major Western and Indian cities?

Watering Down Water

Originally published on Satyam Online, 8 February 2000.

Even those of us of liberal political convictions must sometimes admit it. Something quite interesting happened in that majestic city by the Ganga this week. In times when it seems that politics is less about principles and ideas than about populism and pay-offs, when someone, anyone, takes a principled stand, it is touching.

Thus when the Sangh Parivar decides to blow up a few bombs to cock a snook at the nuclear monopoly of the great powers, it warms what is left of our nationalist heart. When they take out their ire against the arrogant moral universalism of Christianity by smashing a few churchs and torching a few missionaries, there is some pride in that defiance. Of course, such cynical vandalism is not about defending national sovereignty or our cultural integrity, as we all know. It is more about upper-caste vote banks and simple hatemongering. But we should be  equally aware that neither the nuclear powers, nor the Christian missionaries, nor Deepa Mehta and her snobby liberalism are blameless. Continue reading Watering Down Water

The Arrest of Dara Singh

Originally published in Satyam Online, 4 February 2000.


This week has been an eventful one politically. The arrest of Dara Singh, implicated in the murder of the missionary Graham Staines and his two children, a Christian clergyman and a Muslim trader named Rehman, is of course a welcome, if somewhat belated development, since the attacks on Christians began to intensify more than a year ago.

What is curious is not just how long it took to arrest Dara Singh — who, despite being available for newspaper interviews, was able to evade the authorities for a full year — but the timing of the arrest. Some cynics point to the upcoming Orissa assembly elections and the Congress’ impending doom in the state, in the wake of the super-cyclone. To the cynic, this is a perfectly acceptable reason for the speedy arrest of Singh after administrative inaction for more than a year. While this won’t go very far in convincing Orissa’s shattered voters of the promises of “good governance” equally important was another event announced late this week.

The Timing of the Arrest

The dates for the visit of U.S. President Bill Clinton’s visit to India in mid-March were finalised only two days after the arrest. This was also coincident with Gladys Staines, the murdered missionary’s widow, emerging into the public eye to release a book in Bombay and speak to the press about her husband and sons’ murder by a functionary of the Sangh Parivar. In the politics of U.S. Presidential visits to foreign, especially Asian countries, this assumes significance.

In 1998, Clinton was beleagured by pressure groups, many associated with the Christian Right in the U.S., to halt his diplomatic overtures towards China, whose Government takes an exceptionally strong line on the “anti-national” and subversive activities of missionaries and Christians. Short of cancelling his visit, many groups and Congressmen wanted him to meet with Christian dissidents in China.

With Clinton’s visit to India imminent, the White House perhaps wants to avoid the similar embarrasment in India, and the BJP-led Government has obliged its new strategic partner, eager to do business with the U.S., without the meddling of lobbies which continue to hound China’s patrons abroad. If Gladys Staines were ever to meet Clinton, it would tarnish the much-touted cliche of India;s tolerant and secular culture.

Proving the Secular Credentials of the Government

The arrest of Dara Singh, then, is no demonstration of the secular resolve of the Central Government. Other recent developments bear out this conclusion. In U.P., the recent statements of Chief Minister Ram Prakash Gupta approving the construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, and the recent passage by the UP Assembly of the Regulation of Public Religious Buildings and Places Bill, which prohibits the building of any temple, mosque, church, or gurudwara, without the permission of the Government. Additionally, this legislation sanctions the demolition of these structures if they are built without first seeking the state’s permission. Passed in the wake of the IC814 hijacking and amidst the media-generated hysterics about ISI infiltration of the country, it will further enable the harrassment of minorities.

In Gujarat, similar trends are evident in the decision of the State Government to allow its employees to openly claim their affiliation to the RSS, and the equally shocking display of the Gujarat Chief Minister in khaki shorts, accompanied by Union Home Minister L K Advani, swearing allegiance to the Hindutva storm-troopers. We can thus safely assume that next Christmas, when Hindu extremist groups want to terrorise tribal Christians in the Dangs, they police need not even keep up the pretence of protecting all citizens regardless of their religion.

The writings of one of the Sangh Parivar’s senior ideologues should make the core of the Government’s beliefs clear. In his latest book, Harvesting Our Souls, Arun Shourie, a BJP Rajya Sabha MP and Minister at the Centre, comments approvingly on the policies of the Chinese Government towards its minority Christian community. These policies include a ban on all foreign missionaries, the requirement of registering with a State-run Church affiliated to the Communist Party, and the haunting of minority groups as presumably anti-national.

Recently in Orissa, according to reports by John Dayal, convenor of the United Christian Forum for Human Rights, the Centre has been continuously warning Christian organisations and groups in the tribal belts of Orissa to obey the Anti-Conversion Act, a legislation which violates the fundamental right to freedom of religion in article 25 of the Constitution. But considering that this week’s other story, in which the Government showed quiet contempt for the President’s warnings against tinkering with the founding document of our Republic, these new developments seem consistent with the real character of the BJP-led Government.

Golden Jubilee, 1997

To once ride the Bombay suburban railway network is enough to learn what urban atomisation really means — crowds literally packed tighter than sardines in a can, pickled in their own perspiration, trains clanging to each of their stops from the southern tip of the island of Bombay to its ever-expanding northern suburbs, exploding passengers onto concrete platforms. As dusk descended over the megapolis on the evening of the fourteenth of August 1997, the commuters at Churchgate Station were, though harried by the heat and a hard day at the office, looking forward to a holiday. And unlike Independence Days of the past decades, this one had especial significance. A week before, the Western Railway authorities had cleaned up the halls of the station and plastered posters advertising the fiftieth anniversary of Independence — as well as a rededicated commitment to the happiness and safety of the commuter.

I had been in Bombay for almost three months, working as a reporter and features writer for the newspaper The Indian Express, and was placed in-charge of features coverage for the Mumbai special edition on Independence. After finishing my layouts of the page — in which I had interviewed and transcribed the comments of old freedom fighters, intellectuals, politicians and city notables reminiscing about the summer of 1947 — I decided to take a bus home instead of engaging the train at rush hour.

I boarded a bus heading for the northern suburbs near the old Secretariat building in south Bombay, where the tricolour of independent India had been unfurled at the stroke of midnight on 15 August 1947. Lights festooned the crumbling Victorian Gothic façade of the building, which now housed administrative offices of the Government of Maharasthra. Other than these few lights and the posters at the railway stations, Bombay had hardly interrupted its workaday hurriedness to ponder on fifty years of freedom. Among middle-class people, talk of fifty years was only met with brief introspection, perhaps some grumblings about corruption and underdevelopment. My uncle, to whose home I was now going for supper, surprised me with his more-than-usual acidity: had the British stayed, at least we would have been a developed country, even if still in chains. I could respond only with silence to this one.

But if such comments pierced my heart and emptied me of response, at other times interviewing for the features page I had become variously enraged and joyful. For residents of metropolitan India and Bombay especially, the forties and fifties were a long-vanished halcyon age of political activism and youthful passion: when the nation strove towards modernity and greatness under the political stewardship of the ranks of freedom fighters with the masses obediently assembled under their direction; when the avante-garde blossomed and politics opened new avenues; and when industrial houses and factories became our first temples, the work of nation-building our favourite puja. “You do not know what heaven it was to be young then” said M.V. Kamat, veteran journalist who covered the freedom struggle for the nationalist lodestar Free Press Journal. “We would all gather in the editorial offices simply to discuss politics and the future of our nation, we were so idealistic. We thought we could change the world by just writing an editorial. In fact we changed nothing!” he laughed while speaking to me, a grizzled old soldier of Bombay’s postcolonial civil society. In those days he wore khadi to the office, because all the reporters at the British-owned Times of India were required to wear coat and tie; now he only wore khadi at home. I myself never wore anything other than jeans and tee-shirts when going to my editorial offices everyday.

The bus trundled its way out of south Bombay, past the crumbling Victorian Gothic halls and mansions of the old colonial town and pressed onwards into the central working-class neighbourhoods — where the cotton mills and labourers’ chawls were located for more than fifty years. As the conductor rapped the side of seats with his ticket-puncher and pulled the bell signalling stops, passengers scampered onto what seats were left as the bus hardly stopped for them. I shifted uncomfortably in the seats which were always too narrow to accomodate my legs and rested my chin on the bars on the window — a light drizzle was sprinkling the bazaars, in full glow from the evening’s business, well-lit oases in a sea of crowds returning from offices, factories and the day’s labour.

As motorbikes, scooters, utility vans and automobiles honked and dodged their way through the traffic, young street children approached windows peddling small paper tricolours — five rupees for a big one, two rupees for a small one. I had seen these children — normally scraping their soft and greasy hands against windscreens for small donations speaking of God’s grace and the charity of richer folk — for the past several days, and had bought flags to bring home to my family. They were the unfortunate castaways of the urban hell that was Bombay, who for a few weeks every year turned into the emissaries of a moribund nationalism, selling flags rather than pleading their poverty.

The bus was taking much longer than the train would ever have — though I had the luxury of my window seat and the warm sprinkle on my face. I rang home on my mobile phone to inform of my tardiness, and was greeted by my cynical uncle, who warned me of the obvious traffic. The bus navigated the central industrial suburbs and finally ascended a fly-over highway into the residential districts of old Bombay, which fifty years ago were the city limits, bordered on the north by palm trees and sandy beaches. This was where my grandfather, an itinerant labourer who became a clerk in a British firm, had bought a house in the thirties when property was cheap. The area of Matunga, the South Indian neighbourhood where my father’s family was settled, and Dadar, the gentrified district of middle-class Maharashtrians, South Indians and Parsis, was the last taste of that fading colonial charm for which Bombay was known throughout the world.

It had in the past several decades been transformed, the mild prosperity and leisure of its residents turned into political power for the numerically predominant Maharashtrian community. It was now the power centre for the ruling Shiv Sena, a nativist party whose leader, Balasaheb Thackeray, wielded absolute power and commanded an allegiance from his lumpen cadres (the majority of whom were the labourers and proletariat of Bombay’s decaying industrial areas) in a manner he liked to compare to Adolf Hitler’s.

And for whatever lack of festivity displayed in the environs of officialdom and the jaded chattering classes in south Bombay, Dadar — the home of the “remote control”, a title assumed by Thackeray to denote his unofficial, but complete authority, in affairs of state — presented a contradictory image. Officially shunned by the Central Government, who would celebrate Independence as per their instructions from Delhi — which meant half-heartedly, with bureaucratic stiffness — the Shiv Sena and Balasaheb decided that day to make a show of their power and influence. Dadar had the look of a festival day, with lights of white, saffron and green lining shop fronts and the tops of buildings, saffron banners with nationalist and nativist slogans spun around street lamps and fences. The main traffic circle was decorated in the regalia of a state ceremony, with a dais erected for a flag hoisting at the Sena’s party headquaters at midnight that night. Floodlights shone on the whitewashed fronts of the Sena’s offices and the surrounding offices and schools. Party workers milled about greeting families on an evening stroll. Children danced about the streets with flags in their hands and their parents shopped for sweets to ceremoniously give to friends and relatives in celebration of fifty years of freedom.

Balasaheb was known for his provocative statements, his Hindu and Maharashtrian bigotry, his blatant defiance of the Centre on many occassions. Lately, with his Government encountering criticism for law-and-order failures and police abuses — the killing of twelve lower-caste slum swellers in police firing in the northern suburbs, and a subsequent attack by Shiv Sena functionaries on the leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly one month earlier had caused rioting in Bombay for two days, during which he had to go on bended knee to the Home Minister and the Governor to prevent the state government’s dismissal — Balasaheb had quieted his rhetoric. Independence was the perfect occassion for him to reap symbolic authority from an anniversary that would only come twice in a century, to identify himself with a movement whose legacy was being fiercely contested and questioned on all sides of the political spectrum and within India’s civil society for many years.

The rise of challenges to the one-party hegemony of the nationalist Indian National Congress had in the years since Independence shattered the latter party as a significant force in Indian politics. As lower-caste and popular empowerment progressed, Dalit groups had become politically conscious though were as yet politically in disarray in western India — the inadequate and fumbling response of the Dalit parties to the riots in July only sharpened their cleavages, however much the riots revealed their potential power. Meanwhile, over the course of thirty years, reactionary and neo-nationalist cadres of Hindu extremism had successfully channeled popular discontent and communal animosity into political power in Bal Thackeray’s Mumbai, and in late 1994 toppled the ruling Congress Party and made a new state Government.

Now Balasaheb was to bestow a mantle of respectability on his movement of cultural and political populism — a movement which united middle-class gentry and industrial barons with gangsters, thugs and the urben proletariat — by personally unfurling the standard of free India over his party headquarters on the stroke of midnight, in the manner of Jawaharlal Nehru. As the middle-class sourly commented on the decline of the nation and the rot of civility in post-Independence Mumbai, and as lower-caste elements vociferously challenged the right of an upper-caste Hindu bigot who during the freedom struggle eschewed political activity and served as a bulwark for reactionaries, party workers and their supporters raised their flag over central Bombay, and alongside the tricolour was raised a flag of one colour — only saffron, emblazoned with the ancient Hindu symbol (Om), the flag of the Shiv Sena.

And though that same night India’s gerontocracy and their sycophants and attendants assembled in the Central Hall of Parliament in Delhi to commemorate the nation’s fifty-year old “tryst with destiny”, and at the old Secretariat a small official party raised the same flag over the Victorian spires and domes of old Bombay, the morning newspapers were covered with photos of Dadar aflame with lights, singing and saffron. The revolt in the name of freedom, and the power it commanded, had shifted.