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.