14.7.11

Condemnation as Conscience: Mumbai's Blasts

Condemnation as Conscience
Mumbai's Blasts
by Farzana Versey
Counterpunch, July 14


We are the grateful dead, live cadavers doing a post-mortem of small mercies. A chief minister appealing to the people to remain calm following a series of bomb blasts is commended for statesmanship and those who are quick to reach the goalpost to hoist their condemnatory flags are seen as concerned citizens.

On Wednesday, July 13, three bomb blasts went off in three busy localities of Mumbai. Two of them – Zaveri Bazaar and Opera House – are business districts, dotted with jewellery stores and gold and diamond merchants; the third, Dadar Kabutarkhana, is a middle-class area not too far from the rightwing Shiv Sena headquarters.

Locations are important. They convey the motives of the perpetrators. Someone wants to hit at Mumbai’s financial clout. While it is frightening to think of people becoming comatose to such acts, one wonders about the stratified ways of reacting. In a manner, this becomes reason enough to showcase India’s economic progress. Is it any surprise that the rich and the famous have cancelled celebrations? They have made it a point to announce it. They condemn.

A few months ago, I had sat with a group at Delhi’s intellectual hub. Big businessman was among them. “India is a soft state,” he said. “We take all the bashing.” There was no immediate provocation, but he had discovered that I had written about Pakistan. By default, the conversation had to veer towards the subject. As he leaned back, he said, “I am proud of India.” The same India that he was rubbishing minutes earlier as a soft state made him proud. In one swift move, Indians become gods, the Vishnus, protectors. But they are protecting their small areas of concern. The condemnatory attitude irks me for it is like a vacuum cleaner that makes a lot of noise and sucks in superficial dirt that remains within.

It was rather shocking to read in an article in ProRepublica reproduced by The Guardian a comment such as this: “The coordinated rush-hour explosions, which killed at least 21 and wounded more than 100, were smaller and less sophisticated than the meticulously planned strike on Mumbai in November 2008. During that three-day rampage by the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group, ten gunmen targeted westerners and Jews, killed 166 people and left India and Pakistan on the brink of war.”

The war zones have embedded themselves in the mindset, and it has become crucial to refer to the 2008 attacks. While the Jewish Chabad House was one of the targets, westerners were not specifically chosen. An Indo-US strategic dialogue is planned for next week in Delhi, therefore Congressmen deem it necessary to discuss “counter terrorism as top priority”.

US President Barack Obama issued a statement: “The US government continues to monitor the situation, including the safety and security of our citizens. India is a close friend and partner of the United States. The American people will stand with the Indian people in times of trial, and we will offer support to India's efforts to bring the perpetrators of these terrible crimes to justice. During my trip to Mumbai, I saw firsthand the strength and resilience of the Indian people, and I have no doubt that the India will overcome these deplorable terrorist attacks."

The US citizens working in India are evidence of our economic power. By offering support, America is ensuring that the ‘war on terror’ remains as alive as state terrorism. If an Indian group such as the Indian Mujahideen is involved, the Obama enthusiasm will wane considerably. It needs a Lashkar-e-Taiba/ISI/Taliban link. The US has never offered help against the many extremist factions within India, in the north, the east, the west right down to the south.

It is intriguing that he saw “firsthand” the resilience of the Indian people when he was a state guest and as the bright star there were no protests against him. What did he witness? That people were still going to work and not cringing? Is this not what a globalised India is about? Or, is it just the helplessness of a people?

After the 1993 blasts, I had written about how Mumbai was gloating that attendance at the offices was 92 per cent. Huge banners hailed the city’s spirit. “Salaam Bombay”. The Bombayite had risen to the occasion and, as always, was advertising it. I should have felt good about it, but I had found it unsettling. The city had to get off its butt and move. And those moving either had no choice or had the luxury, and applauding it amounted to applauding insensitivity.

Insensitivity rules. We have now become inured to images of blood and broken limbs. The media does not blink; it replays the clips. Psychologically, it creates paranoia and not sympathy. The channels do not realise that they are playing the game of terror, for those who plant bombs would like to watch the result and this is their main source. It seems to be a mutual accord.

Some newspapers have done the same. There have often been discussions regarding the prudence of such display. It becomes an occasion to condemn – the media assault forces people into a cult-like conscience awakening. The trivial takes over. The theories appear juvenile, but have a deeper devious message to create a chain linking events of the recent past. Serious newspapers brought in numerologists and astrologers to tell us that 13 is a bad number and 13 is the number that adds up to the names of two underworld dons and Saddam Hussein. What does Saddam Hussein have to do here? Of course, there is an international connection, and it is especially important if we share the enemy with a western nation.

To top the ridiculous quotient, there were also suggestions that the attack coincided with the birthday of Ajmal Kasab, the lone survivor of the terrorist group that attacked the city in November 2008 and who is serving a sentence. Given that Pakistan is not interested in him, is there any commonsensical reason for anyone to celebrate his birthday?

No group has claimed responsibility and the intelligence agencies were clueless about ‘warnings’. It is, therefore, within the realm of investigations to look at all angles, but by those who know their job. Not the media and I am not sure one can trust politicians with the task. For now, the heat has reduced from the numerous scams and the public attention has been diverted. The Home Minister has promised two-hourly updates. This is not accountability, but desperation. This is government interference in the work of the security agencies. It is clearly a move to take the gathering momentum of the people’s movement against corruption to a tangential level.

In the next few days, there will be even more condemnation – from citizens’ groups, from celebrities, from the police, from the intelligence agencies, from the opposition parties, from the ruling party. It will be a free-for-all.

India has made huge strides, but not where it matters. The demon is chewing off bits of its own tail. When Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, Muslims said prayers, not out of sorrow but fear that they would be blamed for it. Six decades later, they are even afraid to pray for a fear that is similar each time such terrorist attacks take place. More so, when they see the mandatory token photograph of a Muslim victim and a Muslim Samaritan, when clerics call for rallies to condemn the “heinous crime” and are joined by moderate, liberal and feminist Muslims, with prefixed tags.

I already see the writings in newsprint. Flaky prose will spill over with personal accounts of “my Muslim egg seller”, “my Muslim driver”, “my Muslim servant”, “my Muslim tailor”. You will not hear stories about “my Muslim employer”.

This is to show a community its place. That is the reason why politicians have to appeal to maintain communal harmony in a country of over one billion people with a few hundred languages and dialects. For a crime that no one knows who has committed, the sops of fake concern are condemnation enough.

9 comments:

  1. Thanks, Hitesh...I hope it was for this post...

    If only I could not get affected...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Farzana:

    This is essay is a great parikrama around the blasts. I had always wondered growing up going around a temple seven times whether it was meaningful or just lugging along my mother, or else. That else 'motivated' me in my parikrama.

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  3. Mumbaikars to Bomb Perpetrators : Thanks a**holes for making us heroes, again !!!

    Onion (India) Breaking News.....

    Thousands of Mumbaikars took to the streets, the very next day after Bomb Blasts, with Placards proudly stating We again Heroes !!! Thanks A**holes for all that !!!
    Says Mahesh, explaining the heroism business, look this is kind of different from your conventional heroism. No rush of adrenalin and all that. Next few days everytime in a crowded public place it is going to be those same panic conditioned emotional and physiological responses at the slightest hint of something unusual. For instance, at this bar the guy seated opposite me is yet to return back from rest-room. I am still debating whether the parcel he left on the chair has a bomb or it is just his pot-belly that is taking longer.

    Not everybody agrees on the glorification, though. Says Bal Thackeray - in our days it was kind of different. Those Months long rioting, those very very powerful Serial Bomb Blasts. Nothing of today compares with anything of then.
    Another Mumbaikar - Syed Sheikh - mostly agrees with Mr. Bal Thackeray. Yeah, it is kinda different from then. I mean , look at it this way - earlier people would taunt subtly and directly looking at my long beard. These days nobody appears to be caring a hoot. None of those communally laced taunts and all that.

    Some in the public discourse kept treading along the known positions. Says Mr. Raj Thackeray, for instance, that all this is due to "outsiders". Lost in the cacaphony of surrounding sound was what he said in undertone - I would never trust the local people's (aka Marathi Maanus) competency to something like this.

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  4. Farzana,
    This is to publicly wish you a nice remaining weekend and a great week ahead. Felt it in-appropriate to ad it to my previous post.
    Cheers,
    Mahesh.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Mahesh:

    It is not heroism really that is being flaunted, but "resilience". That too other people's. Now, a certain group can take over and make that heroic, because we need heroes, especially if we can prop them up at the political box office. (Btw, you must have read about people packing the movie halls.)

    I understand the panic and emotional reaction at an individual level. I have a problem with creating paranoia. Your experience at the bar is a natural reaction, and my first instinct was - did the guy have a beard or some sort of 'Muslimness' besides a potbelly? Then, if he is sitting in a bar, how Islamic is he really?

    I have an anecdote, too. We had gone for a film and there was a Muslim man who kept smiling - there were empty seats between us. No, he was not charmed by me, but I was with a relative who wears a hijab (with jeans and makeup.) It was so obviously an identity thing, as though he was looking for acceptance. Now, I was his 'target' because, and I am over-analysing it, I was not in coded Muslim clothes. I could have been anyone, but I was an 'ally', so to speak.

    I digress. I think you made a sharp Onionesque comment.

    PS: I hope you have been well. You had disappeared and we were wondering...you have fulfilling weekend, too.

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  6. Anon:

    Parikrama, as you know, has a larger meaning - the circle of life. I had once performed it with a young friend. Since I do not do anything ritualistic willingly, this time it was curiosity. The kid had no such 'reason'. For him it was part of living. What did I discover? The faces of people, the beautiful sunset light on the facade and how my bare feet felt in the mud. My parikrama was internalised.

    We all have different ideas of 'else' if we tap them.

    - - -

    Mahesh:

    Forgot to add: The headlines aid, "Ulemas to stage protest today", "Friday sermons condemn attack".

    ReplyDelete
  7. Farzana,
    Let me say this at the outset - Thanks for missing me and Thanks also for acknowledging the sharpness and onionesqueness of my comment.:-)
    Moving on...
    Agree with you that it should've been "resilience" and not "heroism".
    You said :
    "I understand the panic and emotional reaction at an individual level. I have a problem with creating paranoia. Your experience at the bar is a natural reaction, and my first instinct was - did the guy have a beard or some sort of 'Muslimness' besides a potbelly? Then, if he is sitting in a bar, how Islamic is he really? "
    Actually, it was a Onionesque comment. Let me explain the personal narrative here.
    The evening those blasts happened my wife called me up informing the news. A colleague warned me too to leave for home early. Being a subirban railway commuter my instincts dictated that I rather let the "post blast chaos" subside and commute home late. Bored of staying late at office I chose spending some time at the bar. Rather than the usual suburban railway staion adjacent and crowded bar - my fear dictated the choice to a less crowded one near my office. This is where the "potbelly guy" metaphor was born. Fear is an very interesting phenomena.
    You said :
    "I have an anecdote, too. We had gone for a film and there was a Muslim man who kept smiling - there were empty seats between us. No, he was not charmed by me, but I was with a relative who wears a hijab (with jeans and makeup.) It was so obviously an identity thing, as though he was looking for acceptance. Now, I was his 'target' because, and I am over-analysing it, I was not in coded Muslim clothes. I could have been anyone, but I was an 'ally', so to speak. "
    Agreed that it is a "Identity" thing. But then again, my own anecdotal observation is it is a "Muslim Identity" thing. A co-relating observation is, "these days" Mumbaikars don't confuse between "Muslim Identity" and terrorism. That's the reason for "Syed Sheikh reaction" in that Onionesque comment. I don't know whether you travel in suburban trains, but my own daily commute informs me as much that the average Mumbaikar may have grown sane enough to distinguish between a Muslim Identity and terrorist.
    Incidentally , since you cited your own example in theatre - let me cite my own too. A personal anecdote about "Naqaabi Dress". Couple of months back - somebody from my workplace commented on women attired in "eye slit" Naqaabi dress. There eyes were vastly expressive , he said. Another co-worker , a woman, hearing this made me cover my face and forehead with a cloth and parade in front of the so commenting colleague. The guy alluded at my eyes being very expressive. Comparable to the woman in Naqaabi dress. The lady opined that if rest of our face is covered, it is the eyes that your concentrate and read "extraly" into. So much for de-bunking the beauty myth of "Naqaabi eyes".
    - Mahesh.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hi Mahesh:

    Let me say this at the outset - Thanks for missing me and Thanks also for acknowledging the sharpness and onionesqueness of my comment.:-)

    You are welcome…and we cannot “agree to disagree” on this at least.

    Re. your ‘potbelly’ metaphor, well, I did not take it amiss although it could be literal. Just wondering, since you mentioned the guy went to the washroom and now you say potbelly is a metaphor, I am thoroughly confused about the location of the bladder!

    I don't know whether you travel in suburban trains, but my own daily commute informs me as much that the average Mumbaikar may have grown sane enough to distinguish between a Muslim Identity and terrorist.

    It’s been a while since I travelled by local train since I don’t have to commute long distances. How do you define the average Mumbaikar? I understand that not everyone thinks all Muslims are terrorists – I am emphasising the stereotyping of their being Muslim and connected to a faith that has terrorists sprouting out of its ears. This affects perceptions. To wit: the picture in TOI I put up.

    Another co-worker , a woman, hearing this made me cover my face and forehead with a cloth and parade in front of the so commenting colleague. The guy alluded at my eyes being very expressive. Comparable to the woman in Naqaabi dress. The lady opined that if rest of our face is covered, it is the eyes that your concentrate and read "extraly" into. So much for de-bunking the beauty myth of "Naqaabi eyes".

    1. You are ready to be initiated :)
    2. Indeed, the eyes become the focus.
    3. If you are a fan of old Hindi movies, then there are some memorable naqaab scenes and songs based on that.
    4. The beauty of ‘naqaabi’ eyes is also due to the enigma, so it is not a myth and your "parade" could help you in an ‘eye-for-an-eye’ tactics, at whatever non-violent level you wish to take it!

    Enjoy your drink…the rains and chugging of trains.

    ReplyDelete

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