`AMCHI MUMBAI’ – Many questions, some lessons

January 4, 2009 at 7:21 pm 1 comment

by Lalita Ramdas

“Beware of the leader who bangs the drums of war in order to whip the citizenry into patriotic fervor, for patriotism is indeed a double-edged sword. It both emboldens the blood, just as it narrows the mind. And when the drums of war have reached a fever pitch and the blood boils with hate and the mind has closed, the leader will have no need in seizing the rights of the citizenry, [who] infused with fear and blinded by patriotism, will offer up all of their rights unto the leader and gladly so. How will I know? For this I have done. And I am Julius Caesar.”     William Shakespere

My mother tells me that at the age of three my favourite past time was to be taken for a walk to the Gateway of India from Dhanraj Mahal where we lived during the war years. Occasionally she would take me into the Taj for a pastry and to talk to some of the Navy Uncles in their white uniforms because I was missing Papa who was out at sea.. Some sixty five years later – settled in this village of Bhaimala in Alibag Taluka – the magic of approaching the familiar skyline of the Gateway and the Taj hotel by boat from Mandwa is still very special – no matter how many times we have made that crossing. I wondered if those boys who landed on the night  of the 26th, had ever seen the magic of Mumbai from seaward during the day – and if they had a moment of doubt at what they had set out to demolish.

Ah Bombay, we had seen the best of times, and today we are seeing the worst of times – not just for Mumbai, India and Indians, but for our neighbours, especially for the people of Pakistan – who,like us, are victims of the legacy of colonization and a bitter partition which gave us our independence.  Bombay has been the port city which has been home to the  Indian Navy for the longest time, and as  daughter and  wife of two navy persons [both of whom rose to head the service as the first and the eleventh  Navy Chiefs,] , Mumbai was my city too. I wept tears of disbelief, anguish and anger as I watched the images of the wanton attack on so many symbols of our growing up years in South Bombay. I too shared the pride and relief of  many as the commandos and police finally ended the siege; and I too  mourned the tragic loss of innocent lives from all walks of life. Such a waste and for little apparent gain.

Today we are seeing a new group of Mumbaikers on the streets – coming from the class that has typically kept aloof from activism and any political involvement. This is a good thing in many ways, it is important that people feel strongly enough to get out and make their voices heard. as they  cry out `Enough is Enough’. It is important also to understand what has changed this time and what it is that they are saying enough to.  

Yes we the people DO need to raise our voices to protest – but let us be clear about what we are protesting for and against. Yes we the people have a right to demand that the state be responsible for our security and that politicians be held accountable. And yes, let us never forget that this right of demanding accountability and protesting its absence is one that is fundamental to every citizen in this democracy – regardless of our religion, language, caste or community, our social or economic status or our political affiliations. This has been guaranteed to us by the Constitution of India.

In the last few days I have read with mixed feelings a wide range of emails and news items from across the country as also watched the invariably dramatized images and analyses in the electronic media.. It is impossible not to be affected one way or other. I have also received several phone calls from friends – several of them Muslim – worried about what is happening, feeling the pressure to stand up and be counted among the `patriotic’ Indians; a pressure that we non-Muslims do not have to face.

One of the most disturbing mails in my inbox today was entitled `We Need Leaders like this’ – an account extolling recent actions by John Howard the Australian PM as he lashed out at Muslims in Australia in an effort to pre-empt `Islamic terror’ in his country.  And  at the end of the harangue he tells them that they either accept the laws and customs of the land or avail of the Right to Leave. We are asked to circulate this widely – with the message that this is what needs to be done in India too. The implications are chilling and it took time to sink in . In a sense it was not surprising – the slow communalization of Indian society has been taking place insidiously over decades. Only now is it being stated so explicitly. While the right wing have consciously pushed this agenda, the others who flaunt their secular credentials  have also virtually allowed this sub-text to go unchallenged.. It seems that the People of India will need to ask ourselves what kind of society we really want and the answers might be very different depending on who we are, where we live, how we live, and if we feel we belong.

The Extract below, from a piece by Suddhabrata Sengupta in a Punjabi website called WICHAAR, sums up the problem succinctly.

“While the agents of the attack in Bombay may have been genuinely motivated by their own twisted understanding of Islam, they have demonstrated that they have no hesitation in putting millions of Indian Muslims in harms way by exposing them to the risk of a long drawn out of spiral of retaliation. We need to underscore that they killed 40 innocent, unarmed Muslims (roughly 20 % of the current total casualty figures of 179) while they unleashed their brutal force on Bombay. The terrorists who authored their deaths cannot by any stretch of imagination be seen as partisans or friends of Islam. They are the enemy of us all, and especially of those amongst us who happen to be Muslims, for they jeopardize the safety and security of all Muslims in India by unleashing yet another wave of suspicion and prejudice against ordinary Muslims.”

In the course of a long and thought provoking piece which he calls the DEBRIS OF TERROR, Sengupta also speaks of the ironies and also the utter senselessness of this attack:

“No redemptive, just, honourable or worthwhile politically transformatory objectives can be met, or even invoked, by attacking a mass transit railway station, a restaurant, a hotel or a hospital. The holding of hostages in a centre of worship and comfort for travellers cannot and does not challenge any form of the state oppression anywhere.

By helping to unleash calls for war, by eliminating (unwittingly perhaps) those that have been investigating the links between fringe far right groups and home grown terror, by provoking once again the demand for stronger and more lethal legislation for preventive detention (in the form of a revived or resuscitated POTA), these terrorists have done statist and authoritarian politics in India its biggest favour.”

And it is for these reasons that it is so critical in the present context that we as responsible citizens of India, exercise both reason and restraint, before we impetuously demand carpet bombing of Pakistan;  self righteously refuse to pay taxes, contemptuously dismiss those who advocate people to people contact with our neighbours, and in the same breath, accuse Indian Muslims of being in some way the fifth columnists in our midst who have to demonstrate their patriotism and loyalty at every moment.

Over the years, through the course of my own work with human rights, peace, justice and environment, it is increasingly clear that the issue of loyalty or disloyalty , patriotism or lack of it, comes in many forms and is to be found at many levels. Patriotism is certainly not the exclusive preserve of one class or one community. We would do well to scrutinise the actions and allegiances of many who call themselves nationalists, who demand and have control over wealth and privilege; but who do not hesitate to plunder our forests, take over our fields and homes for private profit, displace millions from their homes, and then scream for financial help when the markets drop!


Yes – it is highly likely that today’s military establishment in Pakistan has encouraged and trained terrorists , but will going to war solve the core issues between us? Three wars down the road we are no closer to solving many of the intractable issues between us, including Kashmir.- so what should the road ahead look like?

Is the phenomenon of terrorism peculiar to Islam alone? Should we be going back in time and history to look at guerilla movements and the use of force by the State? Struggles for self-determination? What have been the common factors that have led people to take up armed struggle? What about those millions of decent god fearing Muslims who have no truck with terror, terrorism or Jihad – except in its real interpretation of a struggle within each individual..

Perhaps the phrase `enough is enough’ should be applied more rigorously to our own track record of violence – often genocidal – across the sub-continent – starting with partition.

The birth of Bangladesh was rooted in a basic ethnic and linguistic division among Muslims of East and West Pakistan……The Tamils and Sinhalas are locked in ethnic battles in a predominantly Buddhist country; Nepal has struggled long with violence and poverty but has also replaced  Monarchy with a Maoist government in a predominantly Hindu country.

For many of us personally the carnage and bloodshed of 1984 following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, when thousands of innocent Sikhs were slaughtered by their `Hindu’ neighbours as the state stood by and watched, was a kind of  wake up call. But 1984 also brought out the best in a whole generation of young and old citizens of the capital who dropped their work and their studies and came together in a spontaneous movement called Nagrik Ekta Manch  where hundreds of us worked days and nights  to record the gruesome catalogue of barbarity which we never thought we would see in our lifetime. We testified in commissions, we filed petitions – but the guilty were never brought to book. Never again we vowed would we permit  state complicity in the killing of thousands of innocents .

And then came the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 – perpetrated by one set of politicians while the  others who ran the state stood by and watched. To do nothing is to acquiesce? The Mumbai blasts and killings in 1992 – 93 were almost predictable. Who can sit in judgement or foretell the consequences of the  anger  that could have taken roots in  – 1984 and 1992 – especially when the Guilty were never punished?

And then it happened again to the Muslims in Gujarat in 2002; And we still did not take to the streets to protest and the architects of that genocide are today’s rulers and favoured corporate destination..

Beyond community and religion there is more to remember in this vast and ancient land where there are few records and no one cares to recount  the atrocities and injustice that  have been visited upon the dalits and the tribals over time immemorial by the genteel, cultured upper castes in this Incredible India of ours; This continues in the India Shining of the 21st Century.

How can we continue to accept the sheer ferocity and violence and torture indulged in by various formations of para military  on the people of the North East, and Kashmir to this day.  Can they really be expected to love us?

And have any of us at any time ever questioned what is being perpetrated on our own people by the state in the name of Salwa Judum to fight the Maoists or Naxals – who are also protesting injustice, oppression and years of neglect and corruption ?

So when we now come out to raise our voices – let us remember to protest first of all the many things we need to put right in our own politics, our social evils, our corruption, our inability [or unwillingness?] to provide the basic needs for nearly 50% of our people. These are the real factors that underlie  violence.

I ask myself over and over again as I see the pictures of  the lone terrorist to be caught alive, what drives them to such acts – is this the ultimate indictment of our failure as a people and a state, to create meaningful work and opportunities for youth across the region?

So before we spread more suspicion and prejudice, let us stop and think – what really needs to be done. Perhaps we need to raise our voices in favour of  continuing to dialogue  with Pakistan and its admittedly weak and fledgling elected civilian government?  Thanks to the tireless efforts of Track II and Track III efforts over a couple of decades, today we have a constituency within Pakistan that wants friendship with India and vice versa. Certainly  this helped in creating a basis and demand for democracy across the border. Any senseless action at this time can be catastrophic – especially since we are both nuclear states. So can we bear in mind that we are not against Pakistan but against the elements there who instigate and promote terrorists – and yes the pressure on them should be tough and relentless.

Today it is imperative that we work together to say NO to War Mongering – on the basis that this action against an innocent Indian state gives us the right to attack Pakistan.

It is also imperative that we fight our instinct for Islamophobia – a readiness to say we understand everything about the motives and drives of the terrorists by pointing to their `Muslim’ identity – and the other myth that the Quran sanctions violence against non-believers – and that is how we explain the roots of the attacks in Mumbai..


If we are serious about addressing terror then the only way is for us in both India and Pakistan – and the rest of the region – to reach out, work with each other – to confront, to challenge, and to mobilize the power of people to defeat the forces of violence and terror be they state or non-state actors.

For a start, in India – let us demand an immediate review and implementation of the various Commissions of Enquiry on the Police Force and their Status and Role. If this can be spearheaded from across the country – it will be difficult for the politician to postpone it any more.The issue of auditing political party funds and the present electoral process is another key area which has led to many vitiations of all norms.

Perhaps it is also a moment when we need to be looking in very different directions to find ways of working together with our neighbours – be it Pak India problems, or with Bangla desh or Sri Lanka. In this era where the concerns of Climate Change and Global warming are upper most among the potential threats to peoples and geographic regions around the world – maybe we can look at creative ways to engage with each other on ecology, on our shared maritime and marine reserves, on coastal questions, and water.There are so many pressing problems for which collective solutions need to be found – and there is nothing like working together on mutual problems to develop a better understanding of each others strengths and weaknesses. Finally, with India being the Big Brother in this region – there is a bigger onus of responsibility on us to take the constructive initiatives.

It will soon be Id – a time for celebration and introspection – may it also be a time to work for Peace. In closing I want to share with you the comments of  Bharathi, who has worked in our village home for over 15 years . After watching the endless TV channels and their often sensational projection and coverage of the agony of Mumbai – she turned to me and said simply and with no doubt in her voice “Bai – Athank tho Athank hai na? Wo kaisa Hindu ya Mussalman ho saktha? ‘ Surely Terror is  terror ? – how can it  be Hindu terror or Muslim terror?”

In her simple view of the world – there is a deep and profound sense of both tolerance and respect for humanity. Over the years she who never knew of a world outside her own village reality, has grown to love and welcome into our home our Pakistani son-in-law and members of his family; our Sri Lankan nephew in law; my two Muslim sisters – married to my brother and cousin respectively; my niece and her English husband; and most recently our  African-American son-in-law. She has interacted and understands the issues affecting  the tribal and dalit activists with whom yet another son-law works. And she treats them all with the same smiling warmth and dignity. To me she embodies all that is valuable and enduring in this sub-continent and for which I am eternally grateful because at the end of the day, this is what sustains and nurtures our weary spirits and will, Inshallah, take us into a different tomorrow..

Lalita Ramdas from Bhaimala Village, Alibag – across the harbour from Mumbai, today Sunday Dec 7 2008


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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Mike  |  March 1, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    Just passing by.Btw, your website have great content!

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