Friday, November 28, 2008

Mumbai: Indifference is no longer an option

A comment on my earlier post:

Hi Supriyo, Your comments are profound and insightful. But they are a third party comment. Ask me = a Mumbaiite to the core what I feel when I see the fire in Taj, the people running scared. It hurts - something inside me has died. My beloved city is being brutalised again. It has been used by various people to push their agendas - we all saw Raj Thackeray doing this for the last three - four weeks. And now it is the terrorists. Everyone seems to be discussing about what has happened - what are we going to do to stop this from happening again? Are we just going to fill blogs or are we going to get on to the streets and demand that our politicians do something about what has happened. We seem to be always ready to march on the streets for religious ceremonies, weddings, protests etc. Are we ready to march for our safety and our security? OR are we going to continue to cower in our houses or worse, pretend it never happened and carry on?

We heard Sobha De talking on NDTV - asking the politicians to stay away, calling Manmohan Singh's speech robotic and uninspiring, and requesting LK Advani and Manmohan Singh not to come to Mumbai and distract the security forces. She said it is time for a citizens' movement, and pointedly, "No we shall not stay calm, no we shall not take this and go away".

Similar sentiment was voiced by Suhel Sheth, who was speaking on Times and a friend reported to me that he was displaying similar sort of anger, especially at Shivraj Patil, who was clueless and shaken, and was telling journalists, at the time when the massacre was going on, that he would send the details tomorrow morning [I saw Shivraj Patil on TV].

There are several questions that need to be answered in the coming days, but two things are abundantly clear right now. One, our leaders do not value our lives. Two, indifference is no longer an option.

As we understand now, terrorists went into hotels, railway stations, hospitals and indiscriminately opened fire. Yes, police understood the graveness of the situation and many brave officers gave their life trying to save people [though I shall still suspect that they were less than prepared - otherwise why would we lose the Anti-Terrorism Chief, and the car of a top encounter specialist will be hijacked and he would be killed?]. Later that night, the Chief Minister of Maharastra was told the press in a relaxed manner that there were 'possibly' 20 to 25 terrorists who have come to the city. That may be his style, but Vilasrao Desmukh's body language told us - he is not concerned. He thinks it is somebody else's problem. He thought the boat theory will save him - it will look like war and he can go scot-free. Shivraj Patil, on the other hand, was shaking - not in anger, but possibly in fear - just like an employee will do when things have gone wrong and he knows he will be fired. But he showed little concern, little alertness, little sympathy. When the Taj [the hotel] was burning, he was telling the journalists to go home and he 'would send details next morning'. It did not seem to matter that very moment, people were being indiscriminately shot inside the Oberoi restaurants.

Next morning, we heard Sonia Gandhi reading a prepared statement in her rusty Hindi, talking about concerns which did not reflect in her voice. Later, Manmohan Singh spoke in English - and delivered an unemotional, uninspiring speech, and said nothing factual or of substance. LK Advani spoke in Delhi, with Jaswant Singh standing by him [as if to remind us what their government did in a similar crisis - negotiated with the terrorists and released prisoners - which may have set up today's crisis in the first place], and he blamed the government and the usual suspects. The only notable things in all these speeches were (a) total absence of anger; (b) total absence of any facts; (c) complete lack of confidence.

It did not seem to matter people are dying. I have noticed that in India. When I came to England initially, I laughed at headlines - 'Biggest Train Crash. 10 Dead' - thinking that we are used to numbers thirty times that. However, I had to learn - over time - that when you value lives of fellow citizens, 1 is a big enough number to make heads roll. This is what we don't do. Somewhat in our minds, 125 isn't a big enough number. We don't count the injured.

I am sure there is a better way of thinking than that. I saw one Bengali gentleman on TV, who was boarding the train at CST to go to Kolkata, when his mother was shot dead by the terrorists. I thought about my own mother's death - an event which I haven't still come to terms with. 125 dead are 125 times that irreparable damage, that unbearable pain. Do we realize that?

A school friend, who I have not seen for years, but connected up recently on a Social Networking site, is inside Trident and no one has heard from him for more than 36 hours now. He is as important to me personally as any other celebrity or politician, who could be there. Those 200 unaccounted-for people are 200 times the trauma of the kidnap of Mehbuba Mufti, the daughter of a home minister who was kidnapped in Kashmir back in the 1990s and were safely released later [and went on to become the Chief Minister of the state herself]. Do we realize this? Do our leaders care? The question is - do they care about us?

It sometimes feels that we are just a number, 1, as the leaders have learnt to count us as votes and stopped treating us as people.

Therefore, INDIFFERENCE IS NO LONGER AN OPTION. We have been indifferent when bombs went off in Mumbai in 1993. We have been indifferent when bombs keep going off in Delhi, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Lucknow, Surat. We sat at home and kept the sensex cheerful when the Mumbai trains were hit. We were lauded as brave, stoical, indifferent.

But, we are no soldiers, just ordinary human beings, trying to live a life. Being indifferent is being foolish. Being stoical is failing to do our duty to our fellow citizen who has to die. Being brave, no, this is no way of being brave - by crouching down at the safety of our home and expecting this will go away. By not doing anything, we fail everyday our duty to our children, our parents, ourselves. We let politicians run business-as-usual, we let them send us home with the promise of accountability tomorrow morning.

I was reading a book called Groundswell. Something about citizen power, aided by the power of Internet. This book has nothing to do with politics, it is all about business strategies. However, let me say that we live in Groundswell age. We live in the time when states and institutions are becoming increasingly irrelevant and powerless. Ironically, this is what terrorists proved so brazenly. The only problem is that forces for good has not still been organized at the grassroots level. Obviously, it has always been like that - forces of evil are always more innovative, always more enterprising. But, someday, the forces for good get their wake-up call. I hope today is such a day.

I shall not start the Facebook group - a Million for Mumbai - which should sign up a million people who pledge not to let this happen again. Let me answer WHY before I answer HOW. Why won't I start the group? Because, as the commentator said rightly, I am third party. I am not a Mumbaikar. I am sympathetic, but I can't solve the problem. I hope a Mumbaikar will pick up this idea and start this group, and I shall join.

So, now, how - how does these million people never let this happen again? Several suggestions popping up in my head, which I shall spit out:

(1) By never accommodating corruption: by never demanding bribes or giving one, and reporting every case of bribery to appropriate places as well as writing about every such incident on Facebook, blogs, everywhere on the Internet. Giving details of the officer involved, names, places, as much detail as possible. Remember, terrorists could come to Mumbai and launch this attack is because someone somewhere took a bribe, compromised us and did not do their job. They came here because we tolerated the mafia in Mumbai for too long, too much. Time to turn the tables - and let this start with stamping out the corruption.

(2) By never voting for a candidate who consorts with Mafia: That leaves us not much choice, but let us vote for unknown candidates on the ballot. This will create a havoc, and may end up getting wrong people up. But we need to wreck the status quo, disturb the apple cart. We should not vote for Congress, Shiv Sena, NCP, MNS, BJP, CPIM and all the assorted jokers - unless they put up a candidate with a clean background and a clear public service record. We are betraying our country if we compromise now, and do anything else.

(3) By adopting one project each [or in a group, a larger project] which does not cost us more than 2 hours a week and Rs. 400 a month, but allow us to reach out to one impoverished family in Mumbai slums and work with them to make their lives better: We need all citizens to give a hand if we have to keep the bad guys out. We need everyone who cares for this country. But we are leaving behind too many people, who are not well off, who do not speak English and who do not use Internet or Facebook. So, we shall never be successful. But we can spare two hours and Rs. 400/- [one meal outside will cost us that] and work with a family to make their lives better. We can educate them, help them with medicine, sanitation whatever. Most of all, we can give them hope. Many of us can get a job for the youth of the family, an education for the young, a hospital bed for the sick and help the mothers. There are dangers on the road : we may sound arrogant when we try to help [who are we to help?] or rob the recipient their self-esteem. We should do neither: we should do this because we want our country to be safe and successful, and we can not do that unless everyone gives a hand. We should do this as a duty, with all befitting humility, and we should do this NOW.

I know this is easier to do than this sounds - the family is possibly right in front of our eyes, working in our houses or vending something on the street. All we have to do is to reach out and have a conversation - do you know the name of the street boy who tried to sell you a mosquito killer on the bus stop - and ask about his/her background, family, education, aspirations. I know we need many more ideas, but a million mumbaikars are capable of world-beating ideas. What is needed is a start.

I can go on and on. I can suggest a Facebook Party [I mean a political party] but that's not groundswell. You never beat the institution by being one. You beat the institution by challenging its very core, by addressing its failing without becoming an institution yourself. Not by fighting it, but by making it irrelevant.

As I write those words, I realized Groundswell is not that new, and a canny politician has actually used that same strategy before. With some success. I am talking about Mahatma Gandhi - and this is going to be our second, and final, struggle for independence.

2 comments:

Rene Mathew said...

Hi Supriyo, I read your response to my comments. I agree with everything that you have said. By the way, I too am a third party. I have been living in the Middle East for the past 17 years but I visit Mumbai every year. Mumbai is home. Unlike the residents of UK, we are always guests in these countries. This year, I will be travelling to Mumbai on the 5th of December, next Friday. It is normal for a lot of residents from these countries namely UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman etc, to travel back to their country of origin - due to the Eid holidays starting on the 7th and the schools closing soon after that. I have said that we have to take action and I am just like the rest - waiting for someone else to do it. This is what our politicians, terrorists and underworld has taken advantage of. They take action and we wait for someone else to do it for us - unlike the people in the West. I agree with what you said - the West values the life of every citizen. For us it is just a statistic. 100 people died in Jaipur, blah- blah. I recall that in college when more than 200 people had died in a train accident, some boys in my class laughed and said - Good, our population has reduced by that number. We, Indians, care only about our immediate family and members of our community and our religion. We do not have the kind of broader community feeling that the west, particularly that America has. We do not have the kind of respect for our citizens, that they have. They are constantly reviewing the rules, regulations etc in order to make the lives of their citizens safe. It hits us - the people from the subcontinent - everytime there is a calamity in the world. The embassies of countries like US, Uk, Australia, Canada etc send e-mails to their citizens to warn them and to give them guidance to deal with the situation. Our embassies do not do anything. The excuse is that the numbers are too high. Does it matter - in the e-mail age? No it doesn't. They do not care. The ambassador is busy cutting ribbons and attending lunches and dinner. What I am trying to say is that we have to value the life of every citizen - then we will be horrified by every incident where the lives of our citizens are put to risk. Then we will take action against those who put our citizens at risk and put in checks and balances to stop this from happening again. We have to change our mindset. We have to stop our fatalistic and inward looking attitude. Kya karega, hum kuch nahin kar sakthe. Sab bhagwan ke hath mein hain.Stop!

Supriyo Chaudhuri said...

Hi Rene! Thanks again. I hope this attack changes us - but I know it is a tall hope. Now that the seize is over, the news channels will soon run after some new bollywood scandal and the rest of public, barring those who lost someone in this tragedy, will forget about this whole incident. You are right - we have failed to create the sense of the community in India. Every person by himself/ herself - a sort of jungle capitalism that we have managed to create here. Unfortunately, there is no answer in our political process, as the post-independence politicians failed in imagination and did not offer any direction: they let our country be hijacked. I don't know the answer, but I do hope that in today's day and age, aided by internet and 24x7 media, we shall find a citizens' answer. I know I am being optimistic, but do I have another choice?

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