• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Bombay at War


Once India had a liberal city called Bombay. Its businessmen were cannier than those of the rest of socialist India, its rich more cosmopolitan, its cricketers more flamboyant. Bombay’s was a relatively pluralistic tradition, too. In faraway Calcutta, India’s British colonizers had spent the nineteenth century creating a paternalistic seat of empire with heavy-handed imitations of English buildings. In Bombay, on the other hand, prosperous native businessmen collaborated with their foreign masters to create a port city whose architecture amalgamated, with appropriate symbolism, European and Indian styles. Well into the 1990s it was possible to explain, as many did, the incidence of the city’s poverty and corruption as the natural concomitants of Bombay’s commercial dynamism. Compared with other places on the subcontinent, India’s most complex city, its window on the world, was still considered a fine place to be.

Now, India has an ugly, disturbing shrine city called Mumbai. It is a Hindu shrine, since the diverse, generally tolerant religion practiced by four out of five Indians has acquired a venomous political identity in the very city where religious minorities like the Muslims, the Jains, and the Parsees have tended to do best. Officially, Bombay turned into Mumbai in 1996, when the Hindu nationalist government of the state of Maharashtra decided to rename the state capital in the Marathi vernacular. But the context for this semantic shuffle was a rejection of the secular, universalist values espoused by Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. To many residents of India’s commercial capital, Mumbai was born at the moment that this rejection reached its climax: December 6, 1992.

That was the day that Hindu chauvinists defied the central government in Delhi and tore down the Babri Mosque, a north Indian mosque that had been built, Hindus believe, on the site of the birthplace of Rama, a revered deity. The mosque’s destruction gave rise to bloody fighting between Hindus and Muslims in towns across north India. Despite lying 750 miles southwest of the Babri Mosque, Bombay was the worst affected. For five days that December and fifteen days the following month, intercommunal rioting between Hindus and Muslims cost the lives of some 900 people in Bombay, two thirds of them from the Muslim minority community and more than 350 of them killed by the security forces. Barely a month later, ten explosions, allegedly the work of Dawood Ibrahim, the city’s top Muslim gang boss—“Mumbai’s Al Capone”—evened the score. The final toll: 1,217 dead, 2,036 injured.

Even now, many Mumbaikars wonder how their city could have succumbed to a sectarian nationalism that is anathema to its traditional mercantile sophistication. After all, the millions who immigrate here do so in search of rupees: from the upstate migrants churning out T-shirts in suburban sweatshops to Tamil entrepreneurs bent over the ledgers of compact little businesses; from the eunuch prostitutes touting for business in Falkland Road to the north Indian Muslims manning the fruit stalls of Bhendi Bazaar. Six years after the riots, it may look like business as usual on the narrow, tense thoroughfare that divides a Muslim-majority district from its predominantly Hindu neighbor. But not since thousands followed the quintessential Bombay Muslim, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, when he left India to become Pakistan’s first governor general in 1947 has communal identity in the city been so self-conscious. In the fashionable apartment blocks of south Mumbai, well-heeled Hindus may wish their affluent Muslim neighbors Eid Mubarak at the end of Ramadan, but you will look in vain for a Khan, a Khoreishi, or an Ansari among the brass nameplates on lobby walls. Removed by Muslims fearful for their lives during the riots, they have yet to be replaced. “On the surface everything seems normal,” says one Koran-seller, “but we are seething.”


The campaign to dismantle the Babri Mosque was not a new one; nor was its chief political proponent, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a particularly original variant on the handful of Hindu nationalist parties that have been part of India’s political landscape since independence. By the late 1980s, however, the conditions had arisen that would allow Hindu nationalism to shift to the center of India’s political life. Nehru’s Congress Party was committed to redistribution of wealth and reducing caste privilege, but it was exhausted by more than forty years of almost uninterrupted power and had grown corrupt and brittle. A nascent Hindu middle class, patriotic and devout, rejected the Congress and other parties of the left as beholden to the lower castes and religious minorities. After Pakistan-backed Muslims in disputed Jammu and Kashmir stepped up their violent campaign for self-determination, the BJP emerged as a champion of both Indian military superiority and high-caste Hindu thrift. It combined woolly themes like self-sufficiency with fierce belligerence on the mosque issue and toward Pakistan. Still, it took a full five years after the Babri Mosque fell before the BJP finally shed its political untouchability. Only after last year’s parliamentary elections, when the BJP emerged the strongest party in Delhi’s parliament, did Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the party leader, succeed in forming the coalition government that currently runs India.

A little over a year later, Mr. Vajpayee’s job is looking tougher than ever. In particular, the prime minister is having difficulty explaining to his more secular-minded coalition partners the BJP’s enduring links with several shady, neofascist Hindu organizations. In January, for example, an outcry both at home and abroad forced him to order a judicial inquiry into the deaths of an Australian Christian missionary and his two children, allegedly at the hands of one such group, the Bajrang Dal. But for the political relationship that most embarrasses the prime minister, we must look back to Mumbai, to India’s least amiable demagogue: Balasaheb K. Thackeray, a sometime political cartoonist who decided to go into politics and succeeded beyond expectations.

When Mr. Thackeray founded his Shiv Sena party in 1966, he reckoned that the name of Shivaji—a seventeenth-century king from modern-day Maharashtra, who won striking military successes against Muslim invaders—would give added support to his campaign against the south Indians who exerted such influence over the Mumbai economy. By the mid-1980s, however, Mr. Thackeray had decisively associated his ailing party with the rising power of Hindu nationalism and the same warrior king became synonymous with another sort of bigotry. By then, the Shiv Sena had acquired a reputation as a kind of sectarian Salvation Army, providing social services for Hindus of different castes. But Mr. Thackeray’s 40,000 sainiks—his warriors, who are expected to have the disciplined dedication that the word implies—proved to be adept brownshirts, too. According to the findings of an independent inquiry conducted by B.N. Shrikrishna, a High Court judge (and devout Hindu), the Shiv Sena “took the lead in organizing attacks on Muslims” during the 1992-1993 riots. As for Mr. Thackeray, he “commanded his loyal Shiv Sainiks…like a veteran general.”

The Shiv Sena bloodied its hands, but Mr. Thackeray’s change of emphasis worked; he went from a bit player to the dominant personality in Maharashtran politics. In the 1995 assembly elections, the Shiv Sena confidently joined forces with the BJP and captured the state government from a jaded and discredited Congress. No matter that some BJP leaders, especially those in Mr. Vajpeyee’s government, now regard Mr. Thackeray as an embarrassment; although they rebuke him, they have not dared to ditch him, for the BJP’s electoral prospects in Maharashtra would suffer without the Shiv Sena’s support. As for the Shiv Sena leader himself, he holds no office in the state government, but boasts of running Maharashtra extra-constitutionally from his well-guarded house in the suburbs. An inveterate braggart, on such occasions he is not exaggerating.

A good illustration of the power exerted by this well-connected artist—at least one US diplomatic envoy has sat for him—was provided this January, when Mr. Thackeray successfully demanded the resignation of Manohar Joshi, Maharashtra’s chief minister since 1995. According to some political analysts in Mumbai, the outgoing chief minister had fallen from favor by failing to make good on a series of ambitious Shiv Sena promises: free housing for four million Mumbai slum dwellers and free electricity for farmers in different parts of the state. The latter was a pledge the excitable Mr. Thackeray had made without consulting his minister of power.

Ask BJP members of the government, however, and they will tell you that Mr. Thackeray was determined to punish Mr. Joshi for doing nothing to prevent the arrest of fourteen sainiks discovered ransacking the headquarters of India’s cricket board in protest over the Delhi government’s refusal to cancel a test series against Pakistan—a sporting encounter that Hindu nationalists found offensive, in view of Pakistan’s claims to Kashmir. Whatever the cause, it is unlikely that Mr. Joshi’s departure had anything to do with his being implicated in an official investigation into the illegal allotment of a chunk of public land. After all, his swiftly appointed successor, Narayan Rane, was once named by police as a conspirator in the murder of an opposition Congress Party worker. State cabinet ministers like Pramod Navalkar smile bleakly when asked about Mr. Joshi’s departure. “We are the last to know the reason for such things,” he told me. “We are loyal only to Mr. Thackeray and we accept what he says.” And there he stopped. One of Mr. Rane’s first actions as chief minister has been to instruct his ministers to keep away from the press.

For all Mr. Thackeray’s impatience with Mr. Joshi, the outgoing chief minister—who departed with the pious assertion that he had fallen on his sword “like a disciplined sainik“—was generous to his boss. Mr. Joshi saw to it that a large number of criminal and civil suits filed against Mr. Thackeray and other senior sainiks were dropped; he scrapped the State Minorities Commission—a statutory body given to needling the Shiv Sena—and publicly denounced the findings of the Shrikrishna report. Even though the report identifies in Mumbai’s 38,000-strong police force “an inbuilt bias against the Muslims,” all but one of the officers it accuses of crimes like “looting…rioting” and “utter dereliction of duty” during the riots remain on the beat.

In common with other neofascist parties, the Sena thrives on political agitations that often take the form of mass protests. Perhaps inevitably, four years of power have blunted the party’s ability to disrupt. It can no longer organize citywide strikes that were once exhilarating to their Sena followers. Nevertheless, the Shiv Sena can still have fun in the guise of guardian of public morals, particularly when it targets independent-minded filmmakers from Bollywood, the city’s influential movie industry.

With an output of some 120 films a year, Bollywood contributes heavily to the Mumbai economy. Nevertheless, its power did not stop Mr. Thackeray last year when he organized attacks by (mostly female) sainiks on one of two Mumbai theaters that were showing Fire, Bollywood’s first exploration of lesbian romance—which the Shiv Sena leader denounced as “alien to Indian culture.” The police were nowhere to be seen when Mr. Thackeray’s acolytes smashed windows and tore down posters at the Cinemax Theatre, where the film was playing to a packed house; nor were they when similar attacks took place the following day in three more Indian cities. In Mumbai, New Delhi, Pune, and Surat, Fire‘s run came to an enforced end.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print