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“A major world power is being threatened by these civilizational tensions.”
— Robert Kaplan, Center for a New American Security
The leitmotif of old Bombay is its diversity. Populations with varied beliefs and languages were agglomerated by the British into an ever growing city, first as a trading post which then slowly transformed into an industrial and financial powerhouse. As the city grew, it spread, reclaiming land and absorbing islands, pushing outward into the hinterland that was linked by the railways. All along the rail lines and across the bay grew beautiful mansions and congested slums. Beside them rose skyscrapers and hotels, Irani restaurants and street food stalls. The films came in time, building on Bombay’s polycultural theatre scene. Mumbai accounts for a quarter of India’s gross domestic product. Some of it comes from the gangsters of the streets; most of it comes from the brokers at Dalal Street. This is a city alive and swelling, which is why journalist Suketu Mehta‘s opus called it maximum city.
Credit for the city’s cosmopolitanism goes to the mill workers. It is they, writes the late historian Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, who gave the city its “diversity and hybridity, not wholly surprising in a city of migrants. Its public life was marked by its secularism, its equidistance from the particularisms of caste and religious community and often its transcendence of their differences.” When globalization’s authors padlocked the textile mills, the workers’ culture took a turn from popular secularism to virulent communalism. Without an agenda for the betterment of the lives of the workers, the Congress Party tried to gain legitimacy by making connections based on religion. The Congress was outflanked from the right by the Shiv Sena, whose ascent in the 1970s presaged that of the Bharatiya Janata Party in north India ten years later. Slowly, surely, the politics of the Shiv Sena and the BJP, as well as their allied organizations, wore down the forms of secular culture that had been in formation for a century. Pressure on those who were not Hindu Marathis came from these parties and their various cultural fronts.
After the destruction of a sixteenth century mosque in Ayodhya in 1992, riots broke out across northern India. In Bombay, the forces of the Hindu Right led the riots; its armies killed a thousand Muslims. Two hundred thousand other Muslims fled the city. This was a form of ethnic cleansing that had a profound psychological impact on the city’s residents. A retaliatory attack led by a former Bombay gangster killed 257 people. Since then, attacks have come with remarkable frequency, almost one a year. Blame for these attacks often rests at the gates of either ex-Afghan Jihad veterans whose organizations are banned in Pakistan (such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba) or the foot-soldiers of the family of organizations that gather around the BJP. Violence is their tactic and their strategy; they have little else.
Mirror images of each other, the Hindu Right and the Islamic Right offer nothing for the future, but boil the resentments of selected parts of the population, to artificially hasten their hope for change with promises of martyrdom and paradise. These are the alchemists of resentment, who use bombs and swords, guns and axes to do their magic for them. There is no development of the protracted struggle to change the conditions of the present, only the irrational commitment to fleeting acts of terrible violence. Terror in saffron robes or draped in green flags has absolute contempt for the desperate needs of people who are increasingly abandoned by the policies that bring homelessness and hunger to hundreds of millions.
Robert Kaplan appears to know none of this: neither the long history of Bombay’s settlement and secularism, nor of the destruction of that tradition in a flash, a fatality of the social process of globalization that has put on the soiled garments of tradition. Like much neo-conservative commentary on the entire social crisis of the present (what neo-conservatives call the War on Terror), Kaplan resorts to a story without history and without geography. The adversaries are plucked from a late medieval fairy tale: civilizations arrayed against each other in an endless, final battle.
Islam, within South Asia, is not a “civilization.” That is preposterous. If the present dynamic continues, Indian Muslims might gather in hidebound organizations and revive older ideas of forgotten greatness — notions now the preserve only of the most reactionary and marginal groups who are able to inflate their power by the bomb. Since the 1980s, North Indian upper-caste Hindus have certainly come to link their new-found economic “opportunities” with their own religio-cultural identity. This has been a consequence of the work done by the Hindu Right. It is not a natural state of things, and it is not an irreversible condition. If one takes the “civilizational tensions” view seriously, one would have to disavow the long history of conviviality and its potential, and exchange it for a state of permanent and painful war.
Mumbai is certainly not what it was in the 1950s and 1960s. The mills, for instance, remain shuttered, and their worth is now reduced to real estate. FIRE is the order of the day: Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate. The film industry, which once celebrated plebeian culture, now revels in upward mobility and gangsterism. It accurately reflects the shift in aspirations and commitments. These movies push what the critic Sudhanva Deshpande calls “a fantasy of endless consumption.” The dynamic of social development is sidelined. Alongside a ferocious revival of the traditions of conviviality, this dynamic is an essential tonic against the current conditions. Mumbai, and India, are not in the midst of civilizational tension; there are social problems that require sober and honest solutions. One can’t allow seven million people (sixty percent of the city’s population) to live in slums and believe that history has ended. The question isn’t this, but rather: what kind of history we will make, and who will be allowed to be History’s subject?
Vijay Prashad is George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and Professor of International Studies at Trinity College. He is author of Darker Nations: A People’s History of The Third World among many other publications. This article first appeared as a blog entry in The Immanent Frame on 5 December 2008. It is reproduced here for educational purposes.