I grew up in Bombay (now Mumbai) in the 1950s and early 1960s. I spoke Tamil with my mother, a combination of English and Tamil with my siblings and my father, and various brands of Gujarati, Marathi and Hindi with friends, domestic helpers, neighbors, bureaucrats and shopkeepers.
I studied with the Jesuits in St. Xavier’s School, in Dhobi Talao, no more than two kilometers from the Taj and the Oberoi Trident. We had the most recent reunion of the Class of 1965 at The Ritz Hotel in January 2008, only about five hundred meters from the Taj and the Oberoi. This reunion brought together a group of “old boys” near their sixtieth birthdays. They included Goan Catholics who are now engineers, hoteliers and priests; Marwari, Gujarati and Sindhi classmates who are now portly magnates or diabetic executives; Parsis and Iranis in various walks of business and commercial life; and Tamil-speakers who are about to retire from the software, medical and academic worlds. Some had come from California, some from the Persian Gulf, some from New York, many from other cities in India, a few from London. But the majority was still in Mumbai, though they now lived in places further away from South Mumbai than before. It was a riotous polyglot event, to which spouses were not invited for reasons of space and cost. A drunken set of singing, reminiscing “boys,” joking about their bald heads and big bellies, making plans to see each other again in Dubai, or Toronto, or San Francisco or perhaps Mumbai again, in another five years.
No one at the reunion talked about Hindutva, or Islamic terror, or Mumbai’s class cruelties or about the poorer members of our graduating class, who could not afford the $25 fee for the food and drinks, or were too ashamed that their lives and careers had gone nowhere. The night was a palace of memories, a requiem for our dreams of a Bombay of mixing and fixing.
In the mid 1960s, I attended a great colonial institution, Elphinstone College, the academic jewel of the University of Bombay. It is hardly a hundred meters from the Café Leopold, whose customers were butchered by the gunmen from the sea, a hundred and fifty meters from the Taj, and perhaps three hundred meters from Nariman House where Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were re-enacted in miniature. Those were magic years too, where seventeen and eighteen year old boys and girls from high schools across the city discovered Tennyson, Ionesco, calculus and joyous libidinal upticks. My college had magazines and “wallpapers” (early versions of blogs) in English, Marathi, Urdu and Gujarati, and our beloved “canteen,” a filthy little hangout, was the scene of political banter about Marx and Mao, chit-chat about the theatre of the absurd, loans of tattered copies of The Waste Land and the latest James Bond novel, as well as of feverish efforts to prepare for exams in logic, Indian history, development economics and much else. The high-end South Mumbai flaneurs among us fancied ourselves the envy of the “vernaculars” (who still were most comfortable in various Indian languages) but some of these boys and girls from humble and unglamorous backgrounds ranked first in the examinations and put the South Bombay slickers to shame. Elphinstone College was an aristocracy of the mind. We hardly knew anything about Delhi, and almost none of us had heard about St. Stephen’s College, which we only learned to envy when we met the Delhi Dons in Oxford, or Cambridge or Berkeley or New York, years later.
We lived blissfully in the cocoon of South Mumbai, roaming past the Taj, wandering through the cafes of Colaba Causeway, including Café Leopold, sneaking away from classes to the Regal cinema to watch re-runs of Rock Hudson and Doris Day, hoping for own nights of pillow talk. Our cosmopolitanism extended from Satyajit Ray to Ingmar Bergman, from Raj Kapoor to Charles Bronson, from Encounter to Photoplay, and from Bakri-Id to Diwali. I grew up thinking that Jews were a sect of Muslims and that the distance from Vohras to Bohras was no more than a typo.
Our parents also thrived in this golden period of friendships and business relationships which cut across differences of language and food, religion and neighborhood, though always restrained by the exclusions of caste and class, which we Anglophones were privileged to ignore. I left Bombay for the United States in 1967 and though I visited regularly thereafter, I soon knew that things had begun to change. The first big sign was the 1984 attack on the Golden Temple by the Indian Army, which led to a nationwide and shocking series of attacks on Sikhs, inspired in part by the regime of Indira Gandhi, who had been killed by some Sikhs among her bodyguards. This was the first major ethnic trauma of India’s still young secular democracy after Partition. Sikhs were painted as India’s enemies, in effect a fifth column of faux Hindus, Muslims in disguise. The rape, burning and brutalizing of poor Sikh populations, especially in Delhi, was the first sign that any Indian minority could henceforth be the “other” and that Hindu mobs were capable of organized bestiality on a grand scale.
The mid 1980s also saw the rise to respectability of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its sister organizations committed to Hindu nationalism, some of whom had already won their colors in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. The BJP rose to national prominence at the very same time that Rajiv Gandhi (the son of Indira Gandhi) opened up India’s markets and laid the foundations for free market competition, state capitalism and cyber-technology, even before the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In India, 1989 marked the moment when the Hindu Right became politically legitimate and launched its major nation-wide campaign of mobilization, propaganda, revisionism and violence against Muslims, which culminated in the now notorious destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, which could have been prevented by the Government had they had the will and the courage. This led to a wave of Muslim mobilizations and reactions across the country and created a powerful link in the minds of young Muslims between the devastating nature of Indian state violence in Kashmir and the growing terror against Muslim religious institutions, identities and organizations across India from the Hindu right, both official and informal.
The late 1980s, widely seen as the period when Islamic fundamentalism went global, also witnessed the birth of an aggressive global Hinduism, sponsored by traveling Hindu ascetics, youth camps, newspapers, and fund-raising campaigns that connected overseas Hindus, especially in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom to their models and teachers in India. Their message was simple: India is Hindu; all non-Hindus in India are potentially treacherous minorities; Muslims are especially dangerous because they substantially support Pakistan; and Pakistan is armed, dangerous and belligerent, especially in Kashmir. Muslim militants in Kashmir, meanwhile, linked their struggles to Palestine, Chechnya, Kabul, as well as to London, Europe and elsewhere in Asia. Today, the global Hindu Right is forcefully represented in the United States by Indian lobbying groups, pseudo-academics, cultural cover organizations and bland philanthropic para-organizations, who work assiduously to peddle soft Hindutva even as they whitewash genocide and cultural terror in India. This twenty-five year process today threatens to sneak by even the sharp eyes of President-elect Obama’s transition team.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, Indian Hindus and Muslims became globalized together. Muslims were brought together by fundamentalist messages from the radical elements of the Sunni world, by funds from Saudi Arabia to build mosques and madrassas in India, by the opportunities for smalltime Arab men from the Persian Gulf to purchase poor Muslim brides from India, and above all, by the increasing brutality of India’s military forces in Kashmir. Pakistan, meanwhile, steeply morphed into South Asia’s most dangerous failed state, provoked Muslim anger against the West in India, Afghanistan and elsewhere, helped to breed the Taliban in its Northwest provinces, hosted Al Qaeda in the late 1990s and after, and has recently discovered that it is now a hostage to Islamic terror itself.
These parallel globalizations met fatefully in Mumbai on November 26 and that too in multiple ways. Global Islam seems the easier to describe. The suspects clearly had ground support in Pakistan, quasi-official elements in Pakistan must have known of the plan, Kashmir was invoked by the lone survivor among the gunmen, and other evidence exists not only of Pakistan-based support but also of India-based human infrastructure for the attack. All this is clear, and in coming weeks the forensic wheat will be separated from the chaff.
What of the Hindu side? On the face of it, Hindus (and Muslims, Jews and Christians) were apparently just victims. But global Hindutva was also implicated, at least in two ways. First, Mumbai is the major site where global finance intersects with the major Hindu fascist party of the last 40 years, the Shiva Sena. The Shiva Sena, which began as a bunch of lumpen Marathi-speaking thugs who took advantage of the linguistic chauvinism of Marathi-speakers has grown into a forceful, protean and sustainable source of vile anti-Muslim propaganda from the 1960s until today. Second, Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat, perhaps the most dangerous and persuasive BJP ideologue in India today, an aspirant for the Prime Ministership, and a remarkable blender of genocidal Hindu nationalism and soft development-speak in Gujarat, has been to Mumbai regularly in the last few years, including since the recent terrorist attack.
Not only is this a God-given opportunity for Narendra Modi, few analysts have observed that Modi’s recurrent appearances in Mumbai over the last decade and his highly publicized appearances with major Mumbai-based business leaders in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Delhi and elsewhere remind us that Gujarat never forgave Marathi nationalists for successfully annexing Mumbai to their side after the linguistic riots of 1956. Gujarati-speakers still regard Mumbai as their city, usurped by the Maratha peasantry and the Marathi-speaking lumpenproletariat of the city. Among other things, the recent events in Mumbai are a struggle between the Indian Ocean (the Arabian Sea) and the Marathi and Gujarati hinterlands for control over Mumbai. Modi is the voice of the Gujarati jihad against the Islam of the Arabian Sea, just as Bal Thackeray is the voice of lumpen Maharashtra against its land-based enemies from Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, U.P, Bihar, etc., all now telescoped into the battle against land-based Islam in India.
Atop this deep struggle, which could arguably be read back into the geo-politics of the Indian Ocean for at least the last five centuries, lie the interests of New Delhi, which sees Mumbai as a homegrown Shanghai in its aspirations for global economic stardom. In addition, Mumbai is the home of the Western Command of the Indian Navy, by far the most powerful base for Indian ships, sailors and naval strategists, all of whom have a massive presence within a few hundred meters of where the terrorist visitors landed on the night of November 26, 2009. Mumbai is also the home of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (in Chembur) perhaps 30 kilometers from the major attacks, and a key part of India’s nuclear apparatus. A vast proportion of Mumbai’s real estate is directly or indirectly controlled by the Indian Navy, the Indian Army, the Mumbai police and various other military or security agencies. Mumbai is armed to the teeth, though it is primarily seen as India’s commercial hub. This makes the terrorist attacks an amazing kick in India’s military teeth.
Last, but hardly least, Mumbai has been the cosmopolis of criminal interests in gold smuggling, arms smuggling and other forms of oceanic crime linking the Persian Gulf, Pakistan and the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra for at least a few centuries. Inland from the West Coast of India, and on the Eastern side of the hills known as the Western Ghats, Maharashtra and Gujarat have massive differences, a history of ethnolinguistic conflict and a classic struggle between elites based in commerce (Gujarat) and elites based in warfare and agrarian control (Maharashtra). But on the West Coast of India, looking out to the Persian Gulf, it’s a different story, in which smugglers, pirates, fishermen and politicians, as well as ship-owners, dhow captains, commercial brokers and policemen have seamlessly crossed the lines between coastal languages, castes, classes and ethnicities.
Mumbai is where this coastal world meets the Mumbai underworld and it has long been a meeting place between communities of Hindus and Muslims from as far afield as Tamil Nadu, Afghanistan, Goa, Konkan, Kerala, and the island world surrounding Mumbai. True, the major criminal figures who have long been involved in linking smuggling, gold, cinema and real estate in Mumbai, famously Dawood Ibrahim, have been Muslims. But beneath this religious identity lies a complex patchwork of identities and biographies that range across much of the West Coast and peninsular India. In short, the links between Mumbai, Pakistan and the Gulf are now profoundly multi-lingual and do not easily match the tensions between speakers of Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil and Hindi that constitute the land-based politics of the Shiva Sena. Thus it is not a minor matter that Dawood Ibrahim is a Muslim from the Konkan region, between Goa and Kerala on the West Coast of India.
In other words, as we learn more about the deep geo-politics behind the terrifying attacks on Mumbai earlier this month, we need to recognize that there is a tectonic struggle going on in and near Mumbai on at least three axes: the deepest axis (from a historical point of view) is the struggle between the Indian Ocean commercial/criminal nexus and the land-based nexus that stretches from Mumbai to Delhi to Kashmir. The second, more recent struggle is the struggle between political and commercial interests now located in Maharashtra and Gujarat for control over Mumbai, a struggle that was superficially resolved in 1956, when Bombay was declared the capital of the new state of Maharashtra. The third, most subtle, is between a land-based, plebeian form of Hindu nationalism, best represented by the auto-rickshaw drivers and small street vendors of North Mumbai and Greater Mumbai, who would be happy to see South Mumbai destroyed; and the more slick, market-oriented face of the Bharatiya Janata Party, whose elite supporters know that South Mumbai is crucial to the mediation of global capital to India, and where business tycoons like Mukesh Ambani are building homes larger than many global hotels.
The gunmen who struck Mumbai are probably unaware of these tectonic struggles. Those who answer the call to self-immolation in the cause of war rarely are. But the way they arrived on Mumbai’s shores, the sites of their targeted violence, the fact that they could blend into the local population a few hundred meters from the might of the Indian Navy, and the fact that they struck sites where both upper and lower class Mumbaikars rub shoulders with each others most, should give us two kinds of pause. The first is to be sure to place the politics of the world after 9/11 in various longer histories of Mumbai and its terrestrial and oceanic hinterland. The second brings me back to my fears as a child of Mumbai in its magic years.
Many well-meaning observers have stressed the “resilience”, the mutual generosity, the quotidian heroism and the remarkable resistance of Mumbaikars to jump to quick conclusions or hasty reprisals. I too congratulate and celebrate these facts. But I fear that all resilience is historically produced. And what history gives, history can take away. Yes, we are all Mumbaikars now. But in a world that links Mumbai, Kashmir, Karachi, Madrid, Peshawar, London, Wall Street, Washington and Faridkot, that is not necessarily a source of comfort. Resilience is a public resource. But, unlike terror, it is not indefinitely renewable.