Feb 9, 2010

Mumbai's message: let the talks go on

Jyoti Malhotra

It doesn't really matter whether or not the impending talks with Pakistan at the foreign secretaries' level will be part of a "composite dialogue" or simply a dinner conversation in Hyderabad House – that is, if the conversation is held in Delhi. Or whether the Americans gently persuaded the Indian and Pakistani establishments to climb down from their soaring, antagonistic rhetoric of the past year or so, and break bread with each other.

Few will care whether the impending dialogue will yield a dramatic breakthrough or give way to a modestly-sized initiative with modest ambitions. Even diehard diplomatists with fine-tooth combs are keenly aware that when people start talking and travelling to each other's countries, they considerably shrivel up the size of the bureaucratic pancake.

So, just as the two Foreign Offices prepare the ground for possible compromise, keenly aware that this particular meeting will be watched around the globe, an equally significant change is taking place at home, one that involves the battle – what else! – between freedom of speech and expression and the power of the political demagogue.

It's all happening in Mumbai, India's most enterprising city, one which still throbs to the memory of Saadat Hasan Manto's heartache, at the fact of his having to abandon his beloved city, and as much to the contemporary dynamism of the Ambanis and the Tatas.

Mumbai is not Kashmir, the site of a major dispute that shames us both, nor even Punjab, the division of which bloodied the golden wheat fields – it is true when they say that the blood mingled with the new genetic strain and imparted a golden shimmer to the crop which seeded the Green Revolution.

Neither is Mumbai anywhere near Ghazipur, the location of India's oldest opium factory on the banks of the Ganga in easternmost Uttar Pradesh, from where the poorest and the impoverished embarked upon a large exodus that found themselves in far-off sugarcane plantations cultivated by the British around the world… That same determination to make good manifested in and around Ghazipur in 1947, when whole villages still speaking "Purbi" relocated themselves on the banks of another great expanse of water, in and around Karachi.

Okay, so let's face it. Mumbai has a new address these days, actually since November 2008, when it was forced to become a card-carrying member of Global Jihad Inc. Ten men, a fearsome band of brothers, held the city to ransom for the longest 62 hours. When it was over and nine of them had been killed, Mumbai's Muslim graveyards refused to accept the bodies of these men for their last rites.

It's only fitting, then, that Mumbai should be at the centre of India's latest drama, enough to rival the big-picture antics of its Bollywood heroes. What happened was that Shahrukh Khan expressed both shock and horror a few weeks ago that Pakistani cricketers had been kept out of the IPL cricket league soon to be played in India, thereby disserving the great Indian tradition of hospitality.

It was as if Shahrukh had suddenly winded the national solar plexus. As everyone scrambled to defend their secular and security credentials ("we had guaranteed the security and safety of the Pakistani cricketers," said Home Minister P Chidambaram), it transpired that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was furious that a perfectly good opportunity to improve cross-border civility had been squandered by short-sighted individuals with rightwing inclinations.

Manmohan Singh was in faraway Delhi, however, trying to restore the political dialogue with Islamabad. In Mumbai, meanwhile, another battle for the soul of India had been launched as Bal Thackeray, the ageing patriarch of the Shiv Sena, a party with self-seeking Hindu credentials and a roaring lion as its symbol, announced that Shahrukh Khan, a Muslim, to boot – although with a Hindu wife and two Hindu-Muslim children – would be boycotted because he had dared defend Pakistan, from where had come the attackers who laid siege to Mumbai.

Shahrukh's punishment? His new movie My Name is Khan, releasing later this week, would not be allowed to be screened in Mumbai and the rest of Maharashtra.

History, the Shiv Sena seemed to be saying, was condemned to repeat itself, and the party would help kick it along the vicious, confrontational circle. 1947, the partition of India; 1966, the rise of the Shiv Sena; 1993, the communal carnage in Mumbai; 2006, the train blasts; and 2008, the city under siege…

The dark side was threatening to cast its long shadow over Mumbai again. What was your primary identity? Were you an Indian first, a Mumbaikar, a Hindu or a Muslim? Perhaps a film actor? Were you undermining yourself, your community or your country if you reached across, stuck your hand over the divide, even when the coals roasted your skin?

Can India have space for everybody, as Shahrukh Khan asked, or must India's Muslims be condemned to separateness, as the Shiv Sena desired?

Here, then, is some of what happened all over India over the course of last week: A stunned silence greeted Thackeray's threat, a shell-shocked Bollywood, with billions at stake, began to nervously toy with a variety of options, Amitabh Bachhan, son of Harivansh Rai Bachhan and one of India's greatest actors, agreed to become the tourist icon for Narendra Modi's Gujarat, and Rahul Gandhi decided to call the Shiv Sena's bluff.

Now, Rahul Gandhi is hardly an orator, the odds on whether he's going to become India's next prime minister still unclear, although, like his sister Priyanka, he's to the manor born. But one thing's for sure: he has the complete audacity of the young.

He trespasses into territory few angels or Congressmen would dare. He ignores the taunts and jeers of people hoping to compartmentalise him into the world of the rarefied "baba-log" and repeatedly sleeps in the homes of Dalits. In Mumbai, as he cast off his formidable security and took the local train to Dadar, right into the heart of Shiv Sena territory, the young Gandhi shook off the collective frisson of fear that often creeps into the hearts of ordinary people reluctant to take on the bully.

"My father was born in Mumbai, my mother in Italy, my great-grandfather in Allahabad. I live in Delhi. Where should I say I belong to? I know one thing…I belong to India," Rahul Gandhi said.

In Mumbai-speak, here is what he meant: Tu mere liye kaahe ko bolta? Or, you mind your business, and I'll mind mine, but please don't threaten me on my own behalf. Within 24 hours, the Shiv Sena had retreated, called off its threat to Shahrukh Khan and his movie. For the first time in 40 years, the Shiv Sena's demagoguery had been challenged and defeated. Mumbai, after an eon of being condemned for its secular mercantilism, had vindicated itself.

As for the India-Pakistan talks, Mumbaikars shrugged, let them go on elsewhere.

The writer is a leading Indian journalist. Email: jomalhotra@gmail.com

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