Remember Bombay

The shenanigans of Raj Thackeray and his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena have shocked Indians everywhere. It is likely that such scenes of young men being beaten up and taxis being bashed in might have seemed less horrifying had they occurred elsewhere. But the fact that such mayhem and cold-blooded violence can occur, and continue unchecked in the country's most developed and progressive city, has terrifying implications for the rest of the country.

At one level the issue concerns the pull between regionalism and cosmopolitanism and is a worrying phenomenon for a country galloping towards greater urbanisation and modernisation. But at another level the phenomenon also reflects the changing environment in the city of Mumbai. To understand this more clearly one would need to go back in time.

To August 1984, for instance, when the Indira Gandhi government dismissed NTR as chief minister of Andhra Pradesh. The day after or thereabouts there was a public meeting called at the University of Mumbai, then Bombay, to protest against the unconstitutional act. Before the scheduled time, the vast hall was full. Mostly with ordinary people, many with briefcases getting home from work. I don't recall who spoke that day. It could have been eminent jurists, local politicians, civil libertarians or independent citizens. It could have been Nani Palkhivala, Minoo Masani, Durga Bhagwat, Madhu Mehta and Madhu or Pramila Dandavate. It did not matter. The significant thing was that we in Mumbai felt a duty to speak up at a time of national crisis and there was a place and people who could do it for us.

It was the post-Emergency era, so anti-authoritarian feelings ran high. The mood could be perceived in a host of areas. In the legal arena, where public interest litigation was handling issues such as the treatment of undertrials or at the high court where a former chief minister was being tried for corruption. Feminists in Mumbai like their peers in other cities were agitating against dowry deaths and pulling down obscene hoardings. Urban environmentalists were successfully demanding action against those flouting developmental rules in the city.

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