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Holding my breath for Mumbai

Soon after the gunmen stormed into their targets in Mumbai my e-mail started buzzing. I found myself actually taking a look at some of the crackpot stuff that I get sent but usually delete unread.

One of the targets was a Jewish centre – Nariman House – and this prompted one correspondent to send out a ‘hot-off-the-press report from the streets’ (the likelihood that it was anything of the kind is completely theoretical). This e-mail claimed that it was agents of Mossad who were gunning people down (hence the choice of Nariman House, despite the people in the line of fire being presumably Jewish). A deep conspiracist attempt to say that the perpetrators were in no way Islamists. I got this one a few times.

Next there was one condemning the attacks, but almost in the same breath asking the world not to ignore the dreadful suffering of the Palestinian people. There is something deeply distasteful about such ‘relative’ sympathy.

Then there were e-mails claiming that the gunmen were actually Hindu, the whole thing being a plot to discredit Muslims.

Nutty, sad and pathetic as such messages are, they reveal a very real anxiety – that once the sieges have ended, the city could erupt in communal carnage as it has done in the past.

The identity of the gunmen is still unclear – the world media seems to be tending towards Islamist extremists. Even if this is correct, one thing is clear – these people have little to do with mainstream Muslims and have indeed little concern for Muslims in India. If they are Islamists, they have only succeeded in placing average law-abiding Muslims in Mumbai, and indeed in India, in a frightening, vulnerable situation where the finger of blame will once again be pointed at them. All because of a group of young men who follow the god of violence rather than the god of any religion in this world.

Now other messages are coming through: groups of expat Indians extolling their faith in Mumbai’s cosmopolitan nature and in the human spirit of its people who will not let these events descend into further violence. Indian writers and editors are beginning to write for Western papers promoting a similar message. This city, they say, this Bombay is larger than any creed or caste, it has a vibrancy all its own, it will rise above this. That is also my hope.

Bombay is where I went to college and it’s a city I love with an adolescent passion as a result. It was a place of freedom from the stultifying hypocritical public morality of smaller Indian cities at the time. It was a place people escaped to in order to become themselves. Here one could move, one could breathe and there was possibility.

But already there was another narrative unfolding. There was a regional politics rising up which not only changed the name of the city to Mumbai but was intent on changing its character – Bombay, it said, was for Maharashtrians first, the people of the state in which it was located. This strand of politics was intent on denying the cosmopolitan nature of the city and wresting power for ‘local people’, even if some of the ‘foreigners’ had lived in it for years.

There were other narratives – of gang wars with gangs composed along religious lines, and this fed into a particularly nasty politics of religious division which seems to be mud-wrestling in full public sight across much of this vast country.

This is a politics that is intent on bloodletting, that turns neighbours into terrorists, hunting down people of a particular religion as targets of atrocity, and ordinary people get drawn into it with grim regularity.

This is what is at stake in Bombay now. All civil society organizations are calling for calm, for unity, for recognizing these gunmen for the crazed extremists they are. And I for one am holding my breath that this message will get through.

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