Mumbai’s message: let the talks go on

Published in The News Tuesday, February 09, 2010
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

15 Comments

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15 responses to “Mumbai’s message: let the talks go on

  1. Hayyer

    Has PTH been taken in by the Gandhi schmaltz machine. Ms Jyoti’s chronology is all wrong.

    “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.”

    No one in India saw a connection between these events till Ms Jyoti threaded her necklace.
    Amitabh Bachhan’s wooing of the BJP predates the IPL fiasco-Rahul Gandhi did not visit Mumbai in defence of Shahrukh or the IPL and Shahrukh’s studied ambiguities did nothing either for cricket or his image.

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

    I don’t recall reading that in the papers. Where did Ms. Jyoti get it from?

  2. Ron

    Dear Friends

    Indians and Pakistanis who meet and greet each other during “people to people” contacts and those millions of Indians and Pakistanis who genuinely want peace between the two countries are VERY DIFFERENT from those terrorist and extremists(on both sides) who seek to destroy any possibility of peace between the two countries.

    Therefore , no amount of “people to people” contact will bring lasting peace…..because we are dealing with two different groups of people:”peace lobby” and “war and hate lobby”…….

  3. Ron

    Only way , peace can rule is by silencing the “war and hate lobby” using every means available!!

  4. Gorki

    Dear Hayyer:

    I respectfully disagree with your criticism but your criticism is understandable since it is based on the exact words that were spoken (or left unspoken.)

    While such exact standards are required in a court of law, it is another matter in politics where the court is that of public opinion and where timing, symbolism and context matter as much if not more than the exact words.

    Right from the beginning this controversy was more about symbolism than specific words or deeds. When one understands that difference, Ms. Jyoti’s article is quite closer to the mark.

    Her chronology is broadly accurate. It started with the IPL snub to Pakistan players (my personal suspicion is that it was under pressure of the Sena leaders).
    Many in Pakistan perceived it as a national humiliation; PTH it self carried a scathing article the next day.
    Many Indians felt the need to mollify Pakistani public opinion. Even the home minister distanced himself from the decision. In this atmosphere, SRK made comments registering his own dissent.
    The words were gentle (to not undue inflame Indian mass opinion) but the dissent was unmistakable challenge to the Sena bullies.
    BT understood this and demanded an apology which was refused over the next several days in different press interviews.
    The words were carefully kept gentle to deny the Sena any advantage which excels in taking words out of context to whip up hyper nationalistic hysteria.
    Next the Sena threw down the gauntlet and called for a boycott of MNIK; backing it by the only weapon it has; the threat to indulge in hooliganism. At this point it became a challenge to the state itself.
    Here the ruling party found itself in a dilemma; how to uphold its duty to provide a rule of law yet deny the Sena the cheap publicity and the public opinion victory it was looking for.
    Here Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Mumbai may have been the perfect answer; it met the Sena’s symbolism with a gesture of his own; and by going into Mumbai he not only inspired confidence into the average citizen, it also sent a message to his own congress rank and file, we should meet the challenge head on.
    It worked.
    Even if one were to dismiss the mushy details of Gandhi’s visit, (I ignored them completely), the news reports of the opening day of MNIK with enthusiastic crowds of people, including congress bigwigs going to the theaters was a clear proof of who the winners and losers were in this saga. (I followed these reports closely).

    The final proof came the next day when Thackeray issued a sort of a concession speech saying his men would not stop the movie goers. (it was immensely satisfying to hear a ‘tiger’ whimper the day after his neutering)

    And one last thing; Amitabh Bachchan was not only ‘wooing of the BJP’ (a party that distanced itself from the Sena in the latest controversy) he was actively mopping the floor for the Sena chief, and it was not so innocent and isolated either.
    This is what he is reported to have written on his blog more than a week after the SRK-Sena controversy and Thackarey’s subsequent threats:

    “Uddhav Thakeray calls. He has just come out of the theatre after ‘Rann’ and is not able to find appropriate words to describe his appreciation for the film and the performance. Minutes later Bala Saheb calls. ‘I want to see this film. Come and show it to me!’ ‘You have not been to see me for a long time!’ I assure him I shall arrange a projection in his house. I ask after his health. He is fine he says.”

    Sometimes you don’t have to read the exact terms of the surrender; from a gentle words of flattery are enough!!

    Regards.

  5. Gorki

    errata:
    from a gentle words of flattery are enough = gentle words of flattery are enough!!

    Ron:
    “Only way , peace can rule is by silencing the “war and hate lobby” using every means available”

    Well said.
    It is indeed a battle against the ‘war and hate lobby’ which specializes in using inflammatory words and strong rhetoric to drum up passions.

    In this battle for the hearts and minds of the millions, the means available to ‘peace and tolerance lobby’ is a gentle appeal to reason, using reasonable and concilatory words.
    It makes the other side look silly and forced to fight a battle on unfamiliar terrain and without its weapons of their choice.

    I wish many more such disappointment for Bala Saheb and his henchmen in the days to come.

    Unfortunately we all have to pay the price.
    I don’t watch many movies anyway and am certainly not a fan of SRK but today I am taking my family to watch MNIK forty miles from my home thanks, but no thanks to the ‘Bala Saheb’.😉

    Regards.

  6. Midfield Dynamo

    My mother lived on the Juhu Beach, her father a retired army officer played polo with Dinshaw, after partition he migrated to Sind to a farm near Umarkot. Of course he left behind almost everything, especially friends and a lifestyle that was never to return to the sub-continent. He is dead now, I wonder what he may have thought of the carnage this beautiful city had witnessed on numerous occasions. Was there a cause? was nature exacting its renumeration from the rich or was it just an incident

  7. Mustafa Shaban

    I am glad that the biggest racist BT got a slap on the face. Shiv Sena is a problem for India. SRK did the right thing.

  8. Hayyer

    Gorki:
    Jyoti Malhotra tried to imply causality. There wasn’t any. The credit for Mumbaikars turning up in droves to watch Shahrukh’s movie is not due to Rahul Gandhi’s train ride. Shahrukh himself was close to retracting his ambiguous statement, and to a shameful surrender. He wanted to call on Thakrey to explain his position. For a man worth many hundreds of crores of rupees the prospect of a relatively minor loss was inexplicably frightening. He is in his mid forties now. Surely time to abandon Mammon and pursue the principles that he never ceases to preach.
    Amitabh Bachan, whatever one may think his wooing Narendar Modi, was perhaps traduced because he belongs to the anti Congress political groups.
    You may not be aware of the intense effort in Indian media over the last two years to build up young Rahul as the star in India’s future. Jyoti’s article was obviously part of an the campaign.

  9. Gorki

    Dear Hayyer:

    I am sure that a section of the media in India, tries very hard to promote Rahul Gandhi as a leader just as another section of the media tries daily to promote Uddhav Thackarey and yet another tries to do so for Sukhbir Badal or any number of scions of political dynasties; that is their prerogative as a free press in a free country.

    However the media build up can only go so far; the public opinion and the Indian electorate has shown time and again that it possesses the maturity to listen to all sides and make up its mind based on issues involved.

    No amount of media bashing can hide the fact that Bal Thackeray in general and specifically his recent Mumbai Manoos campaign was very unpopular with most Indians who see it as nothing more than a cheap and cynical way for him to stay politically relevant.
    In this atmosphere his pronouncements against SRK were equally unpopular.

    That in the past, most politicians and celebrities were cowed by his implied threat of violence did not mean that he was not resented by the general public. This time around, media build up or not, Rahul’s visit to Mumbai (which was primarily a challenge to his Mumbai Manoos stuff; you can easily read up the war of words that preceded that visit) and SRK’s defiance coincided and was silently endorsed by many (some polls showed 94% people backed SRK’s stand against him) and once Rahul showed that he was a paper tiger (pun not intended) people had the courage to defy his diktat on the movie also.

    I agree with you that SRK’s resistance to him was hesitant and may very well have collapsed without Rahul’s simultaneous opposition to him on another issue. However, SRK is a private citizen, and not in public service he needs the state to back him up when threatened by a bully. All the more reason to applaud Rahul for taking a stand against a such a bully and stiffening the spine of all those whose were in opposition but were wavering.

    However I would rather have a celebrity who takes a hesitant stand to call a spade a spade over another who shamelessly surrenders.
    You can choose to blame the media; yet it was not the media that made Thackeray’s party men attack Amitabh’s wife’s use of Hindi over Marathi; and you can again blame the media as much as you like but it is not the media that made Amitabh Bachchan write his blog; his words indict him and are there for all to see.
    Anyone with an iota of common sense and self respect will be revolted by his sycophantic words in the context of Thackeray’s recent vitriolic stand against UP-ites like his wife and him, against the non Marathis and the SRK controversy.
    I can tell you it made me sick!

    I am certainly surprised that on one hand you choose to slam SRK for being timid in his criticism of BT and yet find nothing wrong in AB’s very transparent flattery of a bigoted little man.

    Media build up or not, if Rahul has the courage to make a symbolic gesture against a local political thug it should be applauded; no one is stopping others from making similar strong gestures.

    The day when a Badal\ a Chautala\an Ajit Singh\a Varun Gandhi (you can take your pick) or any other such ‘leader’ makes a similar gesture, I will applaud them too. Till then, they will have to work hard to earn the respect of this Indian.

    Regards.

  10. Hayyer

    Gorki:
    I don’t much watch Hindi movies,(I have seen more than a handful in the last 30 years) and all these play actors are equally alike to me, two dimensional cutouts, not real people.
    I am not defending A Bachan. I only meant that he was lambasted by Jyoti Malhotra as part of the Rahul Gandhi build up.
    Rahul Gandhi’s act of boarding a train gets no marks from me. It would take more than that. His action does not speak louder than his words, which he is incapable of uttering anyway if you recall his performance in Parliament during the vote of no confidence. The Congress he leads built up the Shiv Sena in the sixties. They have used it cynically, and they dare not confront it as they should.
    My objection to the piece is its shameless attempt to link the success of the film with Rahul Gandhi’s train ride. Are we expected to sing hosannas to this boy wonder because the media is dishonest. What is it they say-40 is the new 20? Leaders, even wannabes, should lead, not appropriate the credit for what the public or someone else did regardless.
    The problem with India is precisely that it is all gesture and no substance. Making gestures is a substitute for action. Having made the gesture we have done our duty. We live out our lives by mere gestures.

  11. Hades

    Hayyer,

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

    I don’t recall reading that in the papers. Where did Ms. Jyoti get it from?

    “A Khan named Shah Rukh tells us to love Pakistan but nobody feels suffocated due to his treachery” is a line from a Sena editorial around 10 days before the release of the film.

    I think the subtext that Malhotra reads is quite apt.

  12. Vajra

    @Gorki

    It started with the IPL snub to Pakistan players (my personal suspicion is that it was under pressure of the Sena leaders).

    You might recall that this entire episode of failure to bid for the Pakistani players was discussed in terms of the silent tug-of-war between the Congress and the NCP under Sharad Pawar.

    To recap.,

    1. Sharad Pawar has never made any bones about his Prime Ministerial ambitions. It is clear that he can never make it from within an alliance with the mainstream Congress, and therefore, even while remaining within that alliance, he has always sailed very, very close to the wind in showing barely-concealed sympathy for the opposition. If you recall, before the last General Elections, his attending opposition rallies caused consternation within the Congress, which was no longer certain that it had Pawar’s continued support.

    2. After ministry-making at the Centre, in Maharashtra and in Rajasthan was over (the reason for including Rajasthan will be clear in a moment), it was the turn of the Congress. It encouraged Joshi, a much-admired ‘coming’ man in the Congress, to contest the Rajasthan Cricket Association elections against Lalit Modi, the blue-eyed boy of the BCCI for his role in conceptualising, designing and implementing the IPL. Modi’s affinities to the BJP are well-known; the RCA elections were seen as a straightforward combat between Congress and BJP, extended to the cricket association. It is significant to note that Pawar’s blessings were with the losing candidate, Modi, one more indicator of the cold war raging between him and the Congress.

    3. The direct consequence of this neutering of Modi was Pawar’s gambit with regard to the IPL. He used the threat of violence by his almost-allies, and dear friends almost-of-his-childhood, the Shiv Sena, to persuade the franchise-holders that it would be a bad idea, really bad for business, to select any Pakistani players. At that time, he didn’t know that Bal Thackeray would widen the scope and include Australian players within his own penumbra of rage, or he might have backed off a bit. As is to be expected with exponents of this kind of totally cynical politics, he took no heed of long-term consequences, and pushed ahead.

    4. The rejection of the Pakistani players was immediately seen as an inexplicable victory for the right wing in Indian politics, the Sangh Parivar and the Sena, and a slap in the face to the Congress policy of talking to Pakistan, in spite of the formidable handicaps in the way in the form both of jehadi groups and the misplaced ebullience and general ‘laddishness’ of the Pakistani Foreign Minister.

    5. What followed was predictable: severe and sustained criticism of Pawar’s total failure as a Minister for Food from within the Congress. Pawar was left smarting and angered, and looking for an occasion to retaliate.

    6. The occasion for retaliation came with Rahul’s Mumbai train-rides. At this point, just as the Shiv Sena was left bewildered and its incompetent operating leadership under Uddhav Thackeray was in complete disarray, Pawar gave them a whiff of oxygen by visiting Thackeray senior at Matoshree.This was inexplicable in terms of common sense, but perfectly fashioned in the context of the cold war that has been described.

    7. The MNIK episode, Amitabh Bachchan’s spineless behaviour and Shah Rukh’s ambivalence (quite understandable, considering how many great warriors of secularism and guardians of democracy have been conspicuously silent for fear of the Sena) is to be understood in this context.

    a. The Sena needed an issue to divert attention from their defeat on the local trains, and they needed to channel the enthusiasm within the Maratha rank-and-file that the arch-Maratha, Pawar’s visit had caused to bubble up.

    b. Amitabh, on the defensive everywhere due to his recent parting of the ways from his political shield, the oh-so-secular Samajwadi Party, was only too willing to accommodate Thackeray’s prejudices within his own world-view. This is part and parcel of a series of minute political realignments that he had been forced to take when he found that he was no longer a secular person, at least according to the Samajwadi Party.

    OK, that was a joke, but just about.

    c. Shah Rukh has to cope with the Sena 24×7. There was zero scope for him to take up a bold and aggressive stand, considering how film releases have been targetted by bizarre mob violence.

    I don’t think it’s fair to expect him to do much. What he did was more than enough; time to leave the man alone.

    8. The story continues in this week’s episodes. Don’t miss them.

  13. YLH

    “I am glad that the biggest racist BT got a slap on the face. ”

    Yes…and let’s see when the biggest racist on our side Zaid Hamid gets a slap on his face.

  14. Jyoti

    Hi everyone, the comments are great…in my own defence, all I will say is that the piece wasnt intended to be a “chronology”, nor am I boosting Rahul Gandhi’s fan mail content, although as a politician he sensed the mood of the silent majority in Mumbai/Bombay and decided to jump in…but that for the first time in years and years, Mumbai stood up to the anachronistic jingoism of the Shiv Sena.

    Here’s to more reactions tonight!
    Jyoti

  15. Vajra, Hayyer:

    Thank you both, learned gentlemen, for your wise comments.
    As a simple man on the street, I welcome an insight into the behind the scene machinations of those in power and limelight.
    Similarly, for all those machinations, the men and women in authority should listen to us, the average citizens for in a democracy it is all that matters at the end of the day.
    Hayyer is right, empty gestures mean nothing; but rest assured, we the public watch for followup actions and deeds, if they are not forthcoming, the

    Mumbai visit will be soon forgotten.
    In the meantime, it is heartening to note that angry, hateful men can be snubbed, publicly by a combination of public opinion, celebrity preferences, media reporting and politicians trying to impress; isn’t this how a democracy is supposed to work?
    Overall it was a good day for India, and perhaps for Pakistan too (in a round about way).

    @Hades: Thanks for reporting the below:

    “A Khan named Shah Rukh tells us to love Pakistan but nobody feels suffocated due to his treachery”

    The fact that this statement is made by the sena confirms for me that it was a good day for India.😉

    However India has a long way to go; I personally will be satisfied only when every Muslim in India, right down to an unknown cab driver and not just the celebrities, can confidently make such a statement without worrying about the fact that because of his personal faith, his patriotism may be questioned for making it.

    @Jyoti: Thanks for the article and the comments. I agree with your overall view that several of these recent events though only loosely connected, are a part of a larger picture; thus the title ‘Talks should go on’ which are not directly connected to SRK\Sena\RG etc.
    As you pointed out, even if the talks accomplish little at an early stage, it is a big step forward if India and Pakistan can take away from the extremists on both the sides the veto power for sabotaging these talks with their jingoism when ever they feel like it.
    Similarly it will also make violent extremists less relevant if a policy of a predictable knee jerk response to any act of terrorism is abandoned. This to me will be a slap on the face of the right wing conspiracy theorists like ZH that YLH wants to see.

    Regards.
    Regards.