Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Reaction. But action?

I’m still in Bombay. You’re going to watch the news and read all about the peace protest at the Gateway of India. People poured in from all parts of the city; much more than had been originally anticipated. At one point, I found myself separated from my colleagues, and watching an amazing sight. Some person – a politician I did not recognize – was accosted by a news anchor who threw a flyer in his face. She asked him why he was there with police protection (I could count about ten) and why that protection did not extend to common people. Needless to say, a crowd gathered, and the man just stood there, speechless.

There was emotion, there was chanting. The calls for Vande Mataram made me want to cry, but those were drowned out by cries against Pakistan, Deshmukh, Raj Thackerey and all politicians in general. A few cries against Sonia Gandhi, but not many people obliged.

I climbed on top of a small building where a number of photographers were perched. The crowd was gigantic, unruly, pushy, enthusiastic, angry, sweaty, patriotic, considerate, and unstoppable. But that birds eye view that I had also allowed me to see things from a distance, and brought home the fact that a few days after the terror attack, we are still as vulnerable as ever. Our police for the most part look disinterested and fat, and while crowds throng the Gateway, it seemed to me, from my vantage point, there is still no protection. No clear lines were demarcated, so surveillance of any kind (unless you count the countless TV channels).

Now, I’m sure this won’t surprise most of you reading my blog. It didn’t me. So let me not pontificate and let me start telling you a few more things. This morning I went down to the coastline and found a few obliging fishermen who took Simon, Denis and me to shoot the unending ocean. A little chatter, I broached the terror subject. Once they were sure that I was not implying that they had some prior knowledge of the event, they started telling us about the hapless state of security there. To their credit, and I kinda loved them for it, they were really defending the coast guard with some misguided patriotism, but did admit that they didn’t really see the coastguard much at all. They couldn’t remember the last time they had been checked for documents.

Yesterday we had gone to Dharavi. The mood there was angry too, and although no one from the world’s largest slum had been killed in the attacks, they were offended that this could happen in India. But when it came to the real world – had they even seen an extra policeman in their neighborhood? – they had not. But that didn’t worry them. They told me very proudly that they were such a tight community that even if one stranger walked in, immediately he/she was asked who-why-when-what. And, they added, we will protect ourselves. We’ll give our lives for each other. But they were all a little worried about stepping outside – catching a train – but like everyone in the city, if they had to do it, they’d just go right ahead and do it. What I liked was that the children were all well informed and very opinionated – and not in the mainstream media (how children are traumatized by the coverage of the attacks) but they spoke like little adults. That’s when I turned to Simon and said, “this is when you realize why India is such a successful democracy.” Why? Because he had expected them to be more concerned with their own economic struggles than national security – but was quite surprised to find out that was simply not true.

And that brings me to the real point I wanted to make (yes, I did take my time, I know). A day or two ago, we had an in-depth interview with MD of the Mahindra Group, Anand Mahindra – a person I was totally blown away by. He was very smart, introspective and very articulate. I want to briefly recap some of the things he said to me in the middle of a deeply emotional crisis.

Firstly, he hoped that the result of all this “unprecedented” urban anger was not that we secure ourselves and leave out the poorer sections. The fishermen, the people in Dharavi. Them. He also told us why this attack has struck such a chord around the world (well, one of many reasons). It’s the ultimate urban nightmare, he said. Ten men running around the streets of a modern day urban city with guns and grenades. Honestly, I was getting visuals of The Dark Knight in my head when he was talking and it sent a chill down my spine. He also touched upon the fact that because we have tried to inject democracy in every aspect of our laws and the Constitution, there is no single unified commander-in-chief in India, and that needs to change. I think many people are echoing these thoughts. Another interesting observation he made was about the “Spirit of Mumbai”. He said that the very people who built up this myth following other attacks were the very ones tearing it down right now, and that both are extreme emotions, and the only way forward is to find a balance.

He’s right about that. If any of you saw yesterdays news report, then you would have seen the byte of the man in Dharavi – John Bhai – telling us that the government should attack Pakistan and it would take, what, two and a half hours to defeat it? Well, today at Gateway of India, stronger than Vande Mataram was “Pakistan Murdabad”. I think it was even stronger than anti-politician chants.

But the politicians might have gone one clear message – if it lasts – is that we will go after incompetent people, and that politicians will have to start becoming accountable like any other employee/CEO. Their careers should end with a huge debacle. We spoke to Milind Deora today, and he also agreed. He said that when a man is elected from a rural area and somehow is catapulted to becoming Home Minister of the state; it is no surprise that he is intellectually incapable of handling the job. That’s true, and its heartening to see that many voices have gone from blaming the government to the realization that if you don’t vote in urban cities, then it’s the rural votes that count. Nothing wrong with that – that’s not what I’m saying – but those are also places that vote according to identity for the most part (Dalit, Muslim, what have you). And we need to start voting on capability and credibility. That’s a long-term plan, but it has to start somewhere.

And most importantly, just as how I had briefly mentioned in one post about the MP elections right before the terrorist attacks, we need to see what the political parties will be up to in the lead up to the general elections. In the cities, I suspect, the conversation will have to be more mainstream – about policy and action to be taken. But in the smaller towns, will the BJP play the anti Muslim card, and will the Congress, in an aim to pander, again not take a stand on anything? And let’s not forget the rest of the motley crew.

The real fallout, and if there are any lessons learnt, we will find out when the election gets closer.

13 comments:

Ksingh said...

Election season is in full swing and as you said, it will be interesting to see whats the approach taken by all parties. On the other hand what is the approach taken by the voters, will caste, creed,religion be forgotten instead for an efficient government.

Im with you the urban vote needs to count. I want to go a step backwards and say why cant regulations be put into place where every political candidate needs certain qualifications. The middle class in India today struggles through school,college, job interviews to get that coveted job and is then expected to vote for someone who hasnt passed school. For every post in this country from the civil services to pvt sector, qualifications are required, then why for the people who are supposed to run the country no qualifications apply.

Set up these regulations in place, filter out the non deserving candidates even before they reach the voting stage. Get government accounts audited, lets see where that money is going. I dont mean only by a Right to Information (RTI), but annual publication of accounts. As an individual i want to know where my tax money is being routed.

What Bombay witnessed yesterday was pent up anger, frustration being let out. Every common man carries this with him/her every day.

I saw this guy on times now last night making a very valid point, looked like a student telling arnab please use your media clout to back good candidates. Ask questions which matter,(shades of stewart on crossfire).
The media needs to do this, ask a mayawati why do you need 350 state police troopers. why does every bsp party worker have a ford endevour? why does she have a jet and is asking for another one.

Hold their feet to the fire.

egg style said...

Newtonian mechanics as applied to social crises does not impress me much, so would advise against that sort of thing, individually speaking.

Your piece does remind me of another thing as well, though, a book by James Surowieki called
'The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations', the title being a play on an earlier book by Charles Mackay (or some such name, my memory gases up a bit on that). Anyhow, the book presents a case for the superiority of crowd knowledge.

Whether the book's contention is valid or not is an open question, in my evidence-weighed view. Socrates would have disagreed presumably. But then, that was when opinions were hem locked by circumstances we have no record of, so it's hard to tell. More recent studies of 'mob wisdom' and man's search for meaning in it have been blurred out of focus by revisionism that subsumes the surging throngs into a single figure.

India's own crowd cases are interesting in their own right, though the recent turnout in Mumbai offers very little by way of study material. Sorry to go "off topic", but my academic orientation had to reassert itself at some point. These are interesting times, and historians would need close-up as well as long-zoom perspectives on Taj-Trident 08.

IR said...

Spot on !

But will there be action ? I doubt

There is talk of going at war with Pakistan , we are going to grow at 5-6% GDP next year ( and I am being optimistic ) if there is a war you can deduct 2-3% straight up , assuming things dont worsen , nuclear war etc etc

We must take action but it should be smart action , they have not decalred war on us , yet they have managed to puncture economic sentiment.

We must try and cut these terrorits and camps from the source , try and stifle there funding , we have the potential to become an economic superpower and people and govern. in the west realise that , we have to assert this potential to our advantage and not go around seeking approval or crying on other countries shoulders.It is no secret that Pakistan has been perpetuating terrorist activities against India.

I am enclosing a link from todays paper , this seems like a follow up article to the one published on 30/11 in the same paper by the same journo.

http://epaper.timesofindia.com/Repository/ml.asp?Ref=Q0FQLzIwMDgvMTIvMDQjQXIwMDcwMQ==&Mode=HTML&Locale=english-skin-custom

There is still no action !

Farah Qasemi said...

I agree with almost everything you say in your posts, and I realize I'm not in the best position to give any opinions, considering how I'm typing this from a safe, secure, comfortable room in Canada, but I think people of India should be a bit more reluctant about going ahead and attacking Pakistan right away. After a terrorist attack that really hits home, the first reaction is to go ahead and attack. 9/11, anyone? But look what that got us into. Seven years of two horrible wars, that frankly didn't do much good in the area. It won't just take a total of 2.5 hours to defeat Pakistan, and that's exactly the mentality that got Bush into the debacle that he's in right now. I mean, just look at the history of the India-Pakistan wars. ESPECIALLY since both countries are nuclear powers right now. I think (competent) politicians, media and general intellectuals should try and console and educate the general public, and as hard as it may sound, try to make people realize that their emotions were exactly what the terrorists were trying to hit, but this is time to act unitedly with the head, rather than the heart (again, I realize this is MUCH easier said than done).

mahima said...

Farah, honestly, we would not "go to war" with Pakistan. The fighting would have to be more sneaky I think... mostly because we are both nuclear powers... Rage on the street won't translate into action... I;m ok with that being correct on the 'War on Pakistan' angle; but I'm worried that will happen with internal reform that is much needed. Lets see.

Farah Qasemi said...

I know what you mean. It's one of things where you know what can't be done, but there's no clear indication as to what should be done.

I love all your work btw. I watched what you did for PBS too. You should be proud of yourself.

mahima said...

aw, thanks...helps that people read and respond.. makes you want to do more work!

Sujata Paul Maliah said...

Excellent observations, Mahima ! That is exactly what I have been telling people all these years. To exercise ones right to vote is a celebration of democracy. That simple right grants us so much power. However, we do not realise that power, screw up our noses and refuse to vote as we do stand against " dirty politics". It is so important for all of us to realise that we are a democracy and we can grow as a democracy only oif exert this right.
I hope every urban citizen of our nation will caste their vote this time round. Lets keep the communalist forces at bay, this time. And then, we should begin to think of intelligent, patriotic, educated candidates to field. More people should come into the field of politics. That is the best way to do something for the country. And this must be done!
And the other concern, echoed by Anand Mahindra, of not forgetting the poorer sections in all of this is equally important. A life, rich or poor, is equally precious.

malvika singh said...

i agree with most of the article.. but coming from a coast guard family i must mention a few points:

1.There are roughly about 15000 fishermen boats sailing eday in Mumbai Itself. Add ten thousand more to the boats in Gujarat and many more in other shores of Western India.

2. The entire western coast guard fleet comprises of 2400 men. yes, 2400 ONLY.Out of which many are sailors, maritime engineers etc.

3. Out of these two thousand four hundred we should count about 70 in one ship. Roughly.

4. The entire western coastline that is to be managed by these 2400 people
is 1.2million sq km area.

5. South korea is the size of Chattisgarh in India. It has 272 coast guard ships patrolling the sea. Total no of ships in the ENTIRE Indian coastline- 36.

6. Unlike the US there is no tagging system here in India as the govt feels that is too much money being spent to identify just fishermen. US coast guards have the authority to enter any vessel on sea, search them and send them back.

7. Apart from the boats you have hundreds of vessels coming in eday which the coat guard is not authorised to check as per the Indian Govt laws. They cannot enter and search the vessel, they may just demand documents.

So perhaps, the misguided patriotism with which the fishermen were defending the Coast Guard was because they know what ALL has been done with the minimum resources that are available due to the Indian Govt not deeming it fit to equip all Indian defense services with more resources at their hand.

and this I speak for coast guard, I can only imagine what restrictions the other sevices have..

Gaurav Gupta said...

I dont know if you saw this but at the march there was a poster a BSP and pople who tore it down were being cheered and applauded. its a start with everyone gathering, but seeing how low our govt is do you really think we touched any nerves yesterday?
Our are politicos sitting watching this on TV and laughing?
Its one thing to defend India but will the people who came out yest will they keep doing it, for one , two, three months till something happens?
We need basic education for our MP's,as I read in a facebook status "U.S. politicians are from Yale.Indian politicians are from Jail"

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