One gets an extremely eerie feeling while reading Meena Menon’s treatise, Riots and After in Mumbai—Chronicles of Truth and Reconciliation. I have lived most of my life in this fascinating and frustrating city and yet can’t claim to know why it throbs and thrives. Life in this maniacal megapolis has degenerated and has become so dangerous in the last two decades that it is really difficult to understand the amazing nonchalance of Mumbaikars.
It is this depressing dialectic of the ‘maximum city’ that is chronicled by Menon with all its terror and tenacity. She has researched not only the bizarre violence that enveloped Mumbai in 1992-93, but has also excavated the divisive (as well as inclusive) socio-cultural fabric and its embroidery from the British days to today. Indeed, one is alarmed to learn that life here has been psychologically (and also physically) partitioned all through. It is not pleasant to learn that one was living on tenterhooks all the time, sometimes in imagined security and sometimes in invisible insecurity. Somewhere in the unconscious, one was aware of this semi-schizophrenic existence, but Menon makes you recognise the fissures that lie underneath.
Ever since 1984, and particularly from 1992, communal riots and bomb blasts, terrorist attacks and extremist violence have become so common that even the loud and sensational electronic media do not follow those stories beyond two days. Though it is true that there was a kind of communal prejudice between Hindus and Muslims even before the mid-eighties, it was not as vicious and sinister as it became later. Upper-caste Hindus who controlled various institutions, from education to bureaucracy and from banking to media, did broadly sympathise with the RSS and Savarkarite Hindu Mahasabha.
But passive support for Hindutva from the socially privileged upper castes had not become actively violent, nor did it spread to other forward castes. Further, the Hindutva forces had failed to convert their programme into a full-scale political agenda. In fact, many liberal-progressives both inside and outside the Congress had concluded that after Rajiv Gandhi’s stunning landslide victory with over 400 seats in the 1985 Lok Sabha elections, the forces of communalism and fundamentalism had been routed forever. The BJP had managed to win just two seats.
Little did anyone foresee the Shah Bano case judgement—coming soon after that gigantic victory of so-called progressive forces—and the Congress capitulation to the mullahs’ strident fundamentalist voice. First, it was a kind of nervous surrender to the conservative Muslim political lobby; then, to balance it, the locks of the Babri Masjid were opened to appease Hindu sentiment. These terrible mistakes let out the dormant communal monster. Menon has traced all dimensions of the politics of communalism as well as the culture of mental partition in great detail.
This book engages you on three levels. The first is the direct and empirical level in which Menon interviews the victims as well as the perpetrators of post-Babri violence. Mumbai was burnt twice, in December 1992 along with many parts of India and then again in January ’93. The second phase of the ’92 riots was a kind of precursor to the 2002 riots in Gujarat. That holocaust was followed by the serial bomb blasts. Those were the first in the series of bomb blasts, which have culminated (so far) in 26/11. In the last nearly 20 years, Mumbai has got used to the terror and underlying tension. It has also now learnt to live with the politico-cultural partition. The ‘maximum city’ has now become many small, ghettoised minimum cities.
At another level, the book traces the historical roots of communalism—from colonial times to the independence movement and after. Menon has given detailed accounts of riots in the ’30s and the British response to them. The historical narrative follows these to the Partition.
Lastly, Riots and After in Mumbai deals with future threats and the time bomb on which Mumbai sits. Of course, as a progressive optimist, Menon provides hope by suggesting that the inner strengths of the city and the collective-cooperative character of Mumbaikars will save it from likely communal clashes.
Humanity thrives on optimism. But reality, if ignored, could explode in the face and shatter any secular dream. This book is a reality check, so that liberals and well-meaning optimists can overcome their complacence to realise their ardent hopes.