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The Splitting Apart of Amar, Akbar and Anthony

August 2006
The Splitting Apart of Amar, Akbar and Anthony

The Splitting Apart of Amar, Akbar and Anthony

The latest Mumbai blasts may be both a symptom and cause of the changing face of the city from a secular to a communally segregated one.

It would be easy for the optimistic liberal to conclude that Mumbai is still at heart, ‘Bombay', a cosmopolitan city filled with universal love and devoid of bigotry. Mumbai is not Ahmedabad. The Hindutva parties were relatively muted in their reaction to the train blasts. Muslim organizations came out and condemned the attacks. And no one burned any buses.

But even if the city opted out of the violent route, there is undeniably a growing rhetoric of violence that is silently seeping into people's psyche, like chemical waste into the soil, and no one knows when and how its effects will be felt. The rhetoric is evident in drawing room discussions, over sms messages, on emails, and in unspoken words and glances.

Right after the July 11 blasts, a series of creepy sms-es and emails started doing the rounds, posing loaded rhetorical questions like: "We agree that every Muslim is not a terrorist, but why is every terrorist a Muslim?" One email, condemning pseudo-secularists, bludgeoned its mass-recipients with the same tired clich�s about how the minority community is growing exponentially, and will soon out-populate the majority. On the flip side, one also heard of rabble-rousing pamphlets being distributed in certain minority ghettos.

The rhetoric of violence may be almost as dangerous as overt physical violence because it eventually constructs, what psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar calls, "cultural memory--the imaginative basis for a sense of cultural identity." The memory is based as much on imagination as on the actual events that go into its construction. For instance, stories about the violence of Partition often become fiercer and fiercer as they get orally transmitted from one generation to the next. The sense of loss, anger and bereavement become a part of the collective consciousness. Stereotypes about the ‘enemy' get reinforced because they are not based on real encounters or experience.

The reason this is more disturbing today than ever before is because Mumbai is changing. It has started breaking down into community-specific ghettos. More and more residential buildings today discriminate on the basis of religion, and now they can do so with the sanction of a Supreme court verdict which permits cooperative housing societies to be formed along community lines. Contrary to the utopian era of Amar Akbar Anthony, that wonderful allegory for religious amity, today it is less likely that your child will have a neighbor or a ‘building friend' who is from another community--someone whom he can identify with purely as a playmate, share snacks with, maybe even take with him one day to his place of worship.

The withdrawal is happening on both sides. Over the years, fuelled by a growing sense of alienation with the mainstream, a number of well-heeled Muslims have set up their own schools that are along the lines of convents, but also offer religious studies. Mumbai may not be Ahmedabad, where children from different communities no longer study together, but it is inching its way there. The danger of not interacting enough with different people is that knowledge then is derived from media images and imagined cultural constructs. This is what perpetuates stereotypes, which replace individual personal identities. According to Kakar, "in a period of rising social tension, social identity dominates, if it does not entirely replace, personal identity." Individuals perceive the ‘other' group purely as a homogenized, depersonalized entity.

Researchers working on the Gender and Space project at the NGO, PUKAR, were horrified by the findings of a series of focus group discussions it has had over the last couple of years in Mumbai. Women--from the lofty precinct of Malabar Hill to the smelly bylanes of Dharavi to the neon-lit conclaves of Lokhandwala—were asked to describe what they thought were unsafe areas in the city. The answers, almost uniformly were: Minority areas. Had they ever been there? No. Did they know any one who had been there? No. Their reasons for feeling the way they did? The men have beards and look dangerous and aggressive. Did they think they may be prejudiced? No. There wasn't even an attempt to be politically correct or to question the stereotype.

It is stereotyping that has led to racial profiling and the kind of irrational violence that once prompted two white cops in the land of the free to beat senseless a black man, leading to one of the worst racial riots in LA. There are enough examples of this at home. Only recently in Mumbai, a ‘dangerous bearded man' was detained and questioned for an unjustifiably long period of time at the international airport. The irony is that he had flown in to attend the funeral of his brother who had died in the train blasts. He was a victim, not a perpetrator.

But stereotypes are beyond reason. They are reductive and create ‘us' and ‘them' cognitive states. Sweeping statements effect individuals as well as larger events. For instance, cocktail party chatter today raises mind-numbingly simplistic questions: "Why is it that wherever there is conflict, it involves Islam?" Hardly anyone takes the time to find out the complex history of Israel, or suggest that it may be perpetrating its own kind of terrorism. No one bothers to discuss America's double standards towards Islamic countries. Arguments are devoid of political analysis or historical context—for instance, hardly anyone gives a thought to the larger issue which may arguably be a motivating factor for the blasts, Kashmir.

There needs to be consensus on the part of all mediums of social engineering—schools, the media, civic bodies, grassroots organizations like the mohalla committees—to initiate dialogue and send out messages that cut across stereotypes and celebrate individuals rather than demonize groups. Otherwise, as the saint Kabir pointed out:

When the arrow of separation hits, there's no healing

Sobbing and sobbing, you live dying, and rise groaning


[The writer is a former Atlantan who now lives in Mumbai. This article originally appeared in the Times of India]

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