Wednesday, August 02, 2006

A pooped party

“Not dangerous? Not dangerous? What do you mean, not dangerous? They’re goons, of course they’re dangerous!” After a lengthy diatribe, the owner of the Dadar cloth shop took a breather. He was speaking about his neighbours, the Shiv Sena. “Yes, the father could go. Yes, Rane and the nephew aren’t there anymore. But isn’t the son still there? He can still do damage, can’t he?” He did not buy into the idea of the party as a waning power. In 35 years of business there he had seen riots, closures, rallies, and the annual demand for protection money. “Kya Hindu, kya Muslim? Every year they come during diwali, saying, ‘See, no one touched your shop. Pay us and we’ll protect you.’ Sometimes they come here and say they don’t have money for an ambulance. It is understood that I have to pay the bloody hoodlums.”

These days, the general consensus is that Mumbai’s most notorious party is dying. In Sion, Dharavi, and Dadar – all Sena strongholds – there is little fear of violence from them. People speak of the Sena as a once fearsome but now sorry party holding on to notions they should have abandoned a long time ago. This opinion springs primarily from the bloodshed of 1993, and from the last week’s events. “They really disgraced themselves on Sunday, didn’t they? What good is it for anyone when they declare a bandh?” said a cab driver stationed at Dharavi. “The police did not let things get out of hand, and that’s only because the Sena did not control them. If RR Patil wasn’t here and the Sena was in charge, the riots would have been worse. It’s happened before.” The owner of a mobile phone shop situated a couple of minutes away from a Shiv Sena shakha didn’t take the call too seriously, but played it safe and shut shop only at 1pm and reopened it five hours later.

“The people in last Sunday’s events were not all Shiv Sainiks. They were people without jobs, people who needed money,” a school teacher and old resident of Sion said. “They were strong once, very strong, but now just look at them. They take anyone off the streets, give them some money, and tell them to burn things. What happened last Sunday was just a show. Do you actually believe they are strong now?” The cab driver suggested it was all about police control. When the Sena was in charge, he said, two things happened: the party would run amok, and the police had a free hand too. Neither kept tabs on the other. He had an example. If a major incident took place anywhere, Muslims were rounded up arbitrarily, fines were arbitrary. Innocence was a minor obstacle. It still happens, he said, but those days it was a lot worse. And what came before that? Before the Shiv Sena were good times. “Hindus and Muslims ate together, we had few differences. Then they wanted India for the Hindus, and it all went to hell.”

When Mumbai was on edge two Sundays ago, and then again on Tuesday, it began, in part, with images of a burning bus. The sight of a blaze added to the fear that the Sena could still wreck havoc, and so shutters stayed down. Then, two days later the blasts occurred and there were renewed fears that the party would strike out at minorities. They mostly stayed quiet. “It’s not always their fault, you know,” declared a young man who ran a milk stall opposite the Sena’s youth office (run by middle-aged men) in Dadar when I asked why his neighbours were so silent. His partner, an old man, spoke up: “They have been very quiet except for that Sunday. But they are not the same anymore.” He couldn’t tell if they were waiting for an opportunity to strike out but reasoned, “After the blasts Mumbai was already nervous. And the party knows it can make people nervous. So why go out and make people even more nervous?” He read Saamna, the Sena’s paper, and smiled as he recollected Bal Thakeray’s words. “What else? ‘Government darti hai, bhadwa hai.’ But I think the government will catch the culprits in time.”

If these places were tense, it was for a different reason. Narendra Modi was in town. A few words from him could start a fire. “Why is he here?” the school teacher asked. “What he says is violent and pointless.” “It’s a good thing his speech is in an enclosed hall. If he did it as Shivaji park Hindus would be chasing Muslims out of Mumbai using swords,” said the owner of the cloth shop. On his wall were pictures of family: one of himself unshaven, and the other of his grandson. “Maine usko America bhej diya. Yahaan kya karega? Yeh jeena bhi koi jeena hai?” he asked angrily, pointing at the Shiv Sena headquarters which was shroud in scaffolding.

In Dharavi, it was difficult to find a man who would even consider the Sena to be a threat. Most laughed at the suggestion, saying it was too old, too weak. Others waved a hand dismissively. The body language was bad news for the city’s scariest party. Policemen who lolled around the place repeated what others said. Over and over, too old, too weak, too old, too weak. So how does it manage to shut down Mumbai? The number of its followers doesn’t matter, although it helps. The Sena uses fear effectively, staging demonstrations in different parts of the city. One demonstration here, a bus burning there. With the images repeated over and over again it seems as if violence is spreading across the city. Like with Hitchcock, the fear is born of the suspense, not from the act, which is often anticlimactic.

Tehelka, July 29, 2006.

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