Sunday, February 24, 2008

State of Insecurity

In the last two months, shops and establishments near my office in central Mumbai have been shut down some six times. This is how it happens. One moment the road is buzzing with activity. The next, it’s deserted, the scores of makeshift food stalls and hawkers have vanished. The shutters are down. Only a few onlookers remain, gazing intently at the cars passing by.

The first trigger was the apparent suicide or murder of a Buddhist monk in distant north Mumbai. The second one was to do with a bus going off a cliff between Mumbai and Nasik. The third, fourth, fifth and possibly sixth occasion could be credited to the politician Mr Raj Thackeray. The first day, the news that he was contemplating sending out the boys was enough to send everyone scurrying home. The second time, the boys did actually emerge from the shadows to wreak havoc.

The next occasion was the possibility, just the possibility, of Mr Thackeray being carted off to gaol. The last time was a day or two later amidst an amazing arrest-to-bail farce that the whole country watched. Maybe there were other occasions when shops and establishments were summarily shut down but I wouldn’t know since I don’t usually spend all my time on the streets.

"Time To Shut Shop"

I wondered what indeed the connection was between the untimely death of a monk in another part of the city, a bus falling into a ravine and my part of the world going about its business? I couldn’t establish the monk connection but did find out that some of the deceased in the bus lived in a building nearby.

Predictably, none of the shutdowns was voluntary. On one occasion, turning off the main road into my street, I saw a bunch of energised young men going from shop to shop “requesting” the owners to close down. My own office complex too had shut its gates and the guards seemed hesitant to open them. How and why these men felt that establishments were obligated to shut shop for the above reasons is still a mystery to me.

Two fairly large Toyota and Honda car dealerships sit on the road that I refer to. I have noticed that they are typically the first to put up their shutters. Cars are usually a juicy target for any mob, as they must well know. I am not sure if six one-fourth to half working days at a Mumbai dealership would give Shoichiro Toyoda and Takeo Fukui (Honda chief) sleepless nights.

It does not give me sleepless nights, either. But the prospect of this happening on little or no provocation or being triggered by events which could well be on another planet do worry me.

"Will I Reach Home Safely Today ?"

The industrial town of Nasik has not been so lucky as my street. Estimates put losses at Rs 400 crore and over 1,500 large and small firms have been hit. Almost a tenth of the small firms have been hit, going by reports. Labourers have been forcibly evicted from their workplaces and perhaps homes. Some 6,000 north Indian labourers left the city, possibly to return later. All in a skill-starved economy.

Some businessmen I spoke to (who have manufacturing units around Maharashtra state) told me they can manage corruption, bad infrastructure, pollution and globalisation but they can’t manage fear. I can understand. On all the days the Thackeray drama raged, fear was writ on the faces of every Mumbai citizen.

“Will there be violence in my area too? Are taxis running? Will they stop the trains? How will I reach home? How will my family members return home? Should we close the office early so that everyone can go home?” Actually, send the watchman and driver home early. Because they are north Indian.” I wouldn’t wish this on any capital, leave alone the country’s financial capital.

The Indian In Malaysia

Two weeks ago, a day Mumbai city was guessing what Mr Thackeray’s next move was, I was driving around Kuala Lumpur. As a fervent believer in grassroots journalism that owes its source to local taxi-drivers, I got talking to Bala Muhammad, the driver of my London cab look-alike taxi.

I asked Bala what he thought of equal opportunities as an Indian in Malaysia. Actually, my cue came from that morning’s headlines in The Star. Following violence and protests from the ethnic Indian community, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi announced a charter of promises to improve prospects for Indians. Bala, it turned out, had worked as a clerk in Standard Chartered Bank, then as a tourist guide before driving taxis. He converted to Islam just eight years ago in the face of family opposition. He said Indians had got a raw deal in Malaysia particularly when it came to good jobs, more so in government. His job and faith shifts appeared to have been driven by the discrimination.

He was happy that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had stepped in, last month, to express concern about the fate of Indians in Malaysia. “This is not the first time. Indira Gandhi did the same in 1969,” he said. Presumably, he was referring to the deadly Sino-Malay ethnic riots, which left hundreds killed.

How did he feel about India taking an active interest in his welfare, I asked. “Oh, it feels good, I feel India is always there to support and give us security when we need it.”

I am not sure I feel the same.

This post appeared as an article in Business Standard

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