When aggression became the ruling power in a cosmopolitan culture

Wages of Violence

January 30, 2004

Wages of Violence outlines the mutation, over many decades, of Bombay into Mumbai, its current name (adopted in the 1990s). I was born and brought up in Bombay, and for me and thousands of others the city symbolised modernity and cultural diversity. After the riots in December 1992 and January 1993, many of us felt immense frustration as we saw the city's cosmopolitan image become one of ethnic conflict and violent nationalism.

The book uses archival material and conversations with citizens from all walks of life to produce some intelligent interpretation and analysis of the politics of identity and how fluid it can be. It draws out the political nature of urban modernity and the impact of globalisation on ordinary people.

Inevitably, it highlights the leading role of the militant Shiv Sena party, headed by Bal Thackeray, which has undermined democratic rule in the city.

From my research among Mumbai's slum dwellers, I know they enthusiastically support Shiv Sena. The party has provided young men with an assertive, often-violent mode of urban living. With access to power and resources in the 1990s, the party reconfigured its position in the city and the state and gave the poor a sense of energy and reverence for power.

Some of its success derives from the mismanagement of the city's economy in the 1980s by the Congress Party and from the antagonism between the Brahman and Maratha caste elites, who were irresponsible towards the city and the state of Maharashtra. That older political culture espoused paternalist social and cultural incorporation of the masses into an unequal system of political clientelism. Shiv Sena, by contrast, paid attention to the Marathi-speaking masses in Mumbai. It also repackaged anti-Muslim myths and massaged feelings of regional pride.

The book provides an insight into the city's Muslim community and the anatomy of resentment between Hindus and Muslims. It shows how the city's Muslims have responded to the emergence of an aggressive Hindu politics by rethinking notions of community and political identity.

Overall, this is a good case study of India's unique experience of modernity. India's political and social movements often become exceptionally complex, with strong actors scrambling for visibility, public resources, and recognition - not only because of sheer pressure on resources but because India's tradition of democracy provides a stage for demands of many kinds to be formulated and fought over. The combination of formal organisations and informal networks spiralling through government institutions has at times challenged the sovereignty of the state.

Vandana Desai is senior lecturer in development geography, Royal Holloway, London.

Wages of Violence: Naming and Identity in Postcolonial Bombay

Author - Thomas Blom Hansen
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 312
Price - £39.95 and £14.95
ISBN - 0 691 08839 X and 08840 3

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