Why is it that non-issues like the controversy over ‘My Name is Khan' get the attention of the media and the people while real issues affecting millions never see the light of debate?

For those of us who are diehard Mumbaikars, February is a month we will not forget for a while. Mumbai was spared a swine flu epidemic, unlike Pune. But this month it was laid low by a virus of acronyms — SS, BT, MNS, SRK, MNIK (for the uninitiated, that is Shiv Sena, Bal Thackeray, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, Shah Rukh Khan and My Name is Khan). For days on end, Mumbai — and for that matter, the rest of India — heard nothing but whether a Bollywood film, which, by all accounts, is the typical concoction of reality and unreality, would be released or not or whether the will of the city's ‘super censor' would prevail.

At first it appeared that as BT and the SS had decreed that the film was unsuitable for popular viewing for no other reason than that SRK had said something they did not like, it would be pulled off the screens. That has been the norm for decades. But this time, thanks partly to SRK's star status, the people of the city said “Boo”, sort of, to the super censor, the state government pulled out most of its police force and stationed it, rather incongruously, in front of cinema theatres, and the film ran.

No victors

BT and SS claimed victory as did the state government and SRK fans. In fact, no one won. Mumbai's so called “spirit” prevailed only momentarily. It was better than in the past when the city's residents stayed at home each time there was the whiff of some trouble from these quarters. Also, rarely have Mumbaikars gone out in the streets to demonstrate for the rights of say, taxi drivers or street vendors, who are the soft targets that the SS and the MNS choose when they seek political mileage and media attention. Yet, it must be said, that even the act of going to see a film, albeit with full police protection, was an act of welcome defiance.

But the high drama, played out minute by minute on all news channels, revealed the emptiness of discussion and debate in this city of commerce. Posturing has replaced politics; violence and confrontation have replaced debate. Mumbaikars have now become accustomed to governments buckling under when these groups raise their voices. They are also used to Bollywood bowing down to the dictates of these political groups without protest. Commerce is more important than democratic sentiments such as freedom of expression.

The MNIK issue is one that every Indian should think about and discuss. What does this say about our democracy? At a recent interaction in Mumbai, Mohammed Hanif, Pakistani journalist and author of the hilarious fictional account of the death of Pakistani dictator Zia Ul-Haq, The Case of Exploding Mangoes, said that India should be glad that it is a democracy and has a judicial system that works, where someone like Ajmal Kasab can be tried. He said this in response to people in the audience who suggested that the only way to deal with terror was to seek summary justice. Hanif suggested that if Indians started talking in these terms, they would not be very different from the Taliban whose ideology they surely oppose. And he was right.

Our own Taliban

Yet, the MNIK brouhaha showed us that our own Taliban are well entrenched. They dictate what people should say, what language they can speak, what films they can see, what art they can appreciate, what books they can read and soon it could be what clothes they can wear. Is this India? Is this a democracy? Why are people sitting back and accepting this state of affairs? Why does a party, that has not managed to win a state election since 1994, dictate the city's cultural life? People of the city came out with banners saying, “Enough is enough” after the terror attack of November 2008. But should this not be the permanent slogan of a city that hurtles from one non-crisis to another?

Ignored issues

Of course, while the media's gaze remains fixed on these non-issues, the real problems that affect the lives of the millions who inhabit this city remain unaddressed. For instance, while the majority of people in the city are reeling under water cuts even before the summer has set in, and women in slums live in constant tension as they wait for water, private builders are advertising new luxury apartments with private swimming pools. Mill workers, who worked in the city's iconic textile mills — now mostly defunct — continue to wait for jobs and housing even as the real estate lobby builds deluxe towers on the vacant mill lands. And even as the city's poor, over half its population, struggle to get basic medical care from overcrowded government hospitals and dispensaries, the city is sprouting five-star hospitals offering three-room suites to its patients. The contrasts have failed to rouse our consciences, make us pause and think what direction the city is taking and who determines how it develops.

These issues should matter not just to Mumbai's residents but also to people in the rest of India. They reflect the absence of real engagement by civic society with urban development in many Indian cities that are becoming symbols of confused, iniquitous and environmentally unsustainable development. And above all, they expose the ease with which citizens and governments can get embroiled in non-issues while decisions that can make a difference to people's lives remain permanently on the back burner.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com