One of the underrated pleasures of living in a city is anonymity —guaranteed not by the fact that you look the same as everyone else but that no one really cares that you look different. And a truly cosmopolitan city is one in which everyone looks different. I have been fortunate that for the 30 or so years that I have lived in Bangalore I have not had to deal with the fact that I look different. Save for occasional reminders of my Chineseness, the city has given me enough space to be who I am — cinephile, bibliophile, foodie — without having to bother too much about questions of identity. It is therefore disconcerting to suddenly step out into public spaces self-conscious of my Mongoloid features. Paranoia is not a grand sensation and it manifests itself in the myriad minute gestures and encounters. It seems unbelievable that the experience of a city can change so rapidly because it is clear to me that the last few days in Bangalore have been precisely about that. A miasma of fear, doubt and anxiety has descended on the city. It is possible that much of this has been fuelled by rumours and hearsay; and while the rumours may be false the fear sadly isn’t.
The large drove of people from the northeast fleeing the city in overloaded trains does not bode well in a country haunted by trains carrying tales of violence from its place of origin.
It was from around August 14 that one started hearing of threats being made against members of the northeast community followed by accounts of isolated attacks. Most of these circulated by way of SMSs, e-mails and through Facebook. Is there a grand conspiracy behind this ecology of fear as some suggest? It is perhaps too early to say and one would do well not to hazard any guesses. But the fact that a mere rumour could result in an exodus of a large number of people points to a more disturbing trend. Most of the people leaving are migrant workers employed in the hospitality industry, beauty parlours and private security. That a relatively large number of people have not felt safe and secure in a city that they have lived in for many years is symptomatic of a larger problem of integration. While there has been a lot of lip service in the last few days to Bangalore being a hospitable city, perhaps it is time to acknowledge that we may have bestowed the tag on ourselves in a moment of self-conceit. Perhaps it is a much more tenuous compact based on benefits gained from migrant labour without the grant of full cultural citizenship. And perhaps it is time to ask if years of having to deal with quotidian humiliations, passive aggression directed at cultural practices (dress, food, sexuality) is what is responsible for Bangalore’s failure to instill a sense of belonging among migrants.
At any rate, this is a much longer term problem that all cities in India will have to address since a host-guest relation is measured not just from the perspective of the host but also by how much the guest feels at home. I am not even certain that a city claiming cosmopolitan status should use the host-guest metaphor. Arjun Appadurai says one of the markers of globalisation is that a very small percentage of people will die in the place they were born in. Cosmopolitanism therefore describes our urban reality as one in which, at some level, everyone is a stranger, yet we all possess the right not to be treated as strangers. Indians living abroad know this only too well; perhaps it is what Amitav Ghosh meant when, writing about his love for Egypt, he said that it gave him a right to be there and a sense of entitlement.
The more pressing issue at hand, however, is the question of what unfolds in the days to come. Over the past few days there have been impressive efforts at building trust and confidence. Representatives of the Muslim community, the northeast groups and civil society organisations have come together to assuage the fears of people.
While there may be stray incidents of aggression or intimidation, fears of planned targeting of a community do not seem to be empirically grounded. And yet we are on a precipice and things could spiral beyond control. The people returning to the northeast may have left out of fear but once they reach home the fear could easily turn into anger. There is the danger that this rage may be directed against minority or migrant communities in their own States, and of that violence then turning the fiction of violence in Bangalore and other cities into a reality.
The need of the hour is to contain this spillover effect. Politicians of all shades and the media have to recognise the vital role that they play in diffusing the situation rather than inflaming it. Rumours and riots have always been insidiously linked to each other and we have no choice but to deal with the situation before us with utmost care and responsibility. Centuries of immigrant struggles have won us the right to say that a city can belong to us even if we do not belong to the city. And if we do not care of what belongs to us, we will run the danger of losing it.
(Lawrence Liang is a lawyer at the Alternative Law Forum. A third-generation Chinese-Indian, his family moved from Calcutta to Bangalore in 1981.)