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The Shivajinagar problem

By Achal Prabhala

Development likes resolution and dislikes complexity. So, interventionists will not see the thousands of people who live together and jostle for air in a multicultural neighbourhood such as Shivajinagar in Bangalore as an intercultural success. They will see it as a tinderbox waiting to explode. For them, intercultural dialogue is a roundtable at which prominent secularists from different religions sit; in comparison, the everyday interaction of people in Shivajinagar is mere babble

The ways of the benevolent world intrigue me. Messengers give lip service to the notion that we are all in this together, but only the hopelessly naïve actually believe that. The message has become a spiteful version of a self-help book; if it had a title, it would be called I’m OK; You’re Not

Messengers, of course, need welcoming receptacles, ordinary people who can only do things that are either wrong or categorically unimportant. That The People are always in need of us people to whip them into shape is such an old criticism, I am almost ashamed to bring it up, but there it is. As a credit-card-carrying member of the middle class, I have the authority to decide who I will allow to influence me and whose authority I accept. Not so for the hapless rural woman, who will, apparently, gratefully swallow every morose manual that’s thrown her way. 

A person I know works in the IT industry and uses open source software to create packages for NGOs. He’s an integral part of the movement on technology for development, whose growing ranks pride themselves on catchy acronyms like ICT4D. At a recent conference in his office, women from all over South Asia -- many from rural parts and at least some of whom must also have been oppressed -- listened to talks on information for development. Each woman was given a computer to work on for the course of the conference. The sessions seemed to go well. When he was cleaning up afterwards, he looked through the history files of the Internet browsers they had used and found that many of the women had been surfing hardcore pornography while pretending to be tutored. He conveyed this to a common friend with a mixture of astonishment and delight -- for never mind that several well-meaning people had been lecturing the attendees on the need for information; these women had found their own ways to satisfy their information needs. 

It’s quaint, this temporary blindness to the daily life of The People. Consider Shivajinagar, an area bordering my neighbourhood in Bangalore. Shivajinagar is the epicentre of Bangalore Cantonment: within lies a dense congregation of mosques, churches, temples, hostels, shops and people. It’s a place where the rich, the poor and the alien are equally welcome, where glistening heirlooms compete with nuts and bolts, and where whole streets are given over to reinventing some precise component of urban waste. Like other places -- like other Shivajinagars, in other cities -- its multiple geographies intersect, interact and collide. 

One afternoon, a few months ago, shopkeepers in Shivajinagar were hurriedly downing their shutters. I asked what the matter was. Mehmood, a young shopkeeper, told me that ‘they’ (the State) was trying to build on land owned by ‘us’ (a Muslim charitable trust), when the excavators stumbled upon two graves. This happened in the early hours of the morning. By afternoon, the rumours had spread like wildfire: the gravesite emitted a strange glow, the builders who first dug up the bodies were now paralysed with Godly wrath; the dead bodies must have been those of holy men. 

By evening, Mehmood claimed, reverent wonder in his eyes, 500,000 people had turned up to watch (the papers reported the next day that this number was more like a couple of thousand). The riot squad was despatched immediately to shut down the place and Shivajinagar went into curfew mode. 

There was a reason the police were so eager to respond. Shivajinagar has long been considered a flashpoint for communal tension. It makes people nervous. On an earlier occasion, I was driving from Cooke Town to Ulsoor, to visit my parents, unaware that riots had just broken out. I passed eerily desolate streets and a silently burning bus. Shattered glass littered the roads, and the charred skeleton of an autorickshaw lay ahead. This particular round of criminality, it turned out, had been sparked by a local politico’s brainwave to publicly protest the execution of Saddam Hussein. The Congress-organised, mainly-Muslim mob caused a few ‘incidents’. Promptly, the RSS organised its own rally, for no pretext whatsoever except that they were feeling left out. Their mainly-Hindu mob also caused some ‘incidents’, thus setting in place the banal basis of urban Indian violence. This time too, Shivajinagar was locked down. There is no evidence that dense, multi-religious neighbourhoods are unstable, certainly not in Bangalore; yet the reigning wisdom is that anomalies will get what they deserve. 

Now I think of Shivajinagar as a flashpoint for communal harmony. It is possible that I’m not far off the mark, and it’s also possible that the fantasy acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy. When a friend of mine -- a human rights activist born into a Hindu family -- converted to Islam, the first thing he did was find himself a mosque in Shivajinagar. And because he did things properly, his preferred place of worship was the Lal Masjid -- a modest place with shades of red (or so he said), run by a band of Muslim youth who were homeless, devout and progressive to boot. It sounded like a parody of some secular fantasy, and yet I was eager to believe that such a place might exist. 

Faced with the fantasies of secularists and anti-secularists both, one thinks that Shivajinagar would succumb, but in fact, it is an extraordinarily resilient place. The very day after the godly graves had been violated, I was back in Shivajinagar and it was like nothing had ever happened. Ordinary life had spontaneously materialised -- again. 

I don’t think that the people of Shivajinagar are overflowing with intercultural love. I do think though, that under normal circumstances, they would not kill each other. And I do know that their state of being -- devoid as it is of both obvious love and outright hate -- confuses the hell out of us.  

Development likes Resolution: the problem is that human beings tend to be pretty hard to resolve. Development does complexity badly; it leaves that to the dreamers. Interventionists, therefore, will not see the thousands of people who live together and jostle for air as an intercultural success -- and they’re probably correct. To call Shivajinagar that would be a category mistake: it would presume love in the place of something that is simultaneously greater, lesser, and more complicated (and occasionally mistaken for tolerance). Intercultural dialogue is a roundtable at which prominent secularists from different religions sit; in comparison, the everyday interaction of people in Shivajinagar is mere babble. 

The State and civil society are convinced that Shivajinagar is a tinderbox waiting to explode, and consequently treat the exceedingly functional neighbourhood as a problem to be solved. That this approach might annoy some 1 million people who get by happily almost all of the time is another matter altogether. Appropriately enough, it doesn’t matter what the residents think, for Shivajinagar is not their problem -- it is ours. 

(Achal Prabhala is a researcher and writer based in Bangalore)

Infochange News & Features, August 2009