Current Public Administration Magazine (January - 2016) - Being cosmopolitan in India

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Being cosmopolitan in India

Once more, following the recent attack on the Tanzanian woman in Bengaluru, as has happened in each instance when order breaks down, the city’s alleged “cosmopolitanism” has been called to account. In August 2012, when thousands of people from the North-eastern States responded in panic to threats on social media and fled the city, a similar anxiety about disappearing “cosmopolitanism” was raised. There is something vaguely reassuring in the collective clicking of tongues and wringing of hands over a remembered, indeed mythicised past.

To begin with, let us ask whether such an appellation, assuming it has only positive connotations, was ever deserved in a city like Bengaluru. At the risk of earning the well-shaped wrath of fellow Bengalureans, let me explain that nostalgia for a “peaceful” past apart, it would be difficult to assert that “Asia’s Silicon Valley” had even a history of toleration of difference. If it was, to be fair, a town that showed high levels of social peace in the early post-Independence decades, it was less because its citizens were “cosmopolitan” and more because the stresses and strains of becoming a metropolis, a democracy, and of being claimed as a regional capital had barely begun. In other words, while Bengaluru may not have seen the same organised and institutionalised xenophobic violence against a wide range of migrants and “outsiders” as Mumbai did since the 1960s, it has not been immune to explosions against different social groups.

A divided city

Bengaluru’s status as a “divided city” — a British-ruled civil and military station and an old city which came under the Mysore state — came to an end only in 1949 when the two sides were conjoined in one municipality. By the 1950s, as more intra-State migration into the city began, a gradual demand began to be made for privileging those of the linguistic region of Karnataka over outsiders, notably Tamils. If most of the city was not riven by the divides that were nurtured, sometimes by managements themselves, in Bengaluru’s prestigious public sector units, it was because they were somewhat segregated from the rest of the city. But soon, battles over language, but also land and water, began to be staged in the State capital, culminating in the exodus of Tamils in 1991, and not much later, virulent attacks on Muslims in 1994. These tears in the urban fabric have not been easy to repair.

Bengaluru remained a divided city despite the spatial and municipal integration: as U.R. Ananthamurthy’s anguished essay in 2006, following the resistance to renaming the city, had it, the gulf between the English- and Kannada-speaking cities of Bengaluru had reached planetary proportions! He hoped that the name change would become a step towards Kannadisation, which he defined as the “ability to belong to the world at large even as one is rooted in one’s Kannadaness”. No one can deny that Ananthamurthy belonged to the world at large, as much as the world was made his own. Yet his was a lonely voice among those who did not want to see the Sensex fall, or call centres shut shop and leave the city which had opened its arms to information-rich technologies and the employability it brought in its wake.

Language and exclusion

This brings me to the second point: why then has there been a persistent yoking of the term cosmopolitan with the city of Bengaluru? No marks here for realising that it has only meant that migrants and even long-time residents, especially of the former Cantonment, are not obliged to speak the local language! For some time, it was, for historical reasons, the space which was uniquely self-sufficient in English. Unlike many other parts of India, as erstwhile residents of the Cantonment knew only too well, even dhobis and autorickshaw drivers were conversant in English, making the new entrant comfortable in the extreme. Provided that the new entrant also spoke English. With the hordes of Hindi-speaking techies and workers who flooded the city, a new lingua franca was coursing the streets of Bengaluru, but it was still not Kannada. Kannada’s dominated status has continued, despite its many foot soldiers and the name change.

Still, there were hordes of foreign students in the 1970s and early 1980s: Bengaluru was the favoured destination of Malaysians, Ethiopians, Nigerians and Kenyans, and most of all Iranians, who trained in engineering, dentistry or agricultural sciences, and were tolerated, if only for the money they pumped into the local economy. The foreign student profile has changed a good deal now, and this may have to do with the political fortunes and new institutional structures of their own countries.

Apart from these peculiarities, there are changes that are sweeping over urban life in India to which Bengaluru is not immune. Those of us who are leading increasingly securitised lives know that we are being seen, documented and possibly controlled by technologies and powers over which we have little control. The ecology of fear has been enhanced by the multiplication of unnamed terrors. If we earlier feared the occasional pickpocket and harasser of women, we are now enjoined, by disembodied and jarring interruptions to our shopping pleasures, fond farewells at railway stations, and in public places, to be wary of strangers, unidentified objects and suspicious movements. It is patriotic now to be vigilantly suspicious and even more so to report suspicious activity, not just of strangers but of neighbours and tenants alike.

All this does not bode well for even the loosest definitions of cosmopolitanism. A city by definition is a space, as innumerable historians and sociologists have already told us, which ideally privileges and nurtures the unexpected encounter, and calls on its citizens to be able to respond humanely even to those who are not linked to us in familial, ethnic, nationalist or caste affiliations. But the preferred mode of governance in Indian cities, especially but not only in the colonial period, was via community heads, local dadas , caste groupings and so on which even the most robust resident welfare associational practices have found difficult to dislodge or replace. If even Bengaluru does not conform to any definition of cosmopolitanism, can any city qualify?

The Kochi example

In an investigation that he undertook some years ago, Ashis Nandy explores an aspect of city life that thrives in a place like Kochi/Cochin, and is seriously threatened in most other regions of India. It is a place that nurtures, though perhaps quite unself-consciously, “precolonial traditions of cultural pluralism”. It has a long history of accommodating peoples of different regions both from the hinterland and across the seas. There is a commingling of several religions, including, unusually, Judaism. Its capacity to absorb “the outsiders”, all of whom learn to speak the language (Malayalam) and join its plural alimentary pursuits (including, as his example shows, the Bharatiya Janata Party functionaries who tuck into a beef-and-rum lunch) set it apart from other equally large cities. As the lively and well-attended Kochi Biennale, which has been running since 2012, also shows, it is possible for such spaces to nurture not just creativity on a spectacular scale but a more unified public presence than at many comparable citywide festivals.

These are qualities to be prized since the majority of Indian cities are disfigured by combats over indigeneity, language nationalism, communal antagonism and fierce battles over who may be defined as “sons of the soil”. And of course tensions about race and gender. They make the “alternative cosmopolitanism” of Cochin an impossibility. For how long will such exceptionalism continue? One wonders whether the ineffable essence, or as Mr. Nandy puts it, “a culturally embedded entity”, will succumb to the pressures that find easy targets elsewhere. Despite the fact that workers from the Hindi heartland arriving in the near past have shown no obligation to learn the language, Kochi’s ability to assimilate immigrants into its linguistic cosmos is in sharp contrast to that other city of the south that is undeservedly called “cosmopolitan”.

We need not place on ourselves the unbearable burden of loving each other in order to nurture true cosmopolitanism. But neither can we rely on the ineffable essence that Mr. Nandy identifies for Kochi. Instead, as the attacks on the Tanzanian woman and others in Bengaluru reveal to us, we must urgently and consciously develop a new ethics that respects, and responds humanely to, the strangers in our cities. But for now, suspicion, fear and envy are our principal public feelings, even in Bengaluru.

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