Delhi wakes as Mumbai sleeps

Ayaz Memon

India, Jan. 7 -- Where the Delhi-Mumbai rivalry is concerned, I must confess to having been contemptuous of the Capital till recently. Mumbai, my city, was always more disciplined, more civil and much safer: all things considered, more liveable.

In recent weeks, though, I've come to see Delhi in a different light. Perhaps it is not just a city driven by power, pelf and looming menace that everybody believed it to be. Perhaps it is not the overgrown village that hoity-toity Mumbaikars would like to believe.

The persistence and zest with which the people of Delhi have continued with their protests after the gang rape on December 16 has been impressive. Braving the extreme cold and other hardships -not all from nature - they should be something of a lesson to the residents of other cities, particularly Mumbai.

Why do I lay this emphasis on Mumbai? Because I think we've become too soft and prefer to wallow in self-pity or pointless anguish where protecting law and order and quality of life is concerned.

In the past this city has been home to a certain kind of citizens' activism which the rest of India did well to emulate. But when it comes to the sort of street protest that makes current and potential leaders sit up and take notice, Mumbai now comes up terribly short.

In some ways, this is how the Anna Hazare-Arvind Kejriwal anti-corruption movement reached its sorry end late last year: with a whimper in a city which in most other instances promises more bang for your buck than anywhere else.

Where the equally important matter of treatment of women is concerned too, Mumbai seems to have lost its safety valve. If Delhi is touted as India's rape capital, Mumbai, to its eternal shame, is not far behind now.

The general assumption is that people in this city are too busy working to get involved in such matters. The corollary to this is that Mumbaikars don't care. Both positions, are dangerous because this allows governments, authority and nefarious elements to take advantage. Not having time or not caring are two sides of the same coin which deals in apathy.

The people who protested in New Delhi were a combination of young and old, of the urban and the semi-urban. Young girls in jeans and impeccable English rubbed shoulders with middle-aged sari-clad women with chaste Hindi.

That horrific rape was a tipping point in Delhi's politico-cultural history it would seem. This was not a flashy political demonstration carefully crafted for TV cameras. This was an outcry from the angry women, from right-thinking men - from anybody who had a soul.

Mumbai, home of the August Kranti Maidan (earlier known as Gowalia Tank) where the Quit India was born in 1942, needs to regain some of that fighting spirit. I am not advocating spurious protest, rather a desire to set their own house in order as it were.

Some would argue that there are limitations of open space. South Mumbai - which is where the government is located and operates from - has no space for a proper street protest. There's also too much traffic outside Mantralaya to make congregations almost impossible.

The maidans are reserved for cricket and sport. The space reserved for protests in Azad Maidan now can perhaps accommodate just about 1000 people. Meanwhile Shivaji Park is too far away from the seat of power - official power that is, not the residence of Raj Thackeray or the offices of the Shiv Sena!

But this does not necessarily limit the purpose of protest. Being a world-class city is not just about fancy pubs, dazzling malls and skyscrapers boasting multi-crore rupee apartments. It is also about streamlined infrastructure, a sense of public ownership of space, of the safety and well-being of the citizenry.

For this, making clear demands collectively - and in good time - is imperative. When apathy goes too far, decay is inevitable.

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.