Maximum City: A Story of Mumbai: Slumdog and More

on Wednesday, 11 September 2013. Posted in India Travels



I have been totally immersed in this book on Bombay called Maximum City, Bombay lost and found.  The information it reveals about Bombay is quite fascinating.  It explores the role of the police, the crazy rent act laws they have there, the riots that have changed the face of the city after 2003 and the role of the underworld. Back in 1992, Hindu fundamentalists tore down a mosque in a town called Ayodya in northern India.  It was organized by right wing Hindu nationalists, including the BJP, Shiv Sena and other groups.  As a result of this, there was a Muslim retaliation and a family of Hindus were apparently burnt to death.  This then led to widespread riots in Bombay, which has a large Muslim population, with complicity by the police and Hindu politicians.  Muslims in many parts of the city were picked out and murdered. Thousands were killed, often in the most hideous way and no one was held accountable. Even a substantial report that implicated the police and politicians, especially the head of Shiv Sena, Wal Thackery, who for quite a time was the most powerful politician in India and who especially in Bombay, held great sway and influence over all aspects of society. All the Bollywood directors and producers would pay homage to him. He gained power by using gangs of young people to bully his way into power, and these gangs were very involved in the murder of many Muslims. After the riots and the lack of accountability, the Muslim underworld retaliated by placing a number of bombs in Bombay causing a few hundred deaths, but still nothing compared to what the Hindus did initially.

After this, most of the slum areas in Bombay became segregated along religious lines, whereas before, Hindus and Muslims lived side by side.  Even the underworld functions somewhat along religious lines, although there is more religious interaction within the underworld than in regular society, including the police which is only about 4% Muslim, in a city where it has about 17% of the population.

Many in the Muslim underworld feel they are protecting their own people against the Hindu majority, where they know they cannot expect much justice from the legal system. In fact, the author makes the argument that the rise of the underworld in Bombay in general is due to the fact that the authorities are unable to offer justice or protection, let alone much in the name of social services, so these things have to be met by other groups, and the underworld serves that function. The author meets various “shooters”, paid assassins who work for different underworld groups, or what is generally called the “gangwar”. These are mostly poor, young people, who get recruited into this world as they have little other options in life. Once they are in this world, it is very hard to get out and at times their own underworld group will let them go into police hands where they will be seriously tortured. They may do this to appease the police or if they feel the person is now expendable in some way.

The police also act like the underworld, as they have a group of assassins, called encounters, who routinely simply kill those they catch who are members of the underworld.  However, the police are so understaffed and poorly paid that they are nearly always paid off by the underworld and are so corrupt that a person can buy their way out of anything. So, there is this very close connection between the two worlds and the behavior of both are quite similar. Torture is routine in the police and it can be extremely savage. Many hundreds die each year while in custody. However, given the lack of police and resources, they are remarkably effective at “catching their man”, partly because they are not restricted in the strategies they employ. As the judicial system is totally ineffective in prosecuting many cases - if they even reach the courts - there is more of a informal justice meted out on the street.

The Muslims in Bombay don’t generally feel an allegiance toward Pakistan.  They feel Indian but they also have an allegiance to all Muslims, wherever they come from.  However, the ascendance of Hindu nationalist parties in India has made them feel even more insecure, which further radicalizes them and is yet one more example of the polarization along religious lines in the world.