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Dons and Bombs


For many years, despite intense competition for jobs and living space among its diverse ethnic social groups, Bombay boasted of being one of India's most stable cities. While Delhi and Calcutta reeled under communal riots and terrorist attacks in the early 1980s, the great Maharashtrian melting-pot remained outwardly calm.

However, as early as 1982, Bombay's infra-structure was starting to buckle under the tensions of over-population. A bitter and protracted textile strike, or bandh, had impoverished tens of thousands of industrial workers, unemployment and crime were spiralling, and the influx of immigrants into the city showed no signs of abating. Among the few beneficiaries of mounting discontent was the extreme right-wing Maharashtrian party, the Shiv Sena. Founded in 1966 by Bal "the Saheb" Thackery, a self-confessed admirer of Adolf Hitler, the Sena's uncompromising stand on immigration and employment (jobs for "Sons of the Soil" first), found favor with the disenchanted mass of lower middle class Hindus in the poorer suburbs. The party's venom, at first focussed on the city's sizeable south Indian community, soon shifted to its fifteen percent Muslim minority. Communal antagonism flared briefly in 1984, when ninety people died in riots, and again in 1985 when the Shiv Sena routed the Congress party in municipal elections, thereby sweeping into the mainstream.

The rise of the right coincided with an intensification of organized crime. Previously, the city's gangsters had confined their activities to small-scale racketeering in poor neighborhoods. After the post-1970s real estate boom, however, many petty "landsharks" became powerful godfather figures, or "dons", with multi-crore drug- and gold-smuggling businesses. Moreover, the corrupt politicians who had employed the gangs' muscle power to rig elections, were now highly placed political puppets with debts to pay- a phenomenon dubbed as "criminalization". The dividing line between the underworld and politics grew increasingly blurred as the decade progressed: in 1992, no less than forty candidates in the municipal elections had criminal records. Meanwhile, Shiv Sena had consolidated its support, or "vote banks", by striking up an alliance with the up-and-coming, and equally extreme-right Hindu party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP.

Even to those who had been charting the communal situation, the events that followed the destruction by Hindu extremists of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya came as a shock. Between December 1992 and late January 1993 came two waves of rioting, affecting not only the Muslim ghettos and poor industrial suburbs, but, for the first time, much of downtown too. 150,000 citizens fled for the countryside, while 100,000 more moved into refugee camps. According to (conservative) official statistics, 784 people died, and around 5000 were injured-seventy percent of them Muslim. Although a great deal of blame for the madness must accrue to right-wing Hindu political groups such as Shiv Sena, some commentators believe other factions stood to gain from the situation, notably the slum landlords whose tenants are protected under rent freezes imposed by the Bombay Rent Act. The thousand of slum dwellers who fled Bombay and their burning homes following the riots conveniently cleared the way, it is suggested, for property development.

Just as Bombay was regaining its composure, disaster struck again. Around mid-afternoon on 12 March 1993, ten massive bomb blasts ripped through the heart of the city, killing 317 people and gutting the Stock Exchange, the Air India building, the passport office and three swanky hotels near the airports. The Bombay bombings was the worst terrorist act to date in the post-independence Indian history. No one claimed responsibility, but the involvement of "foreign hands" (ie Pakistan) was suspected. Investigators claimed the bombs had been smuggled into India and planted by Muslim mobsters. The name of India's most wanted criminal, the don Dawood Ibrahim (presently exiled in Dubai), was bandied about in the press, although as yet neither he nor anyone else has been charged.

The city recovered from the explosions with astonishing speed. Most banks and offices reopened the next day, and slowly the paranoia, or "fear psychosis", subsided. It would, however, take more than the hoardings erected beside the freeways ("Bombay Bounces Back!", "It's my Bombay", "Bombay, I Love You") fully to restore the pride and ebullience with which India's most confident city had formerly gone about its business.

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