When in doubt, break something

Updated: 07 December, 2019 07:33 IST | Lindsay Pereira | Mumbai

It's amusing how our first response to anything that doesn't agree with us is always violence

The reality of us raging on railway platforms and destroying public property at the slightest provocation is hard to justify, let alone fathom. File pic
The reality of us raging on railway platforms and destroying public property at the slightest provocation is hard to justify, let alone fathom. File pic

Lindsay PereiraIt took me years to understand that riots are not as common as I thought they were. This happened during a conversation with friends from other countries, who couldn't fathom how I took the idea of violence in public so casually. We were discussing a protest somewhere in South Bombay, where representatives of a political party had chosen to make their displeasure about something felt by stoning vehicles in the vicinity. Buses were damaged and a few stores lost their windows. "Just another day in Bombay," I said, and the surprise was obvious.

Being witness to a riot of any kind ought not to be normal. And yet, I remember my first vividly, in the early 90s, when my city burned for days and there were bodies covered in cloth piled on sides of the streets. As a teenager, it traumatised me, but also hardened me to the reality of how brutish our lives are in a county that markets itself as a non-violent haven of peace.

Some parts of the West still think of India as a calm place full of meandering elephants and meditating monks. They think of us as sweet, warm people who spend our lives taking care of the environment and being kind to each other. The reality of us raging on railway platforms and destroying public property at the slightest provocation is hard to justify, let alone fathom.

It could have been amusing to think of ourselves as emotional people who rush to make ourselves heard if these senseless acts of violence actually accomplished something.

Unfortunately, they only end up causing us more harm than good. The buses that were vandalised, for instance, will be off the roads for a while, affecting the lives of thousands for a few days. The broken windows and storefronts won't lead to any change, while the pelting of vehicles will only lead to more anger that will manifest itself in other ways at some point in the future.

Another interesting thing to think about is how we never get angry about things that genuinely matter to us. Take the past couple of months, and the extreme vitriol being poured upon students of a university for daring to protest a fee hike.

All kinds of opinions have been aired, all manner of insults poured upon those students, and people who have absolutely no investment in this argument have taken it upon themselves to get involved nonetheless. This would have made sense if the university in question, or its fee structure, had the potential to influence any aspect of our lives.

And yet, thousands of us jumped in.

For once in my life, I would like to see a riot that changes something for the better. A violent gathering of angry motorists on the Western Express Highway who fill those potholes, perhaps. A bunch of angry relatives of sick patients who clean a public hospital. Or maybe a group of healthy individuals who forcibly make entrances to public buildings more handicap-friendly.

Maybe the rest of us would be more supportive of these kinds of demonstrations if they could leave behind something good in their wake.

Unfortunately, and sadly, this sort of thing is destined to never happen. Over a century and a half ago, there were around 10 communal riots reported in Bombay between 1929 and 1938 alone. Apparently, those incidents left approximately 4,500 residents injured, and over 500 dead.

There were all kinds of similar riots recorded before and after that tumultuous decade, some involving protests against taxes, others as a result of some community finding something, somewhere, offensive.

History teaches us that we were rioting people long before the British arrived and used our anger against us. Thousands of our ancestors died in all kinds of skirmishes that simply didn't need to take place, but did anyway because we have never been able to keep our emotions in check. It is true that not knowing history condemns us to repeat it, but that doesn't justify our ability to ignore so many events in our time that are still fresh in our collective consciousness.

Our anger will undo us, but we refuse to see that. A few days ago, a retired officer of the armed forces spoke of how atrocities should be responded to with more atrocities. He advocated the use of violence against women in retaliation for similar acts. Some members of the audience applauded. And that's when I realised how far we had fallen as a country.

When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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First Published: 07 December, 2019 07:25 IST

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