Stand up & be counted

Mum-bai could be Ista-nb-ul… and Istanbul, Mumbai. And yet, vast distances separate the two cities. I am not talking about just the miles that separate us. It’s the distance in our hearts and minds. I left Istanbul a day before the Taksim protests paralysed this lively, buzzed area packed with tourists and locals enjoying the mild weather and bright sunshine. My girl friend in Turkey pointed out various historic landmarks that dot the heart of this stunning city which kisses the shimmering Bosphorus Strait. “This is our lung,” she proudly pointed out, drawing attention to what is now a globally recognised symbol of the Turkish people’s angst and sense of outrage against the present government — the Gezi Park.
Nothing all that special about the modest nine-acre park, one would say while comparing it to Hyde Park or Central Park. I took pictures of the large gates and noticed the number of people strolling in and out of the tranquil park that was slated to be sacrificed and converted into a (shudder, shudder) shopping mall. When my friend mentioned how upset the people were with the government’s arbitrary, unilateral decision to destroy 60 acres of greenery, I didn’t pay too much attention to her remark. Little did I know then what was to follow a few hours later, when riot police cracked down harshly on unarmed protesters, spraying them with tear gas, drenching them with water cannons and making it abundantly clear there would be zero tolerance towards any demonstrations that challenged the fate of the park.
At about the same time back in Mumbai, there were intense debates raging about the fate of another equally important landmark — the Mahalaxmi Racecourse (built in 1883 and over 225 acres). But with one significant difference — these debates were being conducted by various political groups and the citizens were conspicuously absent during the discourse. Well, there were letters in the press and panel discussions on television. But beyond that — nothing of any consequence. And, certainly nothing to suggest the likelihood of riots breaking out to save the Mahalaxmi Racecourse. If anything, the battlelines were drawn between vested interests claiming dubious ownership over what is a staggeringly valuable landmass in the heart of Mumbai. There was an unimaginable amount of wealth to be made. And the vultures were circling overhead…. ready to swoop at the first chance.
This was, perhaps, Mumbai’s biggest land grab opportunity and there were any number of players waiting impatiently to pounce on it. What a stark contrast to what was taking place in Istanbul. It wasn’t just about the threatened Gezi Park, of course. Or the old trees the environmentalists were trying to save there. And let’s not even try and guess whether there will be a Turkish Spring. The key thing is that it was a spontaneous uprising of people across the country. Ordinary citizens who had bravely decided to stand up and be counted. And it was the people again, who had boldly challenged the diktats of a man who had successfully won two terms as Prime Minister, and was angling for a record third. Recep Tayyip Erdogan clearly misread the mood of his people in general and the protesters in particular, when he called them “looters”. The damage was done. Instead of backing off meekly, the protesters stepped up the agitation and the escalated acts of defiance stunned and impressed the watching world.
Nothing of this sort happens here in India. Or is likely to. Last week, there were horrifying reports of the wanton destruction of 50 acres of mangroves which were dubbed “invasive species” and destroyed by rapacious builders “developing” the posh Lokhandwala area. In another shocking incident, bulldozers rolled into the 5.5 acres of the controversial Willingdon Colony and brazenly pulled down five bungalows without seeking clearance from the heritage committee. Never mind that this nasty move flouted all rules of the SRA (Slum Rehabilitation Authority). There wasn’t a squeak of protest from anybody of any reckoning. The reasons for this apathy are simple: Citizens are terrified of the consequences.
We have unilaterally surrendered Mumbai and handed it over to gangsters parading as politicians. Every single political party operating in and around Mumbai is after just one thing — land. And to get that, these goons stop at nothing — murder included. What can the aam aadmi do? Go to the cops? That’s a joke. By the time a complaint gets registered, the land is gone. Besides, when it comes to the nexus between the Mumbai police, officials of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and the political class, it’s one big happy family that feeds off the many loopholes and laws governing our precious spaces. And that’s the way it has always been. When rulers themselves are gangsters collectively working to annihilate a once great metropolis, perhaps the resignation of citizens is easier to condone.
Even so, what happened in Istanbul serves as a valuable lesson to us in far off Mumbai. If we at all care about our city, we shouldn’t just sit tight and let those rogues take over what rightfully belongs to every Mumbaikar. Today, it’s the Racecourse, tomorrow it will be Hanging Gardens and next the zoo. We watched silently as mill land in Central Mumbai was sold to overnight developers fronting for politicians. We did nothing about the wanton destruction of our life-saving mangroves. We care a hoot about our heritage buildings. We have become bystanders to all the rot around us. We weren’t always like this. So why have we given up the fight today without even the fig leaf of resistance? Any answers?
My takeaway from the recent Turkey trip was this: The Turks have not lost their passion. They have not forgotten the past. And they are concerned about the future. It’s not just that one park that belongs to the people, it is the entire country — every square centimetre of it. It’s time we reclaimed our own.

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