Mumbai swells with good intentions; will actions follow?

Mumbai swells with good intentions; will actions follow?

Mumbai: Somasekhar Sundaresan and Sunil Lulla sit at a poolside table in the Cricket Club of India. Lulla, along with his wife and daughter, was on Marine Drive an hour ago, near the wrecked Trident hotel of the Oberoi Group, participating in a protest against the government’s inability to protect its citizens. He still wears a black paper badge on his shirt lapel. “Tomorrow, it’ll be a cloth one," he promises.

The Black Badge Movement, started by Sundaresan and Lulla, is only three days old, but it already has its own Gmail address, a Facebook group, and a charter; it has also enlisted hundreds of members, Lulla says. In capital letters, the charter proclaims: “We the citizens of Mumbai will stage our peaceful protest by wearing black badges on our sleeves in the conduct of all our work and business."

“When people see these badges," Lulla, director of Alva Brothers Entertainment, says, “they’ll ask why we’re wearing them. And then we’ll tell them. That we want action. That the badge is a symbol of something gone wrong, and that we’ll wear it until it’s fixed." Sundaresan and Lulla knew seven people trapped in the terrorist attack at the Trident hotel; one died.

The Black Badge Movement is one part of an edifice of bitterness and anger against India’s political machinery. It was built in Mumbai over the last few days by governmental ineptness in anticipating and then quelling the terrorist attacks on the city, varnished by the ire of television anchors, and crowned by the refusal by the widow of Anti-Terrorism Squad chief Hemant Karkare to accept the monetary assistance offered by Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi.

On the streets of Mumbai, that edifice is plain to see. Near the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel, passers-by shake their heads at the tragedy and pin the blame first on politicians. Every taxi driver ventures his opinions on the shambolic and corrupt nature of the government. At Karkare’s funeral, the most prominent posters requested politicians to stay away.

Enough is enough

Like the news of the tragedy itself, the anger is now propelled by the Internet and social networking sites. One online group named “E.N.O.U.G.H." encourages people to wear arm bands with the word “Enough" to “make a quiet, but firm statement to everyone—especially the government(s)—that we have had enough of this world of insecurity, mistrust, and above all, grief".

“It’s time Indians had a new political party!" another group says on Facebook, adding: “The existing political parties are abysmal, irresponsible, immature and pathetic. There is corruption, blame game, horse trading, cowardice, vote bank politics, spinelessness, lack of awareness and education, and a high criminal record."

Another group’s Facebook page urges taking military matters into citizens’ hands by making basic military training mandatory for all Indians. “Why should we depend on our political leaders to protect us when we know that our entire political system is rotten to the core with corruption and greed for power?"

But doubts have already begun to emerge about the efficacy of the various citizen-driven peace marches and protest groups that have sprouted like wild flowers. “One of the more mocking messages to my email said: ‘How come nobody thought of it before, that we wear a black badge and Mumbai’s problems get solved?’" Sundaresan, a partner at a law firm, says. An undercurrent of sentiment doubts the tangible change that these groups can bring about, despite the best of intentions.

Dealing with death

Partly, it is because they have to struggle against the dubious perception that mass deaths, however caused, have become a part of life in Mumbai. Even at St George’s Hospital, where the wounded and dead were first rushed in, a doctor could not shake that perception. “We’re so familiar with this, you know," says the doctor, who refused to be named because he was not allowed to speak to the press. “Every year, something happens—a building collapse, or a bomb, or very heavy rains. We’ve gotten used to dealing with injury and death on this scale."

Another part of the problem lies in the language used in an otherwise noble quest, language that is often as platitudinous and devoid of clear targets as that used by the politicians it decries.

One circulating SMS, intending to rally people at the Gateway of India on Wednesday evening, called itself a non-cooperation movement “of sorts", to “tell the leaders…that we want our safety" and show “we are not going to take this lying down".

Placards on the pavement near the (Oberoi) Trident hotel ask politicians to “leave us alone". A petition on the website Avaaz (voice) wishes simply to declare that “the terrorist attacks in Mumbai have not divided us, will not divide us, and that we stand together, as one people" and asks for “effective action" against the spread of violence.

Lulla occasionally lapses into such stale terminology himself—at one point, he says the black badge will stand for “accountability"; at another point, “commitment"—but he insists this movement has measurable objectives. He mentions the now-widespread demand for a Mumbai-based unit of the National Security Guard (NSG), one that is likely to be fulfilled in the aftermath of the attacks. “If the NSG has to be woken up somewhere else and then flown in, that is unacceptable for a city like Mumbai," Lulla says.

Financial plank

The other objectives of the Black Badge Movement include “an effective crisis-management infrastructure" for the city, though it does not specify the nature of the infrastructure, and a demand for a public report on these terror attacks, to be filed by the Union and state governments, on what went wrong and what is being done to prevent further attacks.

Lulla and Sundaresan argue on a financial plank that fits with their corporate profiles. Mumbai contributes 35% of the direct tax revenues to the Central exchequer, and 60% to Maharashtra’s coffers, they point out. The city is home to the headquarters of India’s biggest banks, exchanges and companies.

“So doesn’t it deserve better?" Lulla asks, rhetorically. “If we can tell our bosses or investors that we’ll give them a 12% return, or a new product, why can’t politicians make a similar kind of commitment?"

And what if, as some sceptics say, nothing changes—if all this gushing anger exhausts itself in a month, or if no new promises are made, or if they are made and not kept? “Then, even if it is 40 years later, I’ll be wearing this black badge," Lulla says. “It will be a symbol of the fact that nothing was done."

Melissa A. Bell contributed to this story.