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You don’t speak lightly about Mumbai, particularly in the city, all the more since the city ceased being Bombay and started being called Mumbai. The film industry kowtows before politicians, seeking their blessings before the release of new films. The prestigious Bombay University withdrew Booker Prize nominee Rohinton Mistry’s novel, Such a Long Journey, from its syllabus because the late Bal Thackeray’s grandson thought it ridiculed his political party. The Shiv Sena ensured that Pakistani cricketers or artists could no longer play or perform in the city, and timid Bollywood stars even avoided going to the funeral of A.K. Hangal, the veteran actor against whom the Shiv Sena campaigned because he advocated friendly relations with Pakistan. Amitabh Bachchan had to apologize after his wife, Jaya, sympathized with Hindi speakers, and Karan Johar had to say sorry because in his film, Wake Up Sid, the city is referred to as Bombay.

Rules of freedom of expression have changed in Mumbai. Politicians in Maharashtra have once again demonstrated that they will uphold freedom of speech only if they agree with the views being expressed. Otherwise they will manufacture outrage and bask in it. The day the Indian government announced that Telangana would be carved out of Andhra Pradesh, creating India’s 29th state, the writer Shobhaa De quipped on the microblogging website, Twitter: “Maharashtra and Mumbai??? Why not? Mumbai has always fancied itself as an independent entity, anyway. This game has countless possibilities."

And that’s what she meant—noting a political game of countless possibilities. If you go down the path of dividing India into smaller states, then that game has no end. (Think of the 500+ princely states Vallabhbhai Patel and V.P. Menon brought together to unify India). De triggered a thunderstorm of criticism from every political party, with some politicians abusing and insulting her, a few threatening her, one demanding an apology and another asking the government “to punish" her. But De is not one to back off, as she said unequivocally; she said her tweet was meant to be sarcastic and she was not going to apologize for it.

And apologize for what? Expressing her opinion? Since when did holding and expressing a contrarian opinion become a crime? And what is so shocking about what she said? Think again: following the Telangana decision, the demand for Gorkhaland to be carved out of West Bengal has already resurfaced; Bodos are demanding their separate state in Assam; Mayawati would like to see Uttar Pradesh divided again into smaller states; Maharashtra itself has known the long-standing demand for a separate Vidarbha. If you go that far, what stops demands for Mumbai—India’s richest city—as a separate state, particularly if another metropolis, New Delhi, has achieved statehood?

And even if there is a call for a separate state, so what? Mumbai does have a distinct culture different from the rest of the state. To use that tired adjective, it is also ‘cosmopolitan’, where no single culture dominates the other. Plurality is the norm here, with Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi, and English spoken widely and understood by many, and virtually every Indian (and some non-Indian) sub-culture flourishing. It also makes Mumbai different from the rest of the state. That’s not enough to create a separate state. But it helps build the case.

There is a substantive economic argument too: Mumbai accounts for nearly 46% of the country’s economy, contributing 30% to income tax collections, 60% to customs duty collections, and 40% to the nation’s foreign trade. The city’s gross domestic product (GDP), or the total value of goods and services produced in a year, at $209 billion, is higher than that of any other state except Maharashtra (of which it is part, and accounts for nearly 85% of the state’s GDP).

A logical economic argument may not be desirable politically, culturally, or socially. Besides, increasingly, other large cities are becoming clones of Mumbai: attracting migrants from all over the country looking for jobs and opportunities, making the cities multilingual and multicultural. Does that mean all cities should be separated from their states—a Hyderabad separate from Telangana and Seemandhra, a Bangalore leaving Karnataka, a Chennai split from Tamil Nadu, and a Kolkata distinct from West Bengal? But isn’t Mumbai sui generis, unlike all the other cities? Internationally, economists like Paul Romer and Richard Florida have written extensively about the dynamism of cities and their special characteristics which make them fertile ground for creativity. City-states, such as Venice and Genoa in medieval times, and Singapore and Hong Kong in the past century suggest we rethink the way we look at our cities, whose significance might end up outweighing that of the rural hinterland, and sometimes even nation-states.

Those are serious questions that need to be debated in a civilized, adult fashion; not by throwing a tantrum, demanding apologies, insulting opponents, threatening violence, and certainly not by sending out-of-work party volunteers to shout slogans to intimidate.

Disclosure: I have known Shobhaa De since 1982 as a colleague and later as a friend.

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