We've previously noted the Guardian's observation of a disconnect in coverage of last month's terrorist attacks in Bombay, between "headlines of wealthy westerners fleeing Mumbai's terror frontline" and "ordinary Indians who bore the brunt of the bloody attack[s]." This week, a handful of articles explore similar themes, this time concerning media and public responses to the attacks within India itself.
In the Washington Post, Emily Wax reports that "[w]hile dozens of TV cameras were focused on the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower and the Oberoi Trident hotels, some of the victims elsewhere in the city said few media outlets came to see them." She also notes contrasting public reactions to the Bombay train bombings in 2006, whose casualty toll of 209 people dead and more than 700 wounded was even higher than the toll from last month's attacks:
"For the train bombings, the outrage was there, but it was never really heard," [shoe store proprietor David] Ronel said, his hands black from shoe polish. "More people died in the train bombings, but they were ordinary Indians, not high-society industrialists or foreigners or film industry people. Where were the protest marches after the train attacks?"...
In India, terrorists have usually targeted crowded markets and trains, seldom frequented by the wealthy. Typically, the victims have been the poor, including taxi drivers, deliverymen, shopkeepers and street sweepers. But the gunmen who struck several sites in Mumbai late last month focused much of their rage on the city's two most luxurious hotels and its most likely guests: business executives, socialites, Bollywood film directors and political bigwigs. [link]
The article situates these divergent responses within India's social and economic inequality:
"The hard reality of this country is that we are living in two Indias. One is for the rich, who matter, and one is for the poor, who are invisible," said Ashok Agarwal, a lawyer who runs Social Jurist, a group that litigates education cases on behalf of the marginalized sections of society.... "When poor people were attacked, the country wasn't suddenly insecure. This is a fundamental injustice, and it has led to authorities ignoring attacks."...
"They are all lighting candles in front of these temples of affluence, the five-stars, for the people who were engaged in an aggressive pursuit of pleasure. It is not the first time terror has hit Mumbai. When the trains blew up in 2006, there was unimaginable anguish," said Mahesh Bhatt, a well-known filmmaker. "Why did we not see this hysteric candle-lighting then? At that time, I did not witness this great sense of gloom and doom in the city. Because the local Mumbai trains are not a pretty wallpaper against which you can perform your scenes of urban middle-class activism. These are the kind of people who don't even look at the working class. The train bombing was not part of their tragedy; the Taj siege is." [link]
Media scholar Rohit Chopra points to a couple of essays striking similar notes. Focusing on the coverage of the attacks in India's English language media, Mukul Kesavan writes in the Telegraph that he "can’t remember the last time that social class so clearly defined the coverage of a public event, or one in which people spoke so unselfconsciously from their class positions":
The novelist, Aravind Adiga, said in an interview with the BBC: "One of the differences between India and other countries is that a lot of our civic space is contained within the five-star hotels. They have a different function here for us, they are places where marriages happen, where people of all economic backgrounds go for a coffee. For the Taj Mahal to be attacked is somewhat like the town hall being attacked in some other place...." I’d wager that 99 per cent of [Victoria Terminus]’s commuters haven’t seen the inside of the Sea Lounge. Whatever else they are, five-star establishments in India are not democratic civic spaces. Few Mumbaikars think the Taj Mahal Hotel is their city’s hôtel de ville....
English and American papers treated the terror attack as an assault on the West. The terrorists had, after all, specifically looked for American and British citizens to murder. Ironically, even as NDTV, CNN-IBN and Times Now put hotel guests at the heart of the horror and bumped train commuters to its periphery, older English-speaking peoples counted their dead and dimly regretted all Indian casualties as collateral damage. In that residual category, if nowhere else, the Indian dead remained one People. [link]
Finally, an editorial in Economic and Political Weekly draws attention to the 56 individuals killed at Victoria Terminus:
They were from India’s working poor – labourers, hawkers and small-time traders – too poor to afford to travel by air or travelling to the hinterlands where there are no airports. They came with their elderly parents, with their children, including a three-month-old infant.
They seem to have been a truly cosmopolitan group – from Maharashtra, Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. Hindus and Muslims, for sure. They were a microcosm of people from across India who came to pursue the dreams Bombay/Mumbai offered....
Twenty-two of the murderers’ victims were Muslims, in whose name the terrorists presumably went about their mission on the evening of 26 November. Twenty-two among 56, or 40%, an unrepresentative number since Muslims constitute only 13% of India’s population. But then Muslims number disproportionately among India’s poor.
It is said that in death everybody finally becomes equal. Not so in the India of extreme disparities.... There were no discussions on TV about the 56 at VT who died....
There are no candles for the dead of VT. No gatherings calling for "change", no ranting against “those politicians”, no calls for “war” at VT. The dead of VT have been forgotten. [link]
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