Posted by: Vikram | November 14, 2009

Mumbai and India: Owning and Belonging

Mumbai belongs to India, say the English and Hindi media of India. The Constitution gave all Indians the right to live and work in any part of the country, but not a title deed for the entire nation. There is something almost imperialistic and authoritarian in the ‘Mumbai belongs to India’ assertion. At one level it reflects the special place the maximum city has in the Indian imagination, but it also reflects a mixture of anxiety and envy, anxiety at the relative lack of opportunities in the North, wherein losing access to Mumbai would mean losing access to desperately needed jobs and upward mobility, envy at the (mostly ill-informed) notion that the citizens of the city have somehow escaped the almost feudal hierarchies of North India.

Mumbai does not belong to India, just like Lucknow does not belong to India. They are cities, not cattle. Belonging (in this context) means controlling, and the people who are supposed to control Mumbai or Lucknow or Aizawl or Leh are supposed to be the living, breathing citizens who have a stake in the everyday state of affairs in the city. The fact that Mumbai, Bangalore or Delhi issues become ‘national issues’ indicates grave problems in how we see ourselves as a society and a polity. Asking any old Hyderabadi to weigh in on Mumbai or Maharashtra issues is dangerous and condescending. There are plenty of national issues in India, but ironically the decisions on such issues, for eg trade agreements, are often made without a national debate or even consulting elected reps from states that might be affected.

Too much of Indian ‘nationalism’ is about owning and belonging instead of helping and supporting. Places are constantly dehumanized so that they become objects which can be claimed or owned. But what about the people who live there ? Mumbai does belong to Mumbaikars, the 17 million odd who work, sweat, struggle and relax in the city everyday. Biharis, Tamils, Manipuris and Kashmiris are welcome to visit, live, stay and become Mumbaikars, but you have to let they city own you before you can say whom it belongs to.



  1. shall crawl out of the woodwork just long enough to strongly agree, vikram. i find myself increasingly struggling against impositions of some sort of ‘indian’ identity. on the other hand, though, my wife is quite comfortable with it! do good to give it a bit of a think, i guess.

    • Welcome baruk. Indians have to relax their often confusing nationalism, interestingly I find women are able to navigate these matters much more easily than men. Maybe your case is just a reflection of a more general trend.

      • Could be because imposition of a national identity is like the last thing on a woman’s mind. 🙂 There are more immediate problems to be taken care of and jingoistic nationalism is not one of them. I don’t want to make this a feminist rant but women are usually more concerned about socially institutionalized gender bias which they encounter at every step of their life rather than some abstract concept of nationalism which really doesn’t affect them in a big way.

  2. All these responses are only for vote catching.I do not take it seriously.I have spent a number of years in Mumbai and it never is what we see on the TV.Likes of Raj Thackery will come and go.Let us not play with our identity.
    One very interesting note.I watched a programe on TV yesterday.One young man from the audience asked the participant-MNS -worker”which language did the NSG commandos speak in while they were rescuing the people on 26/11″?The man had no face.

  3. Vikram, very well said. Almost poetic.

  4. Yes, I think the problem is that all of us talk about owning, not becoming.

    Mumbai does not belong to anybody, including the likes of Raj Thackeray. That, however, does not absolve the likes of Laloo and his friends from UP who have kept India’s biggest states in a pitiable state. I think no one really grudges people from other parts of India coming and doing well in Mumbai or anywhere else. The problem has arisen because the number getting out from these two states and going to places like mumbai, Delhi, Punjab etc is getting too large.

    • Mumbai most certainly does not belong to Raj Thackeray and his goons. The right strategy to fight his ilk is to enforce the law, ensure equitable development and also create the right atmosphere for local languages and culture to thrive. This is not the case with most Indian languages, including Hindi, in this English mad country.

      • Vikram I agree. I have seen Hindi speaking population also feels English is given preferential treatment. But those who complain also look at English with respect and at the English speaker with envy. It’s the same all over India.

        One minor reason is that unlike English, we hardly allow vernacular languages to grow and evolve (and thus thrive). We insist on coining new words, when there are words available and being used – like telefone, television, train, computer, fundas, fatte, panga, glass, motor, power are all paryaywachi (synonyms) for the related vernacular words. Some Punjabi, some Bollywood and some distorted English words are a part of most Indian languages, but we don’t acknowledge them.

        And I agree with your views in this post. And if somebody has to own a city it should be the tax payers or those who built it perhaps…?

  5. Nice post. Very true, Mumbai doesn’t belong to anyone and even if someone can lay a claim on it that would be the tax paying citizens of Mumbai.

    I really think something needs to be done about the migration problem. Indian cities are fast becoming unsustainable entities, they simply lack the infrastructure and capacity to house the enormous population that the rest of India generates.

    More importance needs to be given to develop tier 2 and 3 cities and also focus on rural employment. Else we’ll see more backlash from the local population who are (understandably) agitated by the loss of jobs.

    I too watched the programme on NDTV yesterday. They made an important point about the need to have an Indian link language.

  6. @ Chowlaji and rags, I saw that program too. The MNS and SP guy both came off badly, because basically they have no case.

    But I felt that Kanimozhi of the DMK made some good points. I think she presented the problem with Hindi as a link language very well, it is as alien as English to people in the South, so why would they not learn English instead ? It makes much more economic sense.

    Rags, you have identified the crux of the problem well. The smaller towns and cities of India are in disrepair, there is almost no opportunity and much social oppression.

  7. All history is story of war, migration and refugees. And Mumbai is the city of dream of each struggler disowned or suppressed at each his own native place. Vikkram, How long you have to live or survive in any city or state or country, till you can be accepted as one of them ?

    • Yayaver, it certainly does not belong to people who have never stepped in the city. I am not talking abt strugglers here, I am refering to the chattering classes.

  8. Dear vikram

    first of all i would request you not to use the term ” North” loosely. the migration in Mumbai is from Eastern UP and Bihar ONLY. And only these two regions dont comprise the north. There is huge migration in NCR/haryana/Punjab too from this region, and there they’re called “poorabias” (east Indians) and not “nort indians”.

    so first get your facts right, what’s north and what not. The north is the most prosperous region in the country(Delhi NCR,Haryana,Punjab,Himachal, western UP)

    Second thing,

    You are raising just opposite issue , it all started with “mubai belongs to marathis ” issue. and THERE is a sense of insecurity among maharashtrians, as the elite of mumbai are not marathis. Most of the entrepreneurs/Bollywood are either from North or Gujarat..hence marathis feel insecure and sidelined in their own city.

    Third, Personally i wonder what’s special about Mumbai, hardly any infrastructure is there,
    If you wanna see real good quality life, come to NCR or Tricity(Chandigarh,Panchcula, Mohali)….Mumbai seems decades behind.

  9. Mumbai belongs to India, say the English and Hindi media of India.

    I wonder how a comparison between the English and Marathi newspapers of Mumbai would through up. If I’m not wrong (and there’s every chance I would be since I can’t actually read Marathi) the Angrezi newspapers would toe the Mumbai-belongs-to-India line while the Marathi newspapers would toe the Thackeray line.

    What Thackeray is of course doing is stupid or his methods are at any rate but his tantrums and the support that these sort of regional chauvinistic parties get is, IMO, a symptom of a larger malaise—the over-centralisation that India suffers from. The balance of power between the Union and the states is absurd with a massive amount of power being put into the hands of the former—this in a country which is the most diverse on Earth. This system, however, would suit the highly mobile middle class and above (who put this system in place from 1946 onwards) which is maybe why English newspapers in Bombay Mumbai would be out-of-step with the what the Marathi papers print.

  10. Vikram, what you say is logical, but I think people don’t mean the word “belong” in the true possessive sense. I mean it’s used in a loose sense. So when one says mumbai belongs to india that person is both wrong and right.

  11. the media needs to grow up ! fighting and influencing opinion – who’s who is for whom is like kindergartners

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