By Anand Giridharadas, IHT
Monday, February 11, 2008

MUMBAI: It was just another cosmopolitan Sunday in this city by the sea.Tie-clad men and women in floral hats, dressed like English gentry at Ascot, streamed into the race course in Mumbai for the Indian Derby. They air-kissed. They sipped Champagne. They ogled visiting Brazilian samba dancers. Then they settled into their seats to watch a colt named Hotstepper gallop to victory and a $200,000 prize.

But as many of them returned to the suburbs on the afternoon of Feb. 3, they bumped into a traffic jam whose origins could not have been more remote from the glamorous, globalized Mumbai they inhabit. The roads had clogged because squads of local political cadres were beating migrants from northern India in the latest explosion of nativist violence in this city, inspired on this occasion by a rightist politician named Raj Thackeray.

Mumbai is a city of open arms. More than any other South Asian city, it has lured Muslims, Jews, Christians, Parsees and Hindus, aspiring taxi drivers and wannabe actresses, and melted them into an industrious whole. In a certain elite realm, freedom reigns; women dance on tables in nightclubs, and gays and lesbians flock once a month to a rather uncloseted party called Gay Bombay.

But Mumbai is also, today, teetering between its tradition of liberality and new tendencies toward intolerance.

In recent years, activists have driven into exile famous artists who offend them, closed down museum exhibitions and agitated to have movies banned. A minority of upper-caste Hindus has lobbied to cordon off whole sections of Mumbai as vegetarian zones, effectively excluding Muslims. And now politicians have revived a perennial cause: ridding Mumbai of migrants.

“There is increasing evidence that the pluralist foundations of this country, which are guaranteed by the Constitution, are being subverted by narrow-minded, sectarian zealots,” Jug Suraiya, one of the most widely read columnists in India, wrote last week.

In recent weeks, Thackeray, a Hindu nationalist politician, has made a series of inflammatory statements against migrants from northern India, faulting them for not learning the local language of Marathi or adopting the customs of Maharashtra State. “Even if the whole world opposes my stand, I and my party will continue the struggle to protect Marathi culture, Maharashtrian people, and will trample the goondaism of U.P. and Bihar,” Thackeray wrote in an editorial published Saturday in a Marathi-language newspaper. (Goondaism roughly means gangsterism; Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are northern states.)

Thackeray’s message appeals to some young, underemployed “sons of the soil,” as they call themselves, who regard north Indian migrants as depressing their wages and strangling their culture. Many young party activists in Thackeray’s party apparently took his recent statements to heart.

Starting Feb. 3, they went on a rampage in Mumbai for several days, beating up taxi drivers (most of whom are from northern India), roughing up migrant street vendors and attacking a cinema playing films from the north. Some drove past a bungalow owned by Amitabh Bachchan, a Bollywood megastar originally from northern India, and threw glass bottles at it. (Although the party said the activists were acting without its approval, some of its senior officials were arrested, as were several of the activists themselves.)

Politicians in Mumbai and the north have condemned the violence, as have many ordinary citizens of Mumbai.

The Mumbai Mirror, a local English-language newspaper, surveyed Mumbai residents’ opinions and found widespread anxiety that the “city’s composite culture is facing a threat.”

“The pity is, this decimal percent – intolerant, disinterested in dialogue, brazen violators of law – has come to dictate our public life,” Shoma Chaudhury, a well-known journalist, wrote in the Indian magazine Tehelka a few weeks before the Mumbai attacks began.

Chaudhury was writing about the self-imposed exile of M.F. Husain, a painter from Mumbai who many consider the Picasso of India but who lives in Dubai because some Indians are offended by his nude depictions of Hindu goddesses. Hindu religious activists have filed court cases against Husain over his paintings, obtaining warrants for his arrest.

Similar pressures have dogged other celebrities of late. Salman Rushdie, who now moves freely around the West after the lifting of the Iranian bounty on his head, still faces threats in his native India.

Sania Mirza, the highest-ranked Indian tennis player, has stopped playing in tournaments in her own country; extremists, she says, jeopardize her safety every time she does so, objecting to her short skirts, among other alleged sins.

It is increasingly common across India for a movie that offends a single group of people to be banned altogether. “The Da Vinci Code” was banned in some states for offending India’s tiny Christian minority, even though it was screened freely in the overwhelmingly Christian countries of the West.

Here in Mumbai, the rising intolerance is visible in a new segregation by diet. More than ever before, whole buildings and neighborhoods are declaring themselves vegetarian, off-limits to egg sellers, meat-serving restaurants and Muslim tenants, whose cuisine is typically centered on meat. Even Marine Drive, the city’s most popular tourist destination, is virtually free of meat and alcohol.

Gautam Adhikari, the editorial page editor of the influential Times of India newspaper, recalls munching hamburgers and sipping beer with his family overlooking Marine Drive decades ago. That is impossible today.

He worries that a new generation of Indians, while thriving economically, is regressing culturally, obsessed with personal success and unmindful of civic ideals like “live and let live.”

“Unless you get that,” he said, “it’s difficult to create a modern, urban society.”