Extremists try to close Mumbai’s open arms

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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.”

Turncoat Lieberman to be McCain’s Vice President

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By Tom Curry, National affairs writer, MSNBC

WASHINGTON – In the spring of 2004 Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry made overtures to Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, to be his running mate.

mccain lieberman vice president

A Kerry-McCain ticket had a compelling logic: it would have given Kerry a chance to outflank President Bush, to win some Republican voters, and to carry McCain’s state of Arizona and its ten electoral votes.

Will McCain, now a leading contender for the 2008 GOP nomination, borrow Kerry’s idea and offer the vice presidency to Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut’s self-styled “independent Democrat”?

Turncoat Lieberman to be McCain's Vice President Certified Kosher

The McCain-Lieberman duo showed a warm camaraderie Friday during their joint appearance at the American Enterprise Institute, an event where they both called for a substantial increase in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq in order to impose order, stop ethnic cleansing, and give the Maliki government a chance to succeed.

Praise for McCain’s ‘gutsy position’
Lieberman lavished praise on his Arizona ally. Alluding to his own re-election victory in Connecticut over anti-war candidate Ned Lamont, Lieberman said, “I just finished an election campaign. If rumors are correct, he may be starting one. And he’s not taking the easy way out here.”

McCain, he said, “is doing what he sincerely believes is best for the national security and safety of our country… John’s taking a gutsy position.”

There’s an affinity of personnel, as well as of ideology, between the Arizona Republican and the Connecticut Democrat: McCain’s spokesman in 2004, Marshall Wittmann, now works as Lieberman’s spokesman.

The McCain-Lieberman duo has worked closely in the past on several issues:

  • In 2003, they co-sponsored the Climate Stewardship Act to limit emissions of global warming gases by electric utilities, industrial firms, and refineries.
  • They were leading members of the “Gang of 14,” the bipartisan group of senators who devised a way to avert a fight over judicial filibusters that would have shut down the Senate in 2005.
  • They have been two of the prime movers in Senate efforts to restrict donations to political campaigns.
  • The duo led the push for military intervention by the United State in Kosovo in 1998.
  • “Joe Lieberman and John McCain’s moral leadership in Congress helped make it possible for Wesley Clark to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo,” said Jano Cabrera in January of 2004, when he was Lieberman’s’ campaign spokesman.


    Turncoat Lieberman to be McCain's Vice President Certified Kosher

    So what would Cabrera think now of a McCain-Lieberman ticket in 2008?

    Would voters back a hawkish ticket?
    “With the caveat that it’s far too early for this type of speculation, birds of a feather do flock together,” Cabrera said. “And in a nation as politically polarized as ours, a bi-partisan maverick ticket could be incredibly formidable. But before we all start counting our independent chickens, there would also be a significant downside: a pro-war, pro-surge ticket. Barring a radical turn of events in Iraq, I can’t imagine ‘Vote Hawk’ serving as an effective rallying cry in ‘08.”

    He added wryly, “Before the imaginary general election comes the real primary. Since Sen. Lieberman hasn’t declared he’s running, talk of him picking McCain as his running mate is premature.”

    One prominent Democrat, Maryland Democratic Party chairman Terry Lierman, had a joking response to the notion of a McCain-Lieberman ticket: “Does McCain need Lieberman to attract Republican votes?”

    In a serious vein, he said, “The American people will be looking for a ticket that brings positive change…A damaged senator — as much as I like him — and an Iraq War hawk — as popular as he might be otherwise — might not be the change we’re looking for.”

    Dante Scala, who teaches political science at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, said a McCain-Lieberman pairing “would most likely not pan out for three reasons.”

    The first, he said is that Lieberman is a Democrat and “it would anger a good part of the Republican Party faithful” if McCain passed over a qualified Republican in order to pick Lieberman as his running mate.


    The age liability

    The second problem as Scala sees it, is Lieberman’s age (he’ll be 65 next month) which combined with McCain’s age (70) would create an Older Guys ticket.

    “Then they’ve got a problem if there’s a clear generational choice” if the Democrats were to nominate a relative youngster such as Sen. Barack Obama, the 45-year old junior senator from Illinois.

    Third, Scala said, “I don’t know if this ticket would attract many committed Democrats to vote for McCain.”

    But if McCain were to roll the dice, Lieberman would give him a better chance to win Connecticut, with its seven electoral votes.

    And Lieberman’s appeal to Jewish voters could make a difference in states with significant Jewish populations such as Florida.

    Brandeis University historian Jonathan Sarna, who has studied voting history of Jewish voters, said, “The 2006 election in Connecticut demonstrated that Lieberman still commands a significant Jewish following, but not as strong a following as he enjoyed in 2000. Lieberman’s support of the Iraq war, his views on religion in public life, and his endorsement of Republican efforts to prevent the removal of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube distanced him from some Jewish voters.”

    TV network exit polls Lieberman got 65 percent of self-identified Jewish voters in Connecticut last November.


    “My guess is that the Connecticut results anticipate how a McCain-Lieberman ticket would be viewed by the Jewish community,” Sarna said. “At least at third of Jewish voters would find the ticket insufficiently liberal and would vote against it. Whether the ticket could command two-thirds of the Jewish vote depends on who the other candidates are.”