This Time They Hit the Rich

One argument that is being made about the Mumbai attacks is that they are garnering so much attention because this time the rich were targeted. This argument contains multiple levels of silliness.†

Yes, there is a class divide in India. There is a divide between the literate and the illiterate. There is a divide between those who read English newspapers and those who don’t. There is a divide between cities and villages. Now, the whole point of a class divide is that those on one side of a divide feel greater kinship among themselves than with those on the other side. Readers of English newspapers like to read about the travails of other middle-class readers like themselves and don’t care much about farmers dying in Vidarbha. A citizen of Mumbai cares more about people dying in train bombings in his city than he does for deaths due to Naxalism or caste wars. That makes sense.

But if you try to stretch this standard argument to argue that this particular terror strike is getting more attention because it was targeted at the rich South Bombay types, that is where the argument snaps. The typical English speaker is far more likely to travel by train than be able to afford coffee at the Taj or Oberoi. He is much more likely to feel kinship with those who died in a train blast on July 11, 2006 †than with those who died in the November massacre. †

There is a sliver of truth in the argument – in that it is true that the attacks got more attention in the West because Americans and Britons were killed. †But using the argument to explain why they have generated such an enormous outrage amont Mumbaikars involves lazy thinking as well as an active effort to avoid the blindlingly obvious.

8 thoughts on “This Time They Hit the Rich

  1. You’re right in saying that the average Mumbaikar’s outrage is not due to the high-profile South Bombay targets. However, I haven’t seen this argument put forward anywhere. Loose talk might generate it, but I doubt that any well-prepared commentary could justify this stand.

    What I have seen, and generally agree with, is that the outrage among the middle-class Mumbaikar is from a long-standing frustration with broken systems. What I have also seen, and also agree with, is that the media has kicked up its hyperbole a few notches because of the nature of the targets. Sure, earlier incidents in Mumbai and elsewhere provide more fodder for the narrative, but that doesn’t justify Arjun Rampal, Dia Mirza and Jaaved Jaffery turning into political analysts. That’s the Taj Effect.

  2. @Sumant:

    However, I havenít seen this argument put forward anywhere.

    You will find this argument here.

    I don’t think ‘media has kicked up the hyperbole’ because of any class sympathy/affiliation with the upper crust in Mumbai. That the targets were 5 star hotels in South Mumbai has nothing to do with the outrage and media coverage it received or the ‘Taj effect’ as you call it. It was a simple matter of covering the action as it was happening rather than reaching an attack site after the bombs have exploded and done the damage. This attack has generated such outrage because the terror was beamed right to your home through your television screens as it was happening live for 60 hours. This strike was fundamentally different than previous bomb blasts and media also looks for novelty, even in tragedies, and therefore covers such events longer.

    With regards to Gnani’s hypothesis, had the terrorists taken hostages at VT/CST (haunt of the common man) instead of the Taj, the television channels would have been covering VT/CST for 60 hours. And after the crisis was over, the viewers as much as the TV news anchors were emotionally invested in what had transpired at Taj for 60 hours and not as much (as heartless as it may sound) in the tragedy that unfolded at CST. The writer of this piece, in his zest to formulate a narrative that fits his ideology of rich creaming off of the poor in India, has transformed a simple explanation into a conspiracy theory.

    The thing he doesnít understand, or chooses to ignore, is that nature of this attack was radically different than previous ones. Without meaning to belittle the bomb blasts, the terror is more visceral in a terrorist hostage situation being broadcast live into your living rooms. The leftist writers look at the terrorist attacks and the media/government/private sector response compared to bomb blasts solely through the prism of class relations and hence present a very flawed analysis.

  3. I agree that the argument snaps at the part where ‘The typical English speaker is far more likely to travel by train than be able to afford coffee at the Taj or Oberoi.’ However, I think the reasons for these attacks getting as much attention as they have are two-fold.

    a) To some extent, in attacking the Taj or the Oberoi, the terrorists worked to demolish something that is aspirational. More people may travel by local train than drink coffee at the Taj, but by the same token, more people desire to drink coffee at the Taj than travel by local train. By picking these locations, terrorists are (symbolically) seeking to deny people access to their hopes and dreams. This effect is even more exacerbated by the location being landmark hotels that are intimately intertwined in the history of the city – merely from a psychological standpoint. We may not feel so bad if someone went after the Four Seasons or the JW Marriott. Bombing the Four Seasons would be equally reprehensible, but those hotels are not the icons of the Bombay skyline that the Taj or the Oberoi are. And therefore, more people feel hurt / violated when the Taj or the Oberoi locations are attacked. Perish the thought, but attacks at Siddhivinayak, Mahalakshmi, Haji Ali or Mount Mary would potentially have the same devastating impact on the psyche of Bombay residents.

    b) Secondly, I think Chetan in the previous comment hits the nail on the head, when he says ‘Without meaning to belittle the bomb blasts, the terror is more visceral in a terrorist hostage situation being broadcast live into your living rooms.’ And it only hurts more when you see the Taj burning for 60 hours without anyone being able to do anything to stop the flames due to the presence of madmen inside. With bomb blasts on trains, the impact is immediate, but the ability to respond is also immediate. Watching the events at the Taj or the Oberoi on the TV only amplified a feeling of helplessness. It is revulsion at this inability to do something that is potentially causing the outburst of media attention and citizen outrage.

    Just my two cents, of course..

  4. Lets give it an honest thought. Imagine a situation where gunmen/terrorists had taken a chawl in Bombay hostage instead of the Taj. What do you think would have been the nature of media coverage ?

    It is easy to label others as lazy or missing the obvious but really hard to fathom the human motives and reactions. I can tell you that I was shocked by the media coverage of the terrorist attacks here in the US. I don’t think a few westerners trapped in the crossfire can explain the level of media interest.

    It seems to me this event has catalyzed an underlying strategic shift towards India in the world. The live coverage of a hostage drama and a real playing out of what may be blueprint for an attack on the US soil are some of the factors. It is hard to pinpoint one factor that led to this phenomenon.

    For example, all forest fires have a spark but not all sparks result in forest fires. So while we know the cause to be a spark it never explains why one spark turned into a forest fire and the other didn’t. Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler. I am also guilty of doing it in my columns.

  5. @Aaren:

    Losing something that is aspirational is like a cloud castle blown away by the wind. The Taj and the Oberoi are not the only places where people dream of having coffee. If they didn’t exist, there are plenty of others on the value chain. Hell, I could simply bypass the Taj and dream of the Ritz or the Plaza. Aspirations are easily replaced, and contribute less to the shock than something that is an integral part of people’s lives. It hurts far more to lose something when you can associate directly with it.

    The second part bears a little more merit. The visceral nature of the attack is probably more traumatic than an anonymous series of explosions, even if it wasn’t as destructive. But try telling that to the commuters and their families. I doubt that they cared much about the Taj. As for immediate response, I disagree. When the trains came to a halt, stranded commuters spilled onto the streets. I was one of them, and I watched an ambulance stand in the middle of traffic for over 30 minutes because it couldn’t move.

    The response in the case of the trains was far from being as swift as it needed to be, for the same reasons as at the Taj: the logistics were simply not favourable to speedy reactions. The only difference, we weren’t stuck to our televisions wondering what’s going on; we just got back on the next day’s train and went to work. Most of Bombay did that last month too. Maybe more so than two years ago, because they weren’t affected at all.

  6. @Sumant – Setting aside the aspiration thing for a minute (you have a valid point there when you say that one could dream of the Ritz just as well), would you agree that that locations being the Taj or the Oberoi probably hurt viewers more than if it were the JW Marriott or the Four Seasons? I’m saying that these hotels were part of the history of the city; and to that extent resonate more strongly in the minds of viewers on TV.

  7. “Readers of English newspapers like to read about the travails of other middle-class readers like themselves and donít care much about farmers dying in Vidarbha. A citizen of Mumbai cares more about people dying in train bombings in his city than he does for deaths due to Naxalism or caste wars. That makes sense”

    though i agree to what you have said but the ones quoted is certainly not the case. I read english news paper but that never made me indifferent to farmers dying in vidarbha. i was equally sad by the train blast as that of the recent mumbai masacre. but not because i belong to certain side of the fence.

    the truth is mumbai masacre had such an enormous impact because for the first time we have been hit right in front of our face. before, they were still in hiding…now they have come open.

    and that is whats scary…to me..to you to everybody.

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