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Bangalore: The Insider/Outsider Debate

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In the wake of the recent riots in Bangalore following thespian Dr. Rajkumar’s death, there has been some soul-searching in the legislature of Karnataka (the southern Indian state whose capital is Bangalore), in the newspapers, and on the internet as to who or what was responsible for the total breakdown of calm and order over two whole days in the city. Finger pointing is in full swing. As is to be expected, political parties blame each other while residents blame the government and the police.

What I did not expect was the blame laid at the feet of “non-Bangloreans.”

In his Last Word column in The Week magazine, Mahesh Dattani, author and playwright, writes in an essay titled “Winds of change” this week (April 30, 2006),

This wasn’t an outpouring of grief that we witnessed. Perhaps this is the shape of things to come. Violence as an outpouring of anger and frustration.

What else can it be? Forcing the city to close down was actually a very perverse act, but a cry for justice nevertheless. Dr Rajkumar, unknowingly, became a mascot for the oppressed indigenous people who feel their language and identity are slowly being eroded by the winds of globalisation. The IT industry is not the villain. The villain is Time. And no one can fight Time.

You wake up one day and find that your neighbour speaks a strange language; your job is taken over by someone who moved into town last month and has an utter dislike for all things south Indian. Your job in a government office as a peon was a matter of pride and achievement, until the office boy working for an MNC boasts of a pay five times more than you earn because his English is better. It just seems so unfair. Maybe it is. But it is to the credit of the indigenous people that they tolerated this unfairness for a very long time.

A few months ago, it was the new weekly, Bangalore Bias, expressing similar sentiments in its manifesto. I had then provided longer excerpts from the manifesto and had written an essay countering the arguments. Here are some brief tid-bits from that manifesto:

The time has come to ask, “Whose city is it, anyway?”

Where there was time and space for libraries, literary debates, science fairs, Sunday beers, bicycles, Karaga, Christmas carols, kadalekaayi parise, jazz evenings, dolls’ exhibitions and the grace of it all. In a city of seven million, there should still be that “Island of One Million” that knows what Bangalore was, but more crucially to the point, what it ought to be. We believe this community of one million cares for a lifestyle of grace and charm beyond the transactional logic that threatens to become the sole basis of our civic society.

The Bangalore community could well feel that it is now under siege. The City’s sensibilities have been invaded by unfamiliar, sometimes unwelcome strains of attitude and affectations. There are new people that now claim to represent Bangalore, but the Bangalore community is justified in feeling unrepresented.

I fail to understand the logic of these arguments.

First of all, who is a citizen and who is an “outsider?” Everyone that lives in this city, no matter how far the generations that have lived here go back, came from somewhere. The earlier generations shaped the character of this city as they saw fit and now the current generation is shaping the city as it sees fit. A city is a living, changing, amorphous creature that cannot be frozen in time and that image taken to be its true representation. “Whose city is it, anyway?” Well, it is the city of every single person living here, whether they landed here yesterday at the airport, bus station or train station and are setting up homes as we speak, or whose families have been living here for generations.

If the “oppressed indigenous people” (meaning what, exactly? How long does one have to live here to become indigenous?) don’t have jobs or have lesser jobs, who is to blame for that? Or more pertinently, given the drift of the Dattani essay and the Bangalore Bias manifesto, how are “outsiders” to blame for that?

Are employers asking to employ “non-indigenous” people? Are they going out of their way to look for “outsiders” to fill their positions? From the “office boy” to the CEO? That contention holds no water. Businesses look to cut their operating costs and the cheapest hire for them would be a qualified person already in the city. It makes no business sense to have to advertise in the media in outside cities, set up out of town interviews, have potential recruits travel, or have the company’s Human Resource person travel to conduct interviews, pay for an eventual hire to move to Bangalore from Haryana or wherever, and then pay some more for them to settle down in this city.

So perhaps these employers are getting out-of-state hires because they cannot find a qualified employee pool here. How can “outsiders” take jobs away from locals if the locals are qualified and willing to do the jobs that are required of them?

There are at least one or two articles a month in the daily newspapers here and abroad about the shortage of labor supply, not only in the IT industry, but in the construction industry as well (both at the day laborer level and at the engineer level). Why are the locals not rushing up to sign up for these jobs? The argument that follows from this is that all this employment boom and success is limited to the IT industry. So what about the rest of the “indigenous” people who have no skills in this area?

While the IT industry is spearheading the boom, in its trail follows a long list of service areas and other industries that are reaping the benefits of the activity generated in the IT sector. As mentioned above, the construction industry in Bangalore cannot keep pace with demand for housing. Then there are the peripheral service industries — restaurants, grocery stores, malls, clothes shops, book stores, relocation agencies, transportation (there’s a whole new industry in transporting the call center employees to and from work every day) even down to drivers, house maids, etc. who all see an increase in business stemming from the IT sector activity.

You can just imagine just how much employment is generated not just in the areas mentioned above, but also in each of the offshoots of those areas. “Outsiders” are not coming in to take every single job in every one of these sectors and their offshoots, are they?

Ironically, while the idea that the “city’s sensibilities are being invaded” is making its rounds in certain quarters, the most striking sensibility of this city has been its arms-open-wide welcome it affords to anyone coming here, whether from Tamil Nadu or Andhra or Maharashtra or America or Africa, whether a menial laborer or a billion-dollar multinational company. Just as a community cannot thrive by suppressing a portion of its members, so cannot a city thrive by negating the contributions of a portion of its citizenry, newcomers or not.

And these are not small contributions, mind you. The newcomers to this city are, each in his/her own way, contributing to the financial health of this city. The companies are bringing jobs, jobs are bringing people, people are bringing money that they are spending in the shops and theaters and restaurants, and as mentioned earlier, the money is bringing construction, and more jobs. I dare say the companies are also driving a lot of the improvements we are seeing in the city today (Bannerghatta Road being a fine example, perhaps the only one of public-private partnership in Bangalore).

It is this financial health that will encourage people to look beyond their immediate basic necessities and move on to the dolls’ exhibitions and jazz festivals and Sunday beers and the lifestyle of “grace” and “charm.” And why blame the newcomers for these habits fading away? Why did this “community” of one million let go of that lifestyle in the first place? Maybe it’s because all the old timers, who had property in the heart of Bangalore city, in Charmarajpet and Basavangudi and Gandhi Bazar, have sold out to the highest bidder (in bidding wars brought on by the IT boom) and are now living out in what used to be the boonies and find it too far to make it to the dolls’ exhibitions.

I do agree that as new people come in and as a city grows to accommodate them, there is a definite strain on the infrastructure and resources. Moreover, from a newcomer’s point of view, as I know from personal experience from having lived outside, it is very difficult to profess knowledge of a community’s various concerns within the first few days of moving in. It takes months, even years, to understand the nuances that are at play in any community. There is bound to be that initial period of tension. But once you feel even half comfortable in any surroundings, you look around, make friends, and jump right in. That’s human nature.

There is no reason to believe the newcomers do not have an equal interest in having a rounded, complete, fulfilling life in the city they have chosen to make their home. Newcomers also definitely look for signs of welcome. If given half a chance, many of them would do just that — jump right in. They too would like to live a life of grace and charm, I assure you. They too would like to see the infrastructure improved. They too want the crime rate down. They too want fewer accidents, better schools, better transportation, fewer power cuts and water shortages, parks for their children, safe roads, and justice and liberty for all.

It just makes no sense to believe all the problems this city may or may not have are to be blamed on “outsiders.” They’re convenient and handy scapegoats — after all no “indigenous” person uses any of the roads, any of the infrastructure, does not pollute the waters, does not throw trash on the streets, etc., etc. Right?

Instead of looking outward for the sources of our problems, we would do well to look inward, at our own feeling toward this city we’ve called home for generations. What are our strengths and capabilities? What are our weaknesses? Let’s assess those and act accordingly. Let’s not blame our weaknesses on “outsiders.” Let’s not act in haste and look for scapegoats. Let us be a city worthy of our heritage if we so care about it.

About Sujatha Bagal

  • http://insidebrain2005.blogspot.com Matthew Milam

    IT Industry booming? I think not. Chicago for instance consistently pushes the PC tech jobs to the suburbs. Why? They can’t get anyone out there willing to drive to east hell to get there. People from the city will do it because the jobs are few are far between, but they won’t do it for 17 an hour and have to cough up alot for gas.

  • http://blogpourri.blogspot.com sujatha

    Matthew, the NY Times article talked about the IT industry booming in Bangalore, and it is. The growth is so fast and so large here, that every IT company has jobs to be filled in the hundreds, if not thousands.

  • abcd

    Hi,
    Good judgement, i see its the biggest problem bangalore is facing, ppl who do not like anything south indian are coming in search of food but once they have it, why not my family and they too dont like anything south indian, setting up a small community, forget it .. they keep cribing all the time. Same thing in US also, they move in here and crib cos ppl dont eat dal here..

    but Bangalore is more hit by the tamil migration starting from SEs to gate keepers.. but Tamils eventully learn & adapt and co-exist without much destruction of ppls pride and ways of life.

  • Umesh

    Hi,
    I personally believe that when different people meet there will be a clash of cultures.But this clash was expected to result in new trends in a place like bangalore.

    It is the people of the place which make a clash of cultures and opportunity as opposed to a disaster. In 1453 the conquest of constantinople heralded the Reanissance becuase of which we had great advancements in fields of art, science etc.

    The biggest example is ‘Mona lisa’ the greatest work of art in the world. But then,The same clash results in incidents like September 11.

    Finally, it is bangalore which will decide where it wants to go.

    I used to sincerely believe that bangalore was that sort of place. I’m not so sure anymore. Maybe it is the politics.

  • http://blogpourri.blogspot.com sujatha

    Umesh and ABCD, thank you very much for your comments.

    ABCD, I agree that the “outsiders” have as much responsibility to integrate themselves into the life of a city as do the “indigenous” people to not keep harping on how the “outsiders” are destroying their way of life. That is part of the deal when we travel away from our homes and try to make a living elsewhere.

    Umesh, from my vantage point, the riots in Bangalore was the work of a few miscreants looking to create trouble. I don’t think they had any agenda in mind other than to smash glass windows (as is the popular notion, these were not just the glass windows of IT companies – many of those windows belonged to “indigenous” companies as well) and create trouble no matter what the circumstances, no matter what the occassion, no matter what the consequences. I wouldn’t go so far as to characterize this as a clash of civilizations or cultures although people like Dattani would like to have you belive that.

  • Kaustav Das

    Interesting reading.
    I have lived 15 years in Bangalore and pretty much consider Bangalore my home.
    And yet barely 3 hrs ago I was assaulted by a group of 20-30 people because I dared to lower the window of my car and admonish a biker because he had come on the wrong side of the road and scratched my car.
    This was on the Sharjapur Road – Electronic City connecter road.
    My mistake (according to the crowd) was that I was an outsider and that I drove a big car. “We are locals, this is our road you are driving on our road, we will do what we want”
    And this is not my predicament alone. Yes, I happen to be the South Head of an MNC and I recruit several well paid people every year.
    Should it surprise anyone if my retaliation (in sheer helplessness) is to actually get biased and quietly stop giving Kannadigas jobs.
    I think I will do that with glee. And many of you will call it racism. But isn’t that exactly how it all begins.

  • Ranganath

    Assaults on outsiders in Bangalore is a very common feature.

    You will be assaulted on a road simply because you dare to question a localite. And there will be huge public (read: Kannada) support for it.

    This is the experience of lots of people, and is no longer isolated case. Locals have often used it as an excuse to pounce upon others.

  • Senth

    Checkout this video of locals and police assaulting a man in bangalore.

    Kannadigas should not consider themselves distinct from other indians.

  • Ramesh

    Attack on outsiders is really increasing in bangalore.