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7 February 2004

The space of challenge: reflections upon the relationship between public space and social conflict in contemporary Mumbai

Conference lectured at the symposium "(In)visible Cities. Spaces of Hope, Spaces of Citizenship", Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, 25-27 July 2003

It is a bit surprising even for old Mumbai dwellers to find out the origins of the open play grounds, or maidans, that cut a large swathe across the Fort district of downtown Mumbai. These grounds are the cradle of Mumbai's cricketing tradition and also represent a welcome open space in a fairly dense urban fabric. Cricket, the colonial sport, incidentally appears to be the one truly national religion we do have in India. At any given time the maidans host a large number of cricket matches played and watched in right earnest, even as large numbers of people cut through these grounds to reach the other side of the district more quickly. It is therefore a bit surprising to discover that these open spaces were created by the British after a serious wave of insurgency to set up a free field of fire between the walled colonial city, or the Fort, and the native town beyond from which they feared attack. Today's space of organized sport thus traces its roots back to a military strategy in anticipation of violence.

Of course, signs of conflict are not immediately visible in Mumbai's public space. However, many important spaces like the maidans of South Mumbai and spatial markers like the Martyr's Memorial at Flora Fountain, which is the symbolic center of South Mumbai, have some historically significant link with the inevitable conflicts that mark any large city. In this paper I wish to examine the ways in which the phenomenon of social conflict and the material reality of public space are related. I choose the concept of conflict as my prism because in the last ten years or so, the city has had more and more of it its public space than in the decades before that. Moreover, Mumbai, like every big city with a history of international trade and of inward migration from different cultures, is marked by differences in wealth, social status, cultural values and access to political power. Conflicts are inevitable in this situation, especially when globalisation is further jacking up the inequalities, and the capacity of city governments as well as of civil society to understand how the space of the city is involved in these conflicts will decide how well society as a whole responds to them. This is among the greatest challenges that the life of public spaces in the city poses to the city at large.

In a memorable phrase, Henri Lefebvre, the French philosopher, suggests that each society "secretes" its own space.1 In Mumbai, I could modify that phrase to suggest that the conflicts at the heart of Mumbai's public space, whether expressed as such or not, are very directly secreted by the city as a social system into its very physical fabric. Understanding the ways in which this osmosis between societal and physical spaces is enacted in public space is, I feel, very important for our understanding of the city at large.

In what ways are public space and the phenomenon of social conflict related in Mumbai? From a review of a variety of situations of urban conflict between different social groups I propose the following as three significant ways in which space is involved in the story of urban conflict (and vice versa) in Mumbai. None of these different roles (or modes) need necessarily operate alone. In other words, these are not mutually exclusive categories of modes of interrelationship; particular situations may reveal more than one mode being in operation at the same time.

Public space as the object of conflict

Public space has always been first and foremost, the object of conflict over claims to its control and over the rights of occupation. These conflicts usually are about:

a) what uses and activities are acceptable in public space;

b) who (that is which sector of the "public") has the greater right of occupation over different public spaces;

c) who should control, or make decisions about (and on what basis) the fate of public spaces and access to them.

Mumbai is a palimpsest of different cultures of producing city space, including ones which are pre-modern in origin. These cultures of producing space also harbour different protocols of imagining ownership of it, of occupying it and putting it to various uses, including economically productive ones. We thus have different visions of who public space belongs to and on what terms, that are often locked in conflict. As we shall see, the way different groups answer these questions decides how they answer the question "who is and is not a citizen?"

Thus the first kind of low grade conflict ―which like low grade wars of attrition actually define the social climate of a space― has always been between the continuing culture of contingently regulated appropriation of public space for private and personal purposes which is as evident in the streets of Mumbai as of any other small town in India. This tradition encourages shopkeepers, householders and all other kind of space occupying interests to attempt to push the envelope of private space, just enough so that the bulge into the public space of the pavement does not bring the latter's functioning to a complete halt. The state's stated culture of spatial production, proceeds on a more modern and strict understanding of boundaries between private and public space. However, given the deeply entrenched nature of traditional attitudes towards occupying space, the breach of this vision of control is greater than compliance with it.

This long standing stalemate at the scale of the street may encourage us to think of the city as having no single dominant power, a situation in which what Lefebvre has called the "domination" of space by the state is defused to some extent by the "appropriations" (Lefebvre's term again) of street side actors. However, recent actions of the state reveal this stalemate to have been more a waiting game.

Five years ago the state of Maharashtra (of which Mumbai is the capital), decided to build fifty flyovers (road over bridges flying over congested junctions) at different points in the city. This was ten times as many built in the previous fifty years and they were meant to be completed in five years. This project costing the equivalent of 300 million dollars, conceived as a major contribution to the transportation needs of a fast growing city, was wrongheaded for many reasons, especially in a cash strapped state. The main problem, of course, was that it encouraged private automobile ownership in a city where the majority commuted using a robust but unduly stretched public transport system. However, of greater interest here is what the flyovers did to the configuration of the city's system of public space, as well as to the unacknowledged impact it had on many private spaces that happened to line the arterial roads. With efficiency that was simply shocking for an Indian city, major open spaces and gardens along the arterial roads had huge and ugly bridges going over them in no time. All of a sudden the remaining coherence of the urban form of the city was in the process of destruction. Moreover, across the city upper floor living spaces were, suddenly, exposed to the voyeurism of the fast lane passing sometimes only twenty feet away in the air.

This event revealed very clearly that in the matter of control over public space, in fact of ownership of it, when the state is determined, any conflict of interest with the public (or significant parts of it) is really a mismatch. The public almost doesn't have a chance in deciding the fate of what nominally is its space. 

But then, the "public" is itself not a unitary reality. The conflict over the right to public space is restaged within its own body among interest groups. In recent times, new citizens' groups from the middle and upper classes of society have emerged in the city, effectively laying claim to public space as their space, and insisting on the removal of all those who would occupy it for functions which urban traditions in India have sanctioned but the law has not. This has usually meant the removal of the marginalized who, lacking access to expensive private spaces, need to use public space for private activities of dwelling, production and economic exchange.

Thus, the argument against the street vendors, or hawkers, is that they encroach on public space for conducting private business. In essence, they are criticized for blocking access to public space, while pursuing private ends. Strangely, however, when public open spaces in the city are cordoned off to develop joggers' parks or ticketed gardens, the quiet exclusion of large numbers of the underprivileged from these spaces is not seen to be a cornering of public spaces for inadequately public purposes. This "privatization" of entire public gardens ―where they become the preserve of those who can afford visiting them― is seen as a reasonable step by the state and the elite, even when it does not serve a life-and-death purpose. On the other hand the ephemeral occupation of small bits of pavements by hawkers who have only that space for earning their livelihood even as they provide a genuine service to the city at large, is considered deeply objectionable. Evidently, it is believed that some members of the public have a greater right to occupy public space for private ends than others. This has obvious implications for the imagination of citizenship. Thus the circle is completed with the conflict over physical space, resulting in a political conflict over the definition of citizenship as well as of the rights of the private individual vis-à-vis public goods.

Space as the setting of conflict

Apart from being the object of social conflict, the public space of the city also provides the very necessary setting for enactment of conflicts. This enactment can be in the form of uncontrolled violence or it could be the more democratic form of organized protest. That is space can be a setting for:

i) the direct enactment of conflict as violence, or for

ii) the public represention of conflict.

Intriguingly, again, as in the earlier mode, the state plays an important role in enacting conflict directly through violence. One example is the increased dependence of the police on "encounters" or shootouts in which serious gangsters are accosted and shot to death. The preference for this administration of justice by the police is a result of the perception among policemen of the spaces of legality ―courts― having failed to take the work of the police to its logical culmination.

The police have also been indicted for bias against minority populations in situations like the communal riots of 1992-93 in which Hindu and Muslim mobs (but Hindu mobs mainly) killed and burnt people and property belonging to the other side. The riots have been directly linked to the politics of hate that right wing Indian parties have successfully mobilized since the mid eighties all over the country. In many ways, Mumbai (or its middle and upper classes) which believed itself invulnerable to this politics of hate, lost its naivete with this event. Today, there is recognition that peaceful roads and markets can easily turn into riot sites and that the continuity of a space's hospitable character over time cannot be taken for granted.

It is interesting that even as the possibility of violence in public space increases in Mumbai, the only alternative course in keeping with democratic traditions is being systematically suppressed by the state. A democracy promises its citizens the right to protest against the state, and this right implies also a promise to an appropriate space for protest. Over the last decade or so the state has debarred protesters and protest marches from most of the public space of South Mumbai, especially from the symbolic center of South Mumbai, which is the open space housing the Flora Fountain. Where once they could actually march up to the gates of the buildings housing the government, protesters today are restricted to one of the playgrounds in South Mumbai, which being off the path of the rushing city cannot have the same "publicity" as they had in the middle of the roads. By restricting the settings in which protest can be voiced, the state has clearly revealed its understanding of the strategic importance of particular public spaces for the management of power relations.

Space as the precipitate of social conflict

The power of certain spaces like the Flora Fountain area is reinforced by the fact that they house the precipitate of earlier conflicts with the state. In this space, there is the Martyr's memorial which is dedicated to all those who lost their lives in the post independence struggle to keep Mumbai within the state of Maharashtra in 1961 when the central government had decided to transfer it to the neighbouring state.

Memorials may be considered as much the precipitates of conflicts as can be less direct spatial consequences of conflict situations. The maidans or open playgrounds of South Mumbai, which I mentioned at the beginning, are equally the precipitates of what was basically a strategic measure designed for a moment of conflict. Of course, in the course of time, the nature of occupation changed and today the space of the maidan is the space of play and unspecified leisure.

In discussing the precipitate of more recent conflicts we are also forced to reconsider what our notion of public space includes and what it leaves out. If we are to think of space mainly as a container separate from the social action in it we will probably find only certain kinds of spatial precipitates of conflict. However, if we consider public space as being indivisible from various social and psychological conditions that obtain within it, then the field of enquiry opens up. For instance, over the last ten years the quotient of "fear" that operates upon Mumbai's public spaces may have increased marginally. This peaked dramatically after the riots, and again more intensely after a series of bomb blasts of 1993 allegedly inflicted as revenge by Muslim gangsters of Mumbai operating from foreign shores, for the killings of Muslims during the riots a few months before. The police presence on Mumbai's streets is much greater in the last ten years than before, and this along with memories of the riots, the bomb blasts as well as of the ever possible outbreak of petty violence, has released a space of relatively greater anxiety and insecurity into the same old streets of Mumbai.

I shall conclude with some thoughts on some of the implications of the line of thought explored in this paper.

Concluding reflections (Challenges in imagining the reality of public space)

Firstly, the multiple modes of relation between public space and one social process or condition ―conflict, in this case― give us more reason to suspect that space cannot be viewed as a neutral container of social practices. This view is reinforced by the difficulty of restricting any account of particular spaces to any one of the three modes outlined above. It is, thus, clear that space is not separable as a reality (even though it may be useful to think of it analytically as a category) from the practices that produce it, among them being the processes of conflict. Believing that these conflicts are essentially external to the space and that they can be "managed" without reference to the space of the city and its distribution would be disastrous wishful thinking.

This conclusion has particularly problematic implications for those like me involved with architecture, urban design and planning. For these disciplines do not have dependable methods of representing the complex reality of space apart from its objective or objectal form. One result of this is that the problem of space is viewed as a technical problem, best approached in a neutral technical manner free of political concerns. Politics, in this view is a dirty word. In India, planners and architects do not have the kind of direct influence that they may have in the west. However, being concerned with space, they are increasingly active in the civil society movements even on the side of social practice and in fact do play a role in the conflicts over public space in the city. More and more, the state has begun to trust them and other technocrats from civil society in its decisions regarding the fate of public spaces. In this situation, we see that the apolitical technicist approach is more likely to ignore inconvenient social realities like conflicts of interest in its activism. We see, in Mumbai today, well meaning solutions forwarded by architects and planners outside the state that are patently unjust, because the technicist imagination that conceives of them is actually trapped in middle and upper class paradigms of public space which often have no room for the messiness of other more marginalized but traditional Indian paradigms.

It is clear, by implication, also that conflict needs to be approached as the necessary matrix from within which the space of a city is produced. Currently, the tendency in a democracy like India, unfortunately, is to seek to bypass, or to suppress social and political conflict through the use of force. Such an approach needs omnipresent policing to be successful even for a while. Instead if the multiplicity of unacknowledged interests is acknowledged in the city, we may well be able to find a path towards spaces that simultaneously address multiple interests and concerns, spaces which hold strong the tensions that are thought to be characteristic more of problems than of solutions.


1. Lefebvre, H. (Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith). The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell,  1991.

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