Cosmopolitanism from Below: Some Ethical lessons from the Slums of Mumbai
A nail on our development paradigm. Flickr: Joe Athialy
(New York University)
Inspired by the successes of the Alliance of housing activists in Mumbai and their global networks, Arjun Appadurai identifies the existence of ‘cosmopolitanism from below'. For the world's urban poor, he suggests, this form of cosmopolitanism, together with the structures of deep democracy and the conditions for developing the capacity to aspire, constitutes the raw materials of a politics of hope.
When cosmopolitanism is debated in scholarly circles, as it has intensely been in the last decade, slums, urban poverty and global deprivation rarely enter the picture, except to remind us that cosmopolitanism is an elite privilege, and debating it is likewise an elite luxury. There are reasons for this bias, and they are to be found in our common understandings about what cosmopolitanism actually is. Most definitions of cosmopolitanism, either directly or indirectly, assume that it is a certain cultivated knowledge of the world beyond one's immediate horizons, and is the product of deliberate activities associated with literacy, the freedom to travel, and the luxury of expanding the boundaries of one's own self by expanding its experiences. For this reason, cosmopolitanism is usually contrasted with various forms of rootedness and provincialism, the latter associated with attachment to one's own friends, one's own group, one's own language, one's own country and even one's own class, and a certain lack of interest in crossing these boundaries. The cosmopolitan is often identified with the exiled, the traveler, the seeker of the new, who is not content with his or her historically derived identity, biography and cultural values. In today's world, cosmopolitanism is loosely associated with post-national sensibilities, a global ethos, multicultural politics and values and a generalized openness to cultural experimentation, hybrid identities and international cultural transfers and exchanges. This set of associations is hardly the same as the universalism of the Enlightenment, but it has some affinities with it, in its common interest in an expanded idea of humanity which transcends the boundaries of nation and ethnos.
I wish to suggest that a rather different sort of cosmopolitanism can be discerned in the world of internally generated forms of activism incubated among the world's poorest populations, more or less independent of advanced education and privileged access to the means of travel, leisure and informed self-cultivation. Nevertheless, what I call "cosmopolitanism from below" has in common with the more privileged form of cosmopolitanism the urge to expand one's current horizons of self and cultural identity and a wish to connect with a wider world in the name of values which, in principle, could belong to anyone and apply in any circumstance. This vernacular cosmopolitanism also resists the boundaries of class, neighborhood and mother-tongue, but it does so without an abstract valuation of the idea of humanity or of the world as a generally known or knowable place. This is a variety of cosmopolitanism that begins close to home and builds on the practices of the local, the everyday and the familiar, but is imbued with a politics of hope that requires the stretching of the boundaries of the everyday in a variety of political directions. It builds towards global affinities and solidarities through an irregular assortment of near and distant experiences and neither assumes nor denies the value of its universality. Its aim is to produce a preferred geography of the global by the strategic extension of local cultural horizons, not in order to dissolve or deny the intimacies of the local but in order to combat its indignities and exclusions. It is thus closely tied to the politics of hope and the promise of democracy as a space of dignity as well as of equality. It is indeed correct to call this style of life cosmopolitan, but it is cosmopolitanism driven by the exigencies of exclusion rather than by the privileges (and ennui) of inclusion.
Urban Housing as a Window to the World The housing movement which I have been associated with for almost a decade has been the subject of two prior essays by me (in 2000 and 2004). In the first of these, I take a close look at the local practices and strategies of the Indian anchor of this global network, which consists of three rather different organizations. One is a facilitating and catalyzing organization which was originally created by a group of middle-class women activists, dissatisfied with conventional social work strategies for helping the poor in urban Mumbai in the early 1980's, and is called SPARC (Society for the Protection of Area Resource Centers). Originally housed in the inner-city neighborhood of Nagpada, this organization has grown into the civil society arm of a triad of organizations, all based in India.
Dharavi Slum in Mumbai. Flickr: Kounosu
The second organization in this triad, of special significance for this essay, is called Mahila Milan (roughly meaning Union of Women) and was created by a group of self-radicalized sex workers, also in the general vicinity of Nagpada, who were typically homeless and had begun to occupy long-term pavement dwellings in this area. This group of poor women represents in many ways the cultural heart of the Alliance (as the triad describes itself in India), for it combines direct experience of urban exploitation, insecure and often undocumented street living and gradual political evolution through various strategies. These strategies have produced small savings groups, collectively organized domestic security, locally developed relations with police officials and municipal authorities, growing skill in working with elected officials and bureaucrats and increased sophistication in dealing with local, regional, and national policy shifts and crises. The members of Mahila Milan and their families, over the last two decades, have borne the brunt of slum demolitions, anti-poor police and municipal policies, and severe discrimination in terms of access to basic services such as water, electricity, food ration cards and police protection. They have also survived natural catastrophes such as floods and monsoon deluges, and social catastrophes such as the regular Hindu-Muslim riots that have periodically brought Mumbai to a standstill.
The third organization which constitutes the Alliance is the NSDF (National Slum Dwellers Federation) an organization which comes out of a rather different history, also intimately connected with the efforts of slum-dwellers in Mumbai to gain political recognition and civic voice in matters of housing, basic services, land and legal rights in Mumbai and also in a host of other cities in urban India. The NSDF has been a predominantly male organization, whose strongest and most experienced members have come from the poorer classes of Tamil migrants to Mumbai , who are concentrated today in the famous mega-slum of Dharavi, as well as in the adjoining neighborhoods of Sion, Matunga and Wadala.
This triad of Indian organizations, all with strong roots in Mumbai, evolved a collaborative relationship in the course of the early 1980s, and in the early 1990s developed links with an important movement of slum-dwellers in South Africa as well as in Nepal, the Philippines and Thailand. These global links, steadily fortified by shared strategies of internal mobilization (such as daily savings), internal discipline (such as self-surveys and censuses), and house-building techniques and strategies, has gradually evolved into the most important global alliance of community-based housing activists, who share a common commitment to local organization, internal financial savings, and community-based toilet and house-building strategies. Their main organizational methods are global exchanges for learning and knowledge-sharing, and a coordinated strategy for educating and pressuring city and state governments, international funders and multilateral agencies, and national governments. This international network, called the Slum / Shack Dwellers International (SDI) has also evolved its own funding capacity, based on a sustained commitment to gain independence from the vagaries of global funding agencies and fashions, has played a major part in global campaigns to oppose slum demolition, achieve secure tenure for the urban poor and build credit and finance capacities for member communities of the network by cooperating across almost thirty countries, primarily in Asia and Africa, but also in Latin America and the Middle-East. The SDI today is recognized as a major global voice for the urban poor by a variety of major multilateral organizations, including the UNCHS, The World Bank, The World Urban Forum and numerous other formal and informal groupings concerned with urban futures and the rights of the urban poor.
The striking successes of this global network cannot be attributed to any single circumstance, factor or historical trend. The global spread of the ideology of human rights since the middle of the twentieth century is certainly one factor. The recognition that democracy, as a worldwide value, is not just a matter of votes and representation but also of dignity and livelihood is another major factor. The worry about the relationship between extreme poverty, disease, disenfranchisement and terror (especially in recent decades) is also relevant. The worry that the world's increasingly networked financial growth engines, and its exploding service economy, cannot subsist in a world of impoverished cities, angry slums and rotten urban cores (a planet of slums, in Mike Davis' colorful phrase) is also a contributing element. Last, but hardly least, the increased availability of the Internet, especially to the more socially active among the world's poor, has created a galactic growth in what Keck and Sikkink have called "activism without borders", a remarkable efflorescence of popular efforts to harness the energies of the very poor, both in cities and in the countryside, to unite across national boundaries. In so doing, they have been able to influence national and multilateral policies in regard to the environment, human rights, labor rights, trade equities, intellectual property correctives to excess elite power, opposition to mega-projects (such as big dams) perceived as damaging to the lives and livelihoods of the poor, and a host of smaller but no less significant matters of consequence to the world's bottom 50%. In general the knowledge and democracy revolutions of the last few decades, powered by the spread of new information technologies, have combined to encourage the greatest diversity of popular and transnational civil society movements that we have witnessed in the history of mankind.
the knowledge and democracy revolutions of the last few decades, powered by the spread of new information technologies, have combined to encourage the greatest diversity of popular and transnational civil society movements that we have witnessed in the history of mankind
The Alliance of housing activists that is my focus here and the global network of which it is a part can only be seen in the context of this worldwide widening of the boundaries of civil society, and the parallel broadening of the range of issues with which poor people have come to be politically concerned. It also true that each of these movements has a specific history and geography which is deeply connected to its special focus, be it housing or AIDS, pollution or big dams, agricultural prices or women's rights, intellectual property or sexual traffic. And so it is with housing activism among the very poor, which has its own special characteristics and historical sources.
Here I am not concerned to tell the bigger story about the broad global profile of such transnational activisms or of their range and variety, a story which is now beginning to attract widespread scholarly attention. Rather, I want to focus on a cultural dimension of these movements, one which can be captured in the idea of "cosmopolitanism from below" and to get a close look at this sort of cosmopolitanism, I start with the shape it takes in Mumbai.
Mumbai as a Cosmopolitan Space Cosmopolitanism is, in some ways, Mumbai's self-governing cliché. Both rich and poor emphasize the ability of people who live in Mumbai ("Mumbaikars") to live with, and even enjoy, cultural and linguistic difference. And cosmopolitanism in Mumbai is rarely identified with self-cultivation, universalism, or with the ideals of globalism with which it is historically linked in Enlightenment Europe. Rather, it is primarily identified with cultural co-existence, the positive valuation of mixture and intercultural contact, the refusal of monoculturalism as a governing value, and a strong sense of the inherent virtues of rubbing shoulders with those who speak other languages, eat other foods, worship other gods, and wear their clothes differently.
Cosmopolitanism is, in some ways, Mumbai's self-governing cliché.
This proposal could reasonably be greeted with the objection that Mumbai has also been the home of India's most powerful movement for linguistic monoculturalism and the dominance of a single regional culture, the culture of Maharashtra, especially after the linguistic reorganization of states, which allowed regional politicians to claim a separate state for Maharashtrians in 1956 and to claim Bombay for this state rather than for the adjoining state of Gujarat. The political party known as the Shiva Sena was an urban by-product of this linguistic separatism and has been a major force in Mumbai politics since at least the late 1960's; and it is still a force to be contended with. Much has been written about the rise of the Shiva Sena, its success in killing socialist consciousness among Mumbai's Marathi-speaking working class, its ability to capture the attention of Mumbai's lumpen Maharashtrian youth, of large parts of its police force and lower level government bureaucracy, and of its success in linking neighborhood social service functions with rabid Hindu nationalism and Marathi chauvinism. The Shiva Sena has rightly been seen as the single major force behind the Hindu-Muslim riots of the last three decades, and especially of the brutal pogroms that followed the destruction of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 by Hindu fundamentalism cadres. But the Shiva Sena is increasingly internally divided and weakened, as its aging leader and supreme ideologue, Bal Thackeray, loses his charismatic force and control, and it shows every sign of being in a struggle for its very political life. The Marathi-speaking working and poor classes of Mumbai showed remarkable restraint after two major flashpoints in Mumbai's more recent political history: the burning of a train coach which resulted in the death of a group of Hindu activists in February 2002 near Godhra in Gujarat, and the coordinated carnage of a series of train bombs which paralyzed the city in July 2006. In both cases, there were strong allegations of the involvement of Muslim radical activists, possibly in cahoots with extra-national Islamic forces and support, but Mumbai's working classes refused to be drawn into major retaliatory violence against Muslims. Thus, it is important to understand the broad sources of Mumbai's cosmopolitanism before we return to examining how it relates to the strategies of the housing activists of the Alliance.
Guarding remains of a house. Flickr: Joe Athialy
Mumbai is a city with a history built around contact, commerce and conquest. The presence and struggles of the British and the Portuguese around the set of islands that later became the island city of Mumbai makes Mumbai a city of "outsiders" from the start. Apart from its few coastal fishing communities, virtually every community in Mumbai has a relatively short local history, and the variety of these communities - which includes Jews, Muslims, Parsis, Christians (both foreign and local), and many dozens of communities that might loosely be considered Hindu and Muslim - gave the city a character which was inherently cross-cultural, negotiated and built on brokerage and translation. Many of these groups were tied up with trade and commerce between themselves, with various local and foreign rulers, with various inland empires and, above all, with the wider world of commerce in the Indian Ocean, and especially in the Persian Gulf. This made Mumbai as much a part of the maritime world of the Arabian Sea as a part of the Indian subcontinent from the very beginnings of its modern history.
In general, Mumbai's cosmopolitanism has long been tied up with its commercial fortunes, and until the 1980s, the textile manufacturing world of Mumbai was built on a working social contract between the largely Marathi-speaking factory labor force of the mills and the largely Gujarati-speaking class of textile mill owners. Yet the working class of Mumbai was never entirely Marathi-speaking, since it was always also populated by poorer farmers and others who migrated to Mumbai from the South, from the Hindi heartland, from tribal Gujarat, and in smaller numbers from virtually every other part of India. In addition, the petty moneylenders of Mumbai were often Pathans from the Northwest provinces, the guards and watchmen of many homes and office buildings were often from Nepal and some of the most important buildings on the regal Marine Drive were owned by the ruling families of Kuwait. The railway staff in Mumbai, as throughout India, always had a significant number of Anglo-Indians, and the Catholic population of Mumbai retained strong links with their Portuguese ancestors and rulers in their native Goa. As Mumbai evolved into a major commercial and financial center in the twentieth century, with a powerful industrial base in the thriving textile industry, its ruling classes included wealthy Gujaratis, Marwaris, Parsis, Sindhis, Bohras and Ismailis, as well as a small number of Marathi speaking entrepreneurial families such as the Garwares, the Kirloskars and the Dahanukars. No major social class in Mumbai was mono-lingual or mono-religious, from the financial elites to the toiling classes of the Mumbai docks.
In an earlier essay (2001) on the cultural dynamics of violence in Mumbai, I described it as the "city of cash": the flow of money - liquid and abstract, in coins and checks, as gold and shares, as loans and debts, as pay-offs and commissions, as bribes and gifts - is virtually the circulatory substance that holds the entire economy of the city together. Of course, such cash flows are important in all major cities, especially in financial centers like Mumbai. But Mumbai's mythology and its everyday life places an especially heavy emphasis on the centrality of cash, as an object of desire, of worship, of mystery and of magical properties that far exceed its mere utility. And Mumbai's defining industry, the film industry known globally as Bollywood, is the major engine through which the cosmopolitanism of enterprise, hustling and cash is kept alive and magical. And Bollywood is, in various other ways, a key to Mumbai's cosmopolitanism and special in this context.
Movie Posters. Flickr: Lavannya
From its very beginnings, the Bombay film industry was the primary business in which Mumbai's many linguistic groups and religious communities learned to collaborate in a machinery of money-making and a mythology of celebrity, prosperity and pleasure that retains its distinctive signature today. Gujarati financiers and producers, Bengali singers and scriptwriters, Maharashtrian editors, singers, and cinematographers (harking back to the film industry of Kolhapur and the Prabhat studios) came into contact with the great courtesanal families of the Muslim North which yielded stars like Nargis and singers like Noor Jehan, as well as poets and scriptwriters like the great Saadat Hasan Manto. In a slightly later period, the Urdu progressive movement of the Gangetic heartland created an exile class of song and script writers (such as Kaifi Azmi, Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Hasrat Jaipuri and others) who permanently infused the film-going public with their version of Hindustani, deeply steeped in the Urdu and Persian traditions of the small royal courts of North India. Their songs, which became the hallmark of Hindi films and the primary source of popular music throughout India in the 1950s, 1960s and until the present (along with the small printed chapbooks on which the lyrics were printed for those who wished to know them well) infused Bombay film fans with a deep appreciation of a certain lyric Hindustani vocabulary and style which lives in the street Hindi even today. At the same time, the great radio song shows, such as the Binaca Geet Mala of the 1950s and 1960s played and replayed these songs while the movies were being shown in theatres and long after, so that, as Peter Manuel shows in his 1993 book on north Indian popular music, the soundscape of Mumbai's streets literally echoed with the poetic lyrics of these songs, often derived from courtly Northwestern poetic and lyric traditions such as the ghazal. On the other hand, the news on the radio was in a form of Hinduized Hindi, shorn of its Persian and Urdu elements and heavily infused with Sanskrit roots and neologisms. Thus Bombay's film-viewers and radio-listeners grew up in a strangely bifurcated Hindi world, absorbing the courtly words and lyrics of Urdu and Persian poetry through the songs and scripts of the Hindi popular film, and the very different, classicized and de-Islamicized Hindi of the radio news and the major Hindi newspapers and magazines.
Thus, what is sometimes lampooned as Bambaiyya Hindi (especially by the educated gentry of Delhi) is a fascinating linguistic formation, of which the most noted fact is its penetration by lexemes, grammatical forms and various minor grammatical and syntactic features derived primarily from Marathi (such as the famous "kayko" instead of "kyon" for the English "why") or the equally famous "khali-pili" meaning roughly "for no good reason", as well as various less noticed semantic and syntactic features from the Gujarati of Mumbai, itself drawn into the language stereotype comic voice of Parsis in many Hindi films. The "unmarked" ethnicities of Hindi cinema for its golden decades (from 1950 to about 1980) were always vaguely North Indian (Panjabi peasants, Rajput princes and warriors, Mughal emperors, Lucknow courtesans, cow-belt landlords and the like) while the "marked" ethnicities, (often figures of humor) were often Catholic, Anglo-Indian, Tamil, Sikh or ostentatiously Baniya (Gujarati or Marwari), and were frequently associated with their stereotypical occupations. The great Johnny Walker played almost every one of these "marked" comic ethnicities in his illustrious career. In an odd way, the figure of the Maharashtrian was frequently absent, neither figure nor background, indexing the strange absence of any linguistic hinterland for Bombay, except of course in the small but interesting Marathi film industry which never dominated the imagination of the city as the Hindi film industry did. Thus the films and songs produced by Bollywood created the basic idiom of Bombay Hindi, something which has itself changed in subtle ways through the five decades after 1950, but was always a more interesting hybrid than has been conceded by Hindi speakers from the North, who tend to lampoon Bombay Hindi from the point of view of some absurd idea of the authenticity of the their own forms of Hindi. The latter, of course, are serial hybrids of Urdu, Hindustani, numerous varieties of Khari-Boli, and the numerous earlier spoken languages of North India, ranging from Marwari in Rajasthan to Maithili in Bihar.
The idea of some sort of "standard" North Indian Hindi, by comparison with which Bambaiyya Hindi is a proletarian and ridiculous hybrid, is a fatuous act of regional chauvinism parading as high linguistic propriety. It ignores not only the complex ways in which various North Indian forms of Hindustani have helped to form Bombay Hindi, but also assigns to the Khari-Boli of the North a privilege which is denied to languages such as Marathi and Gujarati. The irony, of course, is that both Marathi and Gujarati owe a much larger lexical debt to Urdu and Persian in the pre-colonial period than do many folk languages of the Hindi heartland. But that history is not critical to my argument here.
Today, the combination of commerce, cash and cinema, along with other forms of industry, manufacture and enterprise, creates an enormously complicated multilingual universe, unified by a constantly evolving form of Bombay Hindi, which both shapes and is shaped by the songs and scripts of Bollywood. At the same time, Mumbai's Marathi is hardly simple, single or homogenous, as shown by path-breaking ground-level research by the Marathi Public Sphere Project of a Bombay research group called PUKAR on the enormous variety of Marathi dialects in the greater Mumbai area.
the combination of commerce, cash and cinema, along with other forms of industry, manufacture and enterprise, creates an enormously complicated multilingual universe, unified by a constantly evolving form of Bombay Hindi
One final observation which returns us to the tension between Mumbai's film-centered linguistic cosmopolitanism and the power of the Shiva Sena which has historically emphasized the ownership of Mumbai by Maharashtrians, the cultural dominance of Marathi as a language and the priority of the history of Maharashtra as a region in the textbooks, street names and religious life of the city, nowhere better expressed than in the cult of the warrior-king Shivaji in the political theology of the Shiva Sena. Furthermore, as Rahul Srivastava brought to my attention, even this Marathi chauvinist party has been forced to make concessions to the linguistic diversity of Mumbai by publishing Hindi and Gujarati versions of its main propaganda newspaper, Saamna, to reach audiences that may be susceptible to Shiva Sena ideologies in their nationalist Hindu fundamentalist aspects but have no interest in abandoning their own linguistic loyalties. It is in this extremely interesting and layered linguistic world that we need to place the specific cosmopolitan strategies of the communities and organizations that compose the Alliance of housing activists in Mumbai and their global networks.
The Cosmopolitanism of the Urban Poor We return now to the cultural strategies of the urban poor who have mobilized themselves: by organizing themselves into Federations, primarily through the work of the National Slum Dwellers Federation; by building on the street experiences of the women who formed Mahila Milan in the aftermath of their earlier struggles as sex-workers in the variety of neighborhoods that fan out from Bombay Central, one of Bombay's two major railways stations; and by taking advantage of the middle-class resources of the women who built up the NGO known as SPARC. (The story of this collaboration, which begins the early 1980s in Bombay through a series of accidental encounters, has been told in numerous published accounts by myself (2000) Satterthwaite, D'Cruz, Patel and Burra, among others.)
Clean drinking water! Flickr: Joe Athialy
Today, in 2011, the poor women and men of Mahila Milan and NSDF have come a long way from their beginnings as self-organizing urban activists struggling to gain secure housing, minimum civil rights and minimum protection from the depredations of police, criminals and the municipal authorities in Mumbai. They have learned to speak directly to banks, engineers, architects, developers, politicians, academics and multi-national celebrities. They have learned to document, survey, monitor and regulate their own communities, through techniques of surveying, enumeration and mutual information. They have evolved sophisticated forms for articulating their own savings circles and assets with official and quasi-official banking and credit institutions. They have become the principals in a major construction company (an independent private company called NIRMAAN) through which they handle capital, loans, planning and execution of building projects centered on housing and sanitation in Mumbai and in many other Indian cities. They have vastly improved their capacity to deliver built infrastructure up to the standards of municipal and private lending authorities, and have been asked by state and federal authorities to extend their experiences and strategies to cities in India which have been struggling with housing and infrastructure for the poor for decades without success. They have learned to deal with the constant movement and transfers of civil servants working for city and state agencies whose support they have learned to cultivate and husband over decades. They have mastered the art of presenting their numerical strength as an asset for the support of often cynical and corrupt politicians without conceding to the constant pressure to become passive vote-banks for specific politicians or political parties. They have earned the envy (and the respect) of commercial builders and land-developers for whom all housing markets in Mumbai are a zone for unhindered profit-making; and the grudging regard of politicians and quasi-criminal interests who tend to dominate the real-estate and development world of Mumbai. Above all, they have had steady and growing success in eroding the view that the street and slum-dwelling poor are non-citizens and parasites on the economy of Mumbai, and in forcing politicians, bureaucrats, planners and various urban elites to recognize that the poor cannot be treated as a cancer on the body of the city, and are citizens who deserve the same rights as all others and that they are in numerous ways vital to the service and production economies of Mumbai. In short, the various communities and leaders who are at the core of the Alliance have created an irreversible dynamic of "recognition" (in Charles Taylor's sense), which today makes it impossible to ignore their massive numerical presence and their legitimate rights to housing, to infrastructure and to political voice in the life of the city.
they have had steady and growing success in eroding the view that the street and slum-dwelling poor are non-citizens and parasites on the economy of Mumbai
The cosmopolitan practices of the Alliance have much to do with these hard won successes. And it can be seen in the most humble as well as the most dramatic of forms. It can be seen in the housing and toilet exhibitions that I discussed in earlier essays (2001 and 2004) on this movement. In these events, which combine festivity, learning, dialogue and solidarity-building, women (and men) from different cities and regions encounter each other and make the effort to encompass some of India's linguistic and cultural diversities. They discuss their hopes about domestic space, their experiences with different building materials and techniques, their practices of savings and credit, and more generally their hopes for permanent housing and political security in their streets and cities. Friendships are formed, tragedies are shared, stories are exchanged, and experiences of urban struggle are framed to be understood by women for other women who come from different spatial worlds of poverty. Often these exchanges involve linguistic negotiation, as when women from Nepal or Orissa talk to women from Pune or Tamil Nadu, often through the bridging efforts of the polyglot women of Mahila Milan from Mumbai. A single extended collective conversation could involve the use of several varieties of Hindi and Marathi, or Kannada and Oriya and Tamil, and even some English (if visitors from overseas networks of funders are present). Translation is a continuous background activity as participants gloss and explain exchanges to each other, and older and less literate members are told about new social and technical issues. Language in these settings is both medium and message, background and foreground, tool and horizon. It is rarely articulated as a site of conscious negotiation or effort. Yet it is the first and most critical site of the effort to stretch the cultural horizons of these poor women and men. It cannot be underestimated as the basis for all other forms of translation, learning and exchange in the work of the global network.
These inter-city occasions within the Indian framework cannot, however, be seen as the main context in which the membership of the Alliance learns the strategies of cosmopolitanism. In fact, the daily struggles to self-organize in Mumbai over the decades from the early 1980s to the present cannot be seen outside the context of the steady will of the poorest members of the Alliance to negotiate and transcend a variety of critical cultural boundaries and thus to create an expanded sense of their own cultural selves. For example, the poorest women who constitute the senior core of Mahila Milan are largely Muslim women from the Telugu-speaking region of Andhra Pradesh, who entered the sex-trade as sex-workers in Nagpada and the adjoining areas of Central Mumbai. Their already complex linguistic and cultural worlds (quite different from the world of the quasi-courtesans of the Muslim North) encountered in Mumbai, the brutal world of multilingual male sex-shoppers, corrupt Marathi-speaking policemen and toilers and brokers speaking every variety of Hindi, Tamil and Gujarati. As they organized themselves into the self-help group called Mahila Milan to escape their previous professions, learn other modes of livelihood and achieve housing security, they remained for decades confined to pavement dwellings in their original working neighborhoods. But they also learned to work and cooperate with the largely male membership of the National Slum Dwellers Federation, many of whom are Tamil-speakers from Dharavi and its nearby Tamil-dominated neighborhoods far to the North of Nagpada. These Tamil-speaking men represented a different set of histories and trajectories, often less than sympathetic to the sex workers (as most Mumbai males would be) and were also further advanced in the strategies of Mumbai housing politics and civic survival. Emerging from the complex occupational and political world of Dharavi and its environs, they were already fairly skilled in dealing with their own Tamil underworld, with its Muslim extensions, (since some of the most prominent members of Mumbai's underworld in the period from 1950 to 1980 were Tamils, both Hindu and Muslim). They were likewise deeply experienced in operating in the fringe world constituted in the nexus of ward politics, crime, police and slum land-lords and thus brought a more sophisticated set of political assets to the Alliance. The transactions between these two micro-cultures in Mumbai (the Muslim female ex-sex-workers of Mahila Milan and the largely male Tamil-speaking working class men of the NSDF) already required more than a modest negotiation of cultural styles and gaps in the mosaic of Mumbai's class, language and sexual politics. This on-going negotiation, which has direct implications for the overall strategies of the Alliance in Mumbai, is one example of the daily struggles to negotiate cultural differences among the poorest of the urban poor in Mumbai. Such cosmopolitanism is hard won, unsupported as it is by the apparatus of literacy, cultural privilege or by the practices of leisure and self-cultivation.
Such cosmopolitanism is hard won, unsupported as it is by the apparatus of literacy, cultural privilege or by the practices of leisure and self-cultivation.
This micro-cosmopolitanism of the urban poor underwrites and supports numerous wider arenas and contexts for the practice of cosmopolitanism. Perhaps the most important of these pertains to the periodic and catastrophic episodes of violence between Hindus and Muslims in Mumbai, notably in December 1992 and January 1993, after the destruction of the Babri Masjid by Hindu fundamentalist mobs in the city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. In these bloody riots, which largely produced death and destruction among the poorest members of Mumbai's Hindu and Muslim slums, the areas dominated by the defeated communities of the Alliance were able to minimize street violence and harm to the Muslim minority, were active in distributing aid and support to riots victims from both communities and were vital contributors in the efforts to resist inflammatory propaganda and to cool the embers of inter-communal enmity. This remains a marked strength of the Alliance in a city that has grown increasingly susceptible to the volatile nexus that links urban poverty, local fundamentalist politics, nationalist Hindu politics, anti-Pakistan hysteria and the constant stimulation of the global "war on terror." This grass-roots secularism, documented by many observers, means more in a city in which almost half the population of almost sixteen million lives in slums composed of Hindus and Muslims living cheek by jowl, than the high-level hand-wringing of the high theorists of Indian secularism, for whom secularism has less to do with the struggles of the urban poor for daily survival in India's cities and has more to do with constitutional values and modernist respectability, not easily graspable by India's poor and illiterate masses in their abstract forms .
Nor does local cosmopolitanism among the urban poor begin and end with grassroots secularism. It also extends to public rallies, political oratory and linguistic traffic with local, national and international elites. When Hilary Clinton or Colin Powell or Prince Charles have paid visits to the homes and offices of NSDF and Mahila Milan in Mumbai, they have been drawn into the spaces and discourses of the poor and though linguistic translation is an ever present activity, the terms of the traffic have been so designed as to foreground the voices of the poor, with their stories and experiences foregrounded in preference to the voices of experts and other mediators. These encounters, which have been numerous over the years, have brought leaders of every variety into contact with the poorest men and women of the Alliance, to discuss their plans, their hopes, their strategies and their list of real needs for support and assistance. These encounters build on the experiences of the micro-cosmopolitanism of daily life in Mumbai that I have briefly described, and on the confidence developed in the efforts of these men and women to negotiate their own diversity of worlds in Mumbai.
But these encounters also build on another form of encounter which has been described elsewhere and is vital to the transnational politics of the global network of urban communities to which the India alliance belongs. These are the learning exchanges between members of these communities, in small groups, who travel to each other's communities across Africa, Asia and even England, united by a common concern with homelessness and urban housing security. In these encounters, the urban poor of immensely diverse communities (from Cape Town and Johannesburg to Mumbai, Manila and Bangkok) share stories, songs, strategies and public oratory with each other, sometimes in intimate and informal contexts and sometimes in large-scale political and public events, in which politicians, policy-makers and urban elites are drawn into a space of cross-national cosmopolitanism which they neither define nor control. The cultural politics of these large-scale events is subtle and multi-layered for they combine local, national, regional and global traffic and creative negotiation. Speeches and songs might switch across two or three local languages or dialects, dances might celebrate three of four countries or continents, cultural performances might present slum-dwellers' interpretations of high cultural dance or song forms (such as Zulu dances in Durban or Koli fishing community dances in Mumbai). These public dramas always foreground the presence of leaders from the poor communities themselves, thus pulling various middle-class elites, global celebrities, or civil society intelligentsia (such as myself) into a completely non-theorized, non-elite form of cultural imagination, performance and negotiation.
sometimes in large-scale political and public events, in which politicians, policy-makers and urban elites are drawn into a space of cross-national cosmopolitanism which they neither define nor control
Many elements of these practices of micro-cosmopolitanism and transnational cultural bridge-building were caught in an extraordinary event in New York in 2001, Istanbul +5, in which I was privileged to participate. The context was a major meeting about global urban housing hosted by the United Nations at its global headquarters in New York, in the heart of the most sophisticated cosmopolis in the world. The world of non-governmental organizations was not granted much space in this event, which was dominated by official country delegations and recognized multilateral bodies such as the UNCHS. Yet the members of Slum / Shack Dwellers International managed to stage an extraordinary piece of guerrilla theater by securing permission to build a model house and a set of model toilets right in the lobby of the United Nations building, with informal materials and their own labor, in the very presence of the hundreds of official delegates from many countries. The core participants from the Alliance were a group of fifteen or so men and women from the India and South African nodes of the network and a handful of civil society activists associated with them. The small model house and the children's toilets attracted so much attention from everyone who passed through the lobby of the UN that, in the midst of the conference, there was a tidal movement from the corridors of the UN: all of a sudden Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the UN, and Anna Tibaijuka , the Executive Director of UNCHS, were in the midst of the informal exhibits surrounded by a dancing, singing, ululating group of women from South Africa and India, and an even larger crowd of curious delegates and visitors in suits, who followed this spontaneous political drama through the lobby of the UN. Some short speeches were delivered and the luminaries swept away but for a few brief moments, the political power and magic of the UN had been drawn into the space of the urban poor and the highest representatives of the United Nations were surrounded by the voices, the songs, the dances and the physical exhibits of the poorest of the poor - their true constituency. They knew it was a magical moment and so did everyone else. It was a fully cosmopolitan moment, staged by the poorest women and men from slum communities in Africa and India, who had the long experience of their own micro-cosmopolitanisms to draw on when the opportunity presented itself - however briefly - to capture the charisma of the United Nations on their own terms. And in such events can be found the significance of cosmopolitanism from below, the topic of my concluding reflections.
Cosmopolitanism and the Politics of Hope In my earlier work on the communities and organizations that constitute the Indian node of this global network of the urban poor, I stressed the local practices and values that underlie what I called the "deep democracy" of this movement, and subsequently of the ways in which the Alliance was able to build among the urban poor what I called "the capacity to aspire". In this concluding section, I connect my account of "cosmopolitanism from below" to the structures of deep democracy and the conditions for developing the capacity to aspire, since together these are the raw materials of the politics of hope for the world's urban poor.
Uganda federation banner outside a community meeting in Jinja, Uganda. Flickr: shackdwellersinternational
Cosmopolitanism tends to be seen as a practice relevant to cultural identity and individual self-enhancement. Consequently, it is not often tied to the broader political economy of rights, resources and recognition. This is an impoverished view of cosmopolitanism, for among the many ways in which the poor are excluded from the benefits of participation, especially in multicultural democracies, is by their exclusion from the institutions of education, career-building, expertise, and the opportunities to expand their sense of their own possibilities for self-development. This deficit has, of course, long been recognized in national and global policies of development and modernization, especially those associated with the movements for economic modernization in the new nations that emerged after World War II. Similar impulses to draw the poor into mass politics through the mechanisms of mass education also had some precedents in the great social revolutions of Russia and China in the twentieth century, and in a more modest way in the social revolutions of the eighteenth century in England, France and the United States, all of which helped to deepen the links between popular sovereignty and the elimination of poverty. But this historical trend towards mass education, itself certainly a product of the Enlightenment emphasis on the link between the ideals of knowledge, education and social equality, has generally involved a greater emphasis on technical skills, basic literacy and formal educational capacities at various levels, as the keys to democratization. This emphasis is not in itself mistaken, but it tends to underestimate the political significance of cosmopolitanism as a tool of enfranchisement in its own right.
This emphasis ... tends to underestimate the political significance of cosmopolitanism as a tool of enfranchisement in its own right.
Let us think again about the kinds of practice through which the urban slum dwellers I have described struggle to extend their cultural worlds, starting near their own worlds in (and even within) Mumbai. These practices require them to imagine their everyday worlds, and the conditions of their own daily survival and security, initially and always, in a multilingual and multicultural space. That is because in a city like Mumbai, it is never easy to separate language, caste and religion from matters of class, power and spatial privilege. And nor is it that these differences map neatly on to one another so that one's peers are cultural familiars (in one or other way) and the powers that be are one's cultural others. Difference of some sort is both horizontal and vertical and the poor (eight million strong, one must recall) are as divided from one another in terms of language, religion and caste as they might be from the eight million citizens of Mumbai who are better off than they are. Thus all cultural transactions require negotiation and all negotiation has a cultural dimension. Language is the most visible (and audible) arena for this negotiation but it also serves as an example for other sites of difference, such as region of origin, religion or caste, none of which are without relevance to the urban poor, however destitute they may be.
Thus the struggle to extend one's cultural horizons, linguistically and otherwise, is non-optional and that too in two regards. It is compulsory in the effort to build horizontal solidarities, for example, between the Muslim women of Mahila Milan and the Tamil men of the NSDF, but it is also compulsory in their efforts to deal with the police, the banks, the municipal authorities, and the middle classes that dominate urban policy. Most important, the extension of one's cultural horizons in a democratic society is compulsory for the urban poor because the language of mass democratic politics is rarely singular across all political parties, candidates and constituencies, especially in cities like Mumbai but to some extent even in cities in more linguistically homogeneous areas (such as Bangalore in Karnataka or Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh). Even in a city like Surat in Gujarat, the closer one gets to the political reality of actual neighborhoods, wards and political constituencies, the greater the variety of dialects and languages, even in a broadly mono-linguistic world. To some extent, this is the nature of large cities, which frequently grow through migrations over large distances over long time periods.
The compulsory nature of cosmopolitanism for the urban poor also makes it a more reliable resource for the practices of deep democracy. Deep democracy is democracy near at hand, the democracy of neighborhood, community, kinship and friendship, expressed in the daily practices of information-sharing, house and toilet-building, and savings (seen as the foundation of federation-building all across this global network). Deep democracy is the democracy of suffering and of trust; of work and of slum defense (against demolition and displacement); of small-scale borrowings and repayments; and, above all, of the daily recognition in every organized activity of these communities that women are the most vital sources of continuity, community, patience and wisdom in the struggle to maintain everyday security in the face of constant crisis and threat from many directions. Deep democracy precedes what happens at the ballot-box, the political rally and the government office, though it supports and energizes all of these. Deep democracy - especially in India, where poverty is mostly expressed in the form of abjection, subordination and mechanical deference to all and sundry, especially to the rich and the powerful - is the transformation of constitutional bourgeois ideals into daily forms of consciousness and behavior, in which debate can be respectfully conduced, the voices of the weak, the very poor and women especially is accorded full regard, and where transparency in the conduct of disputes and differences becomes a habitual practice. Deep democracy is public democracy as it is internalized into the lifeblood of local communities and made into a part of the local habitus, in the sense made famous by Pierre Bourdieu.
All these practices and expressions of deep democracy rest on new habits of communication, and since even the smallest communities of the urban poor involve accidents that bring people with different cultural backgrounds and regional histories into the same pavements or informal settlements, compulsory cosmopolitanism is the absolute condition for keeping deep democracy alive. For without the daily extension of one's linguistic and cultural horizons, how can an organized group of poor men and women debate the choice of a Hindu woman and neighbor to spend some of the money she borrowed from community savings on saris for her daughter's wedding? Or the pressure on a Muslim grandmother with an early history as a sex-worker to celebrate her grandson's wedding with as much pomp and public expenditure as possible, in the drive for respectability? Or the merits of a Railway construction worker's claim on community small-group savings to support travel to his father's funeral? In every case, compulsory cosmopolitanism and deep democracy require and sustain one another since the stretching of one's cultural and linguistic horizons is the sine qua non of engaged debate on these vital matters of trust, scarce collective resources and obligations. Such democratic debate also reinforces the virtues of cultural self-extension, in the harsh, often emergency conditions of slum life.
compulsory cosmopolitanism and deep democracy require and sustain one another since the stretching of one's cultural and linguistic horizons is the sine qua non of engaged debate on these vital matters of trust, scarce collective resources and obligations
And this leads us to the topic of the capacity to aspire. In my earlier discussion, I referred to the capacity to aspire as a navigational capacity, unequally distributed among wealthier and poorer communities, that allows people to make their way from more proximate needs to more distant aspirational worlds. I argued also that this capacity was less developed among poor communities (both rural and urban) precisely because the archive of experiences and stories through which wealthier communities were able to build the sinews of the imagination which underlie the capacity to aspire is precisely what the poor lack, this experiential deficit being virtually the hallmark of poverty.
Hum Ladenge Sathi... Flickr: Joe Athialy
Thus, I proposed that the struggle between individuals and communities over the terms of recognition, an essential part of the effort of poor families to improve their place in local economies of dignity, could only be improved by enhancing the capacity to aspire. This set of connected arguments about the capacity to aspire rested on the view that for any durable change to occur in the distribution of resources, the poor needed to be empowered to gain and exercise "voice", a fact that has been widely recognized by development scholars and practitioners. What has not been adequately recognized is that for "voice" to be regularly and effectively exercised by the poor, in conditions of radical inequalities in power and dignity, required permanent enhancements of their collective capacity to aspire. In this proposal, I suggested that the daily organizational work and public rituals of the Alliance were an excellent example of organized communities of the poor who had discovered numerous ways to strengthen their own capacity to aspire and, in the process, had found ways to draw those in power into various formal and informal agreements to cooperate in this process.
If we can retain the idea that changes in the distribution of the capacity to aspire could dramatically affect the terms of recognition for poor communities of every type, then compulsory cosmopolitanism becomes a vital source of energy for this objective. For both the micro-cosmopolitanism of the federated communities of the urban poor which I have discussed above and the practices which enhance the capacity to aspire draw on the habit of imagining possibilities, rather than giving in to the probabilities of externally imposed change. Imagining possible futures, concrete in their immediacy as well as expansive in their long-term horizons, inevitably thrives on communicative practices that extend one's own cultural horizons. As these horizons are extended by poor families and communities, they gain plausible access to the stories and experiences of others, not just of adversity and suffering but also of movement and accomplishment. In a multilingual and multicultural world, the expansion of this archive, through the dynamics of compulsory cosmopolitanism, adds speed and depth to the strengthening of the capacity to aspire, whose main fuel lies in credible stories (from one's own life-world) of the possibility to move forward, outward and upward, even as one tends a leaking roof or a sick child in a fragile pavement dwelling on the streets of Nagpada.