Why Mumbai has shut down today

As Bal Thackeray grapples with life, there’s an eerie silence in Mumbai. Rickshaws and taxis are largely off the roads, and even private cars are scarce, compared to the average day. Shops and other commercial establishments have voluntarily decided to stay shut. On Twitter, a user said that he reached his office in 25 minutes, as opposed to a daily 60 minute commute.

"The city police aren’t taking any chances and are present in large numbers throughout the city. Rapid Action Force personnel have been deployed around Matoshree (the Thackerays' residence) and other sensitive areas as the administration attempted to keep a grip on the situation in the city.

The Times of India reported that the entire state has been put on high alert after Thackeray’s health deteriorated. The newspaper reported that a wireless message had been sent to all senior police officials to deploy all necessary forces,” Firstpost says in our live updates on Thackeray’s health situation, which we began earlier this morning.

The city has remained on edge as it awaited news about the Shiv Sena president's health. PTI

To people bemused by the thought of a city shutting down and the police forces being placed on high alert, it’s probably caused by the history of the passing away of leaders in India with a cult, fanatical following and the aftermath in recent incidents.

It’s not just any leader. Personalities like MG Ramachandran and Karnataka actor Rajkumar, represented the hopes and aspirations of their supporters and fans. As a consequence, the deaths of these two were treated as personal losses by, literally, millions of followers.

Individuals who gather together form a ‘mob’ and this is the trigger for the violence – because the individual is ‘de-individualised’.“De-individuation obviously does not occur every time people get together in a group, and there are some group characteristics that increase the likelihood of violence, such as group size and physical anonymity.

First, many people believe they cannot be held responsible for violent behavior when part of a mob because they perceive the violent action as the group’s (e.g., “everyone was doing it”) rather than their own behavior. When in a large group, people tend to experience a diffusion of responsibility. Typically, the bigger a mob, the more its members lose self-awareness and become willing to engage in dangerous behavior.  Second, physical anonymity also leads to a person experiencing fewer social inhibitions.  When people feel that their behavior cannot be traced back to them, they are more likely to break social norms and engage in violence,” says Tamara Avant.

It is the possibility of this kind of behaviour which is causing the government and the police forces to be extra cautious in dealing with the millions of individuals who will want to mourn the death of Thackeray – and the moment they converge, they will become deindividualised.

Take the instance of MGR’s death. On 24 December 1987, popular Tamil filmstar and three time  chief minister of Tamil Nadu, MG Ramachandran (MGR), passed away after a long illness. His death, caused by kidney failure, complicated by diabetes, a mild heart attack and a massive stroke, sparked riots and looting across Tamil Nadu, with the targets being commercial establishments and even private property, prompting the police to resort to shoot-at-sight orders.  Twenty-nine people died in the violence immediately after the funeral, and the violence continued for more than a month after his death. Thirty fans of MGR committed suicide in a show of sorrow.

In April 2006, Karnataka filmstar Rajkumar passed away, leading to riots similar to the ones witnessed after MGR’s death.

“Riots in the Indian city of Bangalore following the death of leading film star Rajkumar cost businesses there millions of dollars, officials say.

Eight people, including a policeman, were killed in violence on Thursday as tens of thousands of mourners attended the funeral of the screen legend.

Unrest forced more than 1,000 IT firms and other businesses to shut before calm returned on Friday, reports say…

Software firms alone lost about $40m because they had to shut, according to TV Mohandas Pai, chief financial officer at India's leading IT firm, Infosys.

Infosys itself had lost some $4m, he told Reuters news agency,” reported BBC.

Hopefully, leaders of the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, have already appealed to their party workers and requested peace. “Late Wednesday, party executive president Uddhav Thackeray, through senior party colleague Ramdas Kadam issued an appeal to all party activists to "remain calm"…Later, he and cousin Raj also came out briefly to assure that Thackeray was continuing treatment and appealed for peace,” said a report .

It’s difficult to predict how things will pan out if Bal Thackeray passes away. Neither MGR nor Rajkumar died suddenly. In both cases, there was enough time for the police to anticipate the grief and the consequent violence. Let us hope, this time, we have the grief, alone.

Updated Date: Nov 15, 2012 14:28 PM

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