The Mumbai gawkers

December 1, 2008


Imagine taking a DJ to a funeral or U.S. President George W Bush taking Oliver Stone along to Ground Zero after the 9/11 attack. Would you call it inappropriate? I think the word doesn’t even begin to describe Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh’s actions on Sunday afternoon.

On a visit to the ravaged Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, he was accompanied by his son, actor Riteish Deshmukh, and filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma, both of them strolling around as if it were a normal walk in the park.

That a city already grappling with rage and grief had to see images of Varma walking around the Taj like he was location hunting for a new film, speaks volumes about the sheer apathy and callousness of the people in power.

Varma says he was never invited to the Taj, nor does he intend to make a film on the terror attacks, telling Reuters in a text message that he “just happened to be with Riteish, whom I know very well.”

TV channels are reporting as I write that Deshmukh has offered to resign, as has his deputy R R Patil. 

In my mind though, this callous attitude is not just limited to our politicians alone. We criticise them for being insensitive, but what about the thousands of people who came out to gawk at the burning Taj and click pictures of themselves in its backdrop?

“This has turned into some kind of a macabre tourist spot,” a colleague said to me.

And it wasn’t just the Taj. At Nariman House, while NSG commandos were struggling to get inside the besieged house, there were hordes of people out in the narrow street, just gawking at the grenades and gun fire.

As policemen tried to push the crowds back, telling them that a grenade might burst any moment, one teenager refused to move.

“So what if there is a bomb, it’s not going to walk over here and burst on my head is it,” he cheekily told the policeman.

That’s not all. There were people peering out of street corners, clicking pictures, hoisting their children on their shoulders so they could get a better view, and excitedly calling up friends on their cellphones saying “Guess what, I am at the Taj, and I can see it burning!”

As a nation, I understand that we are angry and outraged at the callous behaviour of our politicians but I am not sure many of us were any better.


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Ramu G was the Maharashtra govt’s only credible source on the underworld.

Posted by Madhu | Report as abusive

Shilpa, I dont really see anything wrong in this. Who knows Ramu makes up his mind to a film tomoro and who knows it may come out as a masterpiece only because he has the first hand experience of the situation. At the the end of the day, he is an artist and what’s wrong if he used his connection to get access to Taj. I guess that’s a much much better thing than allowing these jokers from TV channels inside Taj (who keeps on shouting EXXXCLUSIVE on this TV that TV).

Deshmukhs opponents have got a chance and they will be after his blood. But as a sensible journo, pls stay away from these kind of things. He didnt invite Ramu for a high tea there. Ramu just took a chnace and again lemme say there’s nothing wrong in it I can see.

Posted by Santosh | Report as abusive

Completely agree with your view points…there are many among us who are plain insensitive and callous. God help us from all this “tamsaha”…until we develop some common sense.

Posted by Prashanth | Report as abusive

Shilpa, after the tsunami that ravaged parts of our country’s coastal lines in 2004, I have seen both foreign and Indian tourists stopping their Marutis and SUVs to ask me directions to “where it all happnened” in Tamil Nadu.

It apalled me then and it does the same now. I want to give the Maharashtra CM, his son and Varma the benifit of doubt as to what urgent work they had at the Taj Hotel soon after the bloody siege was over.

It will be wrong to say that as a nation we are a callous people because the grief and shock outpouring at the lives wasted is genuine. Our nation is what it is – a mix of the cruel, indifferent, complex and surprisingly embracing – because of its people.

Posted by rituparna | Report as abusive

I totally agree with you on your observation that the Common Man on the street was watching the Operation as though it was an enacted street play. They were completely oblivious to the fact that the police and the commandos required that the entire area was cordoned off to ensure least loss of lives outside of the these buildings. Equally it shows lack of crisis management on the part of the local police, who did not cordon off the area and secure it for the commandos to do their job. All in all, it simply shows how we as Indian citizens only know how to demand our Rights (in this particular case – Right to Life under the Constitution of India)without truly playing our respective role of Obligations we owe in order to receive those Rights !!!

Posted by Sunitha Narahari | Report as abusive

India is a big, populated country and all types of people live here – the refined and the crude both abound. We are sensitive and we lack sensitivity, we are clean and we are dirty, we are educated and we are (educated) illiterate. It’ll remain like this for some time.

Posted by raj | Report as abusive

Oh god! Someone at last shares the same views. There are lots of Indians who just act like monkeys in chaotic situations. I cannot comprehend, what is that they want to see, they just do not understand the concepts such as civics, responsibility and politeness.

Posted by Neo | Report as abusive

the people do not and the Government does not want to open the book of the past to see if amendment to the approach to the India Pakistan past is right, whether at one time we belonged to the same nation, whether our lives were common. The hysteria in the public to punish Pakistan and the Muslims is amplified by the politicians so as to prevent once for all any rapproachment and any give and take, and this foreboded the terrorist attack.

Posted by Syed Azmathullah | Report as abusive

i guess its just a lack of education…where would a common indian person learn the best thing to do when faced with gunfire or grenades? whereas in the west even schoolchildren are taught what to do in case of an emergency. and well..i’ve seen people pose for pictures at the new york ground zero memorial too..such people are everywhere..

Posted by Ankila | Report as abusive

I agree that we as a nation have lost lot of sensitivities & this becomes very obvious at such moments of crisis. Unless one is directly afflicted , we consider such agonies as that of somebody else’s. Perhaps centuries of supression has made us a very cowardly nation which we wrongly interpret as peace-loving ones. Whatever momentary anger we witness among people should not be allowed to die down so easily.

Posted by usha gupta | Report as abusive

In case our typical modern Indian gets some time off from trying become the richest man in the world or the most beautiful girl who marries the richest man in the world Just think about what the following statement means

“Sometimes i feel that the terrorists attacked not because they had something against us but because we were weak as a nation.And in our race to prove ourselves superior to our fellow country men we have lost our National Integrity.”

Posted by Joy Chowdhury | Report as abusive

As CM making an official visit to a terror or disaster site, he has no business taking along family & friends. Those accompanying him should have been others in an official capacity, such as deputy CM, MP, or police heads, for ex. Is RGV the official historical videographer for Maharastra now? If not, he doesn’t belong there. Mr Deshmukh must have known how bad it would look to bring him along… I can just see it on next year’s banner: “RGV ki Mumbai’s 9/11″, releasing fall 2009..

As for all the onlookers and journalists literally intermingled with the police, standing just meters away from terrorist attack, I am just amazed. Even if they don’t value their own lives, don’t they see that they are literally hampering police action? The police not only have to solve the terror crisis, but they now have to protect not only the hostages inside but all the looky-loos outside??

This 50-hour broadcast was effectively an infomercial to the terror orgs worldwide, basically inviting them to attack india or mumbai, showing them how easy it is, how understaffed the police are, how they can’t handle the crowds, and how the crowds have no civic sense of security or safety. If you attack here, you don’t even need to retreat in hotels – just step outside and open fire on all the clueless onlookers and grandstanding journalists.

Posted by Reflections On Life | Report as abusive

I agree with most of your observations. There are people who were losing their lives or who were battling to save them. What memories do people want to carry by photographing themselves in the backdrop of such a painful site. There seems to be complete loss of sensitivity by few to the pains of others or how much they could be hampering the work of security personnel at such critical times. Ideally the youth who commented about the bomb should be kept in a police station for half a day and then sent home for being so casual about the developments around one of the biggest attacks on our soil.

Posted by Srikanth | Report as abusive

It was equally disgusting to see crowds hooting & clapping after a bomb had been diffused during the bangalore blasts. It was almost like there was some street circus happening.

Posted by Rem | Report as abusive

Shilpa, I agree with you on this. All the while we kept blaming the politicians and the security agencies for the Mumbai terror attacks. But is it not that we have gone wrong somewhere. No one talked about the irresponsible and ‘ugly’ reporting of the media in the entire episode. With clearly no care of situation at hand, potentially putting the entire rescue operation at risk.

And what about our own behaviour, even in the midst of an extreme situation we remain the same. The people out there on the streets at Nariman House would surely be an educated lot, obviously though being educated is not the same as being wise. Even those taking snaps of the Taj would belong the well educated inspite of which we remain insensitive to everything.

As the saying goes – “People get the leaders they deserve”

Posted by Abhilash | Report as abusive

In America there are hundreds of traffic jams everyday.These are caused by the public stopping to gawk.We are no better or different.

Posted by lawrence warner | Report as abusive

To add to this, Two years ago when Mumbai experienced the train bombings many people (gawkers) started to go inside the damaged train and steal things and also some rail tracks where stolen.

I was so mad. Honestly, It’s a crime scene and no one can tamper with important evidence. Some people just don’t understand this and I guess it goes back to education.

Posted by Aaron | Report as abusive

Would be feel better if there was no one over at TAJ and people just went about their business – ‘I want a boat ride to Elephanta please, O? No I don’t really care to see it burning. Do you?’


Posted by sneha | Report as abusive

Stop imposing your idea of how a person should act in any situation. Leave the common man alone…

Rather it is worth your while if you write about our corrupt politicians and on the lack of training & professionalism of our security infrastructure…

as far as the tastless media coverage, well this is free market and we just need to bear this until a better news channel comes up…

Posted by Madhu S | Report as abusive

Don’t tell me that people here in America don’t slow down to take a look at an accident.

Except for the foreign journos who were not trying to start any theories. All the Indian reporters and news channels were coming out with their own stories and theories. This shows inexperience as reporters nothing else.

Posted by David D | Report as abusive

Shilpa, I agree tragedy tourism is quite common in India. And I think its more common in big cities where people just like to stand by and watch while in smaller cities/towns there are less of bystanders and more of those who get involved and help.

Posted by dinesh | Report as abusive

First half of your article was heartening, shows how one should not behave, but what do you mean by gawking? Looking at Taj burning or rushing to the place ,watching it with curiosity or clicking pictures of evidence! And it’s the anxiety or curiosity or whatever we may term it! It is in everyone of us! I feel no one can stop anyone from gawking and even you the writer would have gawked when you were at Taj! or did you walk away with a smile “oh taj is burning is it?”. That is human nature and security cordoning off should be strict and in a heavily populated India it’s difficult to avoid people who are not educated as you or me! So as rightly pointed out by someone looting happens at times of tragedy and i propose death sentence for those censored idiots! Gawking and Media…after the right combo!

Posted by Kumar | Report as abusive

Apathy has become a part of the Indian life. The Mumbai blasts have just become a sad spectacle of a troubled nation. Politicians are a product of the society they live in, and politicians show a severe lack of responsibility, as millions of their faithful voters would do. Hoping for sensitive,sensible politicians is hoping for a change of our very attitude.

A friend of mine was commenting how India needs to wage a war for ending terrorism and how people are spineless and many others expressed sympathy for this view. As for me, it is surprising that how many people would like to throw all the blame on another country.

This is a time for strong but sensible stance for India, not wishful thinking and fantastic dreams of rooting out all the terrorists. It has to be accepted that terrorists would keep coming and it is how we choose to handle the threats, gather intelligence and act that is going to help us in thelong run.

Posted by Rangarajan | Report as abusive