On Suprise, Violence, and the Manufacturing of Bengaluru’s Images

I’m seeing posts and articles post-riots about how nobody expected violence of this sort in Bengaluru and that the city has changed. On the day of the riots, news anchors on talk shows lamented about how the image of the city has been “damaged” and “dented”. Others complained about how this was never a part of Bengaluru’s ethos. Overall, there was a sense of surprise and disbelief at what happened on Monday.

The riots should be condemned, but the surprise with which it’s been greeted is surprising in itself. It hints at, for the lack of a better word, an ignorance of the city’s recent past, even among those who’ve lived here for years. This is not the first time riots have taken place in Bengaluru, shutting it down so comprehensively. Nor is it the first time riots have occurred over the Kaveri, placing Tamils in the city at risk.

What actually surprises me is how quickly we forget. In many ways, this erasure of collective memory is great, allowing us to get on with our lives. In other ways, it’s detrimental – deeper issues underlying the violence are ignored until the next set of riots, after which the process repeats itself.

The national and international images of Bengaluru divorce the city from certain facts. The city is not an isolated entity, it draws resources from a surrounding region which is the locus of some deep conflicts. It’s home to several identity contestations while housing large populations from both Karnataka and the rest of India, especially Tamil Nadu. It’s not just home to IT firms and start-ups, but to industries and neighbourhoods in its western half which are barely acknowledged. Much of Monday’s violence involved the intersection of these facts.

Yet, the manufacturing of Bengaluru’s image continues to ignore these inputs. Therefore, surprise results when this image is challenged, as it was on Monday. There is a need for a much more comprehensive picture of the city, one that acknowledges urgent concerns while not advocating violence. Ironically, we could see hints of such an image during the riots itself – the response by the city’s public institutions (especially the police), a relatively unambiguous outcry on social media, even condemnations of the violence by some politicians who’d taken Karnataka’s side in the Kaveri dispute.

However, more importantly, we shouldn’t let our knowledge of cities be clouded by popular images. Large-scale violence in Bengaluru may not be frequent, but has regular patterns which play around the same issues. It’s important we acknowledge these underlying issues, study them, and find ways of addressing them. As long as these issues remain problematic, surprise cannot be a response.

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