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Opinion and Editorial

Bringing communal bullies to book

Praful Bidwai
Filed on February 16, 2008

THE Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) is doing in Mumbai what its parent Shiv Sena did decades ago: incite ethnic violence. The police arrested its chief Raj Thackeray after much dilly-dallying. But he was quickly released. Thackeray admits his supporters indulged in violence against North Indians, but says they “reacted” to “provocations”.

He should be thoroughly prosecuted. But the Maharashtra government is unlikely to do so. It acted mainly because Sonia Gandhi pressed it. To appear “even-handed”, it also charged Samajwadi Party leader Abu Azmi.

Thackeray incited attacks on Hindi-speaking vegetable-vendors and taxi-drivers for their “disloyalty” to Maharashtra. Azmi only issued statements against him. After inciting violence, Thackeray turned up at the wedding of the daughter of the Mumbai Police Commissioner, who welcomed him — showing high mutual comfort.

The Maharashtra government lacks the will to punish hate speech directed at “outsiders” or religious minorities. It has failed to implement the Srikrishna report, which recommends prosecution of the culprits of Mumbai’s 1992-93 post-Babri demolition violence.

Going by a recent affidavit, it has decided not to reopen the 1,371 cases pertaining to murder and arson instigated by Shiv Sena leaders. These include nine “open-and-shut” cases against Bal Thackeray for inflammatory writing through which he virtually directed the killing of 1,500 Muslims.

Now, a deplorable contest has erupted between the SS and MNS to claim the chauvinist “sons of the soil” mantle. Sena leaders are blackening English signboards at Mumbai airport and demanding jobs exclusively for Maharashrians there. Why did the MNS take to rabble-rousing against North Indians at this time?

Raj Thackeray is worried that his sickly outfit won’t survive. He’s looking to the coming Assembly elections. Owing to fresh delimitation, the number of constituencies in Mumbai’s suburbs, where the Northern presence is strong, will rise. Recently, the Shiv Sena joined the SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party in wooing this group.

The Sena offered a vulnerable target to Thackeray, who has been in search of an emotive platform. In adopting this low-level tactic, Thackeray was only following his uncle, who in the 1960s cynically forged Marathi chauvinism, coupled with Hindutva, into a political instrument to create a profoundly reactionary force with terrible consequences for India, Maharashtra and Mumbai.

The Shiv Sena represents a violent attempt to roll back the social gains Maharashtra made through its relatively early embrace of modernity and enlightenment values, including reason, liberty, equality and tolerance. The Sena concentrates all that’s rotten within the dark culture of a narrow-minded, insular, insecure middle class, with a propensity to blame “outsiders” for its own shortcomings. The Sena exploited rancour among a section of Maharashtrians at the fact that their struggle for a Samyukta (unified) Maharashtra succeeded politically, but they remained “subalterns” economically: Mumbai, the “jewel in the crown”, wasn’t “Marathi enough”; its economic levers were controlled by Gujarati and Marwari businessmen.

This resentment took the form of attacks on South Indians although they didn’t control the levers. South Indians (especially Malayalis) active in the growing trade union movement were targeted for violent attacks. Thackeray exploited discontent among Marathi working class youth at the multiplying closures of textile mills and growing unemployment. He gave it a malignantly parochial expression designed to undermine Mumbai’s unique cosmopolitan culture, a melange of different influences bound together by urbane modernism, and to reduce it to a provincial town.

The Sena smashed strong trade unions and weakened the Left — at the behest of Mumbai’s industrialists. There’s hardly a Business House that didn’t use SS goons as strike-breakers. The Sena set up countless rackets — collecting “protection” money from “vadapav” stalls all the way to big builders, financing films, and running bogus “ambulance services”.

Bal Thackeray succeeded spectacularly thanks to the indulgence of Congress-led state governments, which were keen to liquidate the Left. He sang the virtues of fascism and built a Hitler-like personality cult around himself. Mayhem ruled in Mumbai as the Sena thrived, terrorising South Indians, Gujaratis — whose business leaders quickly bought off its opposition — and then, the even more vulnerable Muslims.

Mumbai became a city of slander and hatred, fear and loathing, character assassination and lynching of innocents. The Sena forged a macho Hindu-chauvinist identity masquerading as nationalism. The Bharatiya Janata Party bestowed respectability on it by becoming the Sena’s junior partner in Maharashtra, and drafting it into the National Democratic Alliance as its sole ideological ally.

The Sena is in steep decline, which will accelerate after Bal Thackeray's death. The MNS split was a result of this. The Sena-MNS anti-immigrant campaign is unlikely to find much resonance. This is because the proportion of migrants in Mumbai's population sharply declined from 66 per cent in 1961 to 43 per cent in 2001. The ratio for migrants from within Maharashtra fell from 27 per cent to 16. Migrants from other states declined from 34 to 26 per cent. Particularly sharp was the decline of Southern migrants — from 10 to six per cent. By contrast, the proportion of migrants from UP and Bihar rose one-and-a-half times, but its magnitude is very low: 12 per cent.

These are largely rural, unskilled and poor people, who do low-paid jobs like delivering newspapers and milk, vending vegetables, carrying headloads, or doing domestic chores. Most old settlers, helped by skyrocketing property values, refuse such work. Without Northern migrants, Mumbai would grind to a halt. That’s one reason why attacks on them don’t evoke sympathy. Another is that they have assimilated themselves to Mumbai’s culture. Perhaps even more important, few people want chaos and violence in Mumbai today. Even Raj Thackeray can’t afford it as a builder-property dealer. The government shouldn’t drag it feet over prosecuting Thackeray. He and his co-practitioners of hate politics must be brought to justice, so that Mumbai doesn’t suffer any more. But will the state muster the will?

Praful Bidwai is a veteran Indian journalist and commentator. He can be reached at

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