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Punish Parochial Hate-Mongering

Bring the Thackerays to book!

by Praful Bidwai, 9 March 2008

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After much dilly-dallying, the Mumbai police finally arrested Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray last week for inciting ethnic violence and rioting. This is a non-bailable offence, which entails imprisonment for up to 3 years. Yet, Mr Thackeray was released on bail within a mere 3 hours. He doesn’t deny that his supporters indulged in violence against North Indians, but says that was a "reaction" to "provocations" by Samajwadi Party leaders.

Mr Thackeray should of course be thoroughly prosecuted. But it’s unlikely that the Maharashtra government will carry the trial through to the end. It arrested him mainly at Ms Sonia Gandhi’s instance. To appear "even-handed", it also filed identical charges against SP leader Abu Azmi—although the two men’s conduct was significantly different ever since Mr Thackeray launched a vicious tirade against Amitabh Bacchan on February 1 and incited brutal attacks on poor North Indian vegetable-vendors and taxi-drivers for being "disloyal" to Maharashtra, its language and culture.

The fact that Mr Thackeray brazenly turned up at the wedding of the daughter of Mumbai Police Commissioner DN Jadhav after unleashing violence, and that Mr Jadhav welcomed him, speaks to a high mutual comfort level between the police and MNS. Going by the law, the police should have detained him on February 1 for 30 days under Section 151(3) of the IPC to prevent him from inciting violence, say former senior officers like ex-DGP Julio Ribeiro..

Past experience proves that the Maharashtra government lacks the will to punish hate speech directed at "outsiders" or the religious minorities. Despite promises, it has failed to implement the Srikrishna report, which recommends prosecution of the culprits of the 1992-93 violence that broke out after the Babri demolition.

Going by its January 16 affidavit in the Supreme Court, the government has decided not to reopen the 1,371 cases pertaining to the campaign of murder, arson and looting instigated by the leaders of the MNS’s "mother party", the Shiv Sena. These include 9 "open-and-shut" cases against Sena supremo Bal Thackeray for inflammatory writing through which he virtually directed the anti-Muslim rioting that led to 1,500 killings.

Meanwhile, a deplorable contest has erupted between the SS and MNS to claim the "sons of the soil" mantle. Sena leaders criticise Mr Raj Thackeray for attacking Bacchan—his uncle’s personal friend—, but say nothing about his ultra-chauvinist collective demonisation of Uttar Pradeshis and Biharis. Indeed, they have replicated his chauvinism by blackening signboards at Mumbai airport and demanding exclusive job reservation for Maharashtrians there.

Why did he MNS take to malicious rabble-rousing against Mumbai’s North Indians at this time? Apart from the fact that it has done badly in elections and failed to emerge as a force after splitting from the Sena two years ago, the answer lies in the coming Assembly elections. Owing to the delimitation process, the number of constituencies in Mumbai’s Northeastern suburbs and Thane, where the Northern presence is strong, will rise.

Both the SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party have been wooing this group. The latest party to join the scramble for that vote is none other than the Sena. This offered an easy target to Mr Raj Thackeray, who has been in search of an emotive issue to revive his party. Bacchan was his surrogate target; the real aim being to seize the "Marathi Manoos" platform as a shortcut to so-far-elusive political success.

In adopting this low-level tactic, Mr Thackeray was only following his uncle, who has cynically forged Marathi chauvinism, coupled with rabid Hindutva, into a political instrument to create a profoundly reactionary force with terrible consequences for the Indian nation, and for Maharashtra and Mumbai and their people too.

Make no mistake. The Shiv Sena represents a violent attempt to roll back the social gains Maharashtra made through its relatively early embrace of modernity and the values of the Enlightenment, including reason, liberty, equality and tolerance. Some of these came from the Social Reform movement going back to the 19th century, and the legacy of Shahu Maharaj, Jyotiba Phule and Ambedkar which strongly opposes chauvinism and communal parochialism, and has disdain for manipulative politics and for intimidation, violence and goon tactics.

The Sena concentrates all that’s rotten in the dark culture of a narrow-minded, insular, insecure middle class, with its potent inferiority complex, and its propensity to blame others—most expediently, "outsiders"—for its own shortcomings. The Sena carried a big appeal for the followers of the Shivaji cult and played on rancour among a section of Maharashtrians at the fact that their struggle for a Samyukta (unified) Maharashtra succeeded politically in 1960, but that they remained "subalterns" economically: Mumbai, the "jewel in the crown", wasn’t "Marathi enough"; its economic levers were controlled by non-Maharashtrians.

Tragically, this resentment took the form of attacks on far-from-privileged South Indians although they by no means controlled the levers, held firmly by Gujarati and Marwari businessmen. Working-class South Indians (especially Malayalis) active in Mumbai’s vibrant trade union movement were specifically targeted for violent attacks.

Mr Thackeray exploited discontent among Marathi working class youth at the multiplying closures of Mumbai’s textile mills and growing unemployment, which left them with a bleak future. He gave the discontent a malignantly parochial and communal expression. This was meant to undermine Mumbai’s unique cosmopolitan culture, a melange of different strands and influences bound together by an urbane modernism, and to reduce it to a provincial town.

The Sena was recruited from Day One by Mumbai’s industrialists. Its deeper purpose was to smash trade unions and impose the despotic rule of the owners. There’s hardly a Business House that didn’t finance SS stormtroopers or use them as strike-breakers. The Sena set up a range of rackets—collecting "protection" money from "vadapav" stalls all the way to big builders, financing films, and running bogus "ambulance services".

Mr Bal Thackeray went from success to business and political success thanks to the indulgence of the Congress-led state governments of the 1960s and 1970s, which were keen to liquidate or neutralise the Left and offer Mumbai as an investment counter-magnet to Calcutta, then in industrial decline, partly because of labour problems. He sang the virtues of fascism and built a Hitler-like personality cult around himself

Mayhem ruled in Mumbai as the Sena thrived, terrorising, first, South Indians, then Gujaratis—whose business leaders quickly bought off its opposition—, and then, Muslims, an even more vulnerable group. Mumbai became a city of prejudice and hatred, fear and loathing, character assassination and lynching of innocents.

Soon, the Sena’s influence spread to other parts of Maharashtra. It fashioned its identity on a nauseatingly macho Hindu chauvinism masquerading as nationalism, of the kind that takes pride in digging up cricket pitches to prevent Pakistan from playing, and depicts all Muslims as "traitors". The Bharatiya Janata Party bestowed respectability on this disgusting hate politics 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 is likely to accelerate after Mr Bal Thackeray’s death. The MNS split was a result of this decline, but it’s itself in trouble. Its anti-immigrant campaign is unlikely to find much resonance in Mumbai or Maharashtra. This is because the proportion of migrants in Mumbai’s population sharply declined from 66 percent in 1961 to 43 percent in 2001. The proportion of migrants from within Maharashtra fell from 27 percent to 16. Migrants from other states declined from 34 to 26 percent. Particularly sharp was the fall in the number of Southern migrants—down from 10 to 6 percent.

By contrast, the proportion of migrants from UP and Bihar rose one-and-a-half times, but its absolute magnitude is very low: 12 percent. These are largely rural, unskilled and poor people, who work in highly labour-intensive and low-paid occupations such as delivering newspapers and milk, vending vegetables and fish, carrying heavy loads, couriering letters, or doing domestic chores. Most old settlers, who are doing well thanks to skyrocketing property values, refuse such work. Without the Northern migrants, Mumbai’s economy would grind to a halt.

That’s one reason why attacks on them don’t evoke much sympathy. Another is that they have done a great deal to assimilate themselves to Mumbai’s hybrid culture—although language remains a problem. Perhaps an even more important reason is that few people want chaos and violence in Mumbai today. Sentiments simply aren’t inflamed to that level. Even Mr Raj Thackeray can’t afford much disorder. As a builder-property developer, he’s too deeply invested in Mumbai’s status quo to risk trouble.

The Maharashtra government should stop mollycoddling Mr Thackeray, and speedily prosecute him. He and his co-practitioners of hate politics have enjoyed impunity for far too long. This must end. Bringing them to justice in an exemplary manner is a Constitutional, moral and political imperative.