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Mumbai’s Cloistered Hearth

by Ajay K Mehra, 13 November 2008

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The Statesman, 11 November 2008

A Mockery of The Very Idea of India

When we swear by the soil, we must, adhere to the natural, geographical division. Our earth has been clearly divided into different kinds of soil regions: alluvial, volcanic, etc…. (S)ons should work only in their respective mother soils ... only those born in the alluvial soil can work in the alluvial region. They may call themselves ‘alluvians’… (and so on). People may be given identity cards with the name of the soil clearly printed on it ... Babies born in the air (planes) should be employed as pilots and air-hostesses. Nobody except the sons and daughters of the air should get these air jobs…

— Letter to the Editor, The Times of India (January 28, 1973).

Thus did a citizen ventilate his frustration at the peak of Bal Thackeray’s sons-of-the soil movement. More than three decades later, when his nephew, Raj, takes a leaf out of his political rulebook, an agitated Bihari youth gets violent and invites death. This drama, which has proceeded from the absurd to the bizarre, has claimed lives and resulted in the destruction of public and private properties during the past few months. It also makes a mockery of the very idea of India secular, multi-cultural, tolerant, non-violent.

The Constitution has incorporated this idea, and the violent MNS campaign runs counter to its spirit, particularly violating Articles 15(1&2), 16(1&2) and 19(d&e). Alas, it is still not a legally debarred and socially ostracised party.

Language of violence

Raj Thackeray’s ‘arrest and bail’ drama displayed the Maharashtra government’s kid-glove handling of, even complicity with the man. Union civil aviation minister Praful Patel’s endorsement demonstrated that a party does not become national merely on the strength of the Election Commission’s endorsement.

Raj has made a strident statement to the effect that the rulers understand only the language of violence, premeditated, indiscriminate and brutal violence against migrant workers by the goons representing his party. He thus makes a travesty of every branch of the Indian state; the statement is seditious by any legal reckoning.

Obviously, the bail granted to him by a lower court in Mumbai on an amount that he must be spending every evening on his imported Scotch and cigarettes, demonstrates a larger political game. It is a game that seeks to legitimise the extra-constitutional politics and the illegal ways of another Thackeray.

Those unaware or in selective amnesia about the rise of Bal Thackeray and his Shiv Sena during the 1960s and 70s should recall how the Congress used the Sena to break the Left stronghold in the trade union movement. Thackeray’s anti-Tamil tirade was tolerated in return. Studies on the Shiv Sena are explicit on the role of Congressmen who are senior members of the present government and call the shots. The insensitive ‘bullet for bullet’ remark by the Maharashtra Deputy CM on an incensed Bihari youth’s killing by the Mumbai police which keeps winking at gangsters exposes a larger game in creating another monster by India’s political Frankensteins.

The rise of Bal Thackeray and his Shiv Sena and their political mainstreaming despite intemperate undemocratic statements and activities revealed the soft underbelly of Indian politics. The rise of his nephew, Raj’s Sena reinforces further brutalisation of Indian politics. Have the Indians obeisant to the Thackerays ever questioned the relevance of a Sena (army) on a democratic turf? This explains the grim regularity of brutal violence in an intensely competitive electoral system where fragments of the electorate get transformed into segmented vote-banks.

This revival and continuance of the xenophobic Sena politics since the ruthless violence of the Assamese against the ‘tribal’ plantation workers in May and the unsuccessful Kashmiri militants’ diktat against migrant labour in the valley in January raises questions of constitutionality and the natural processes of migration within India. Is the spurious ‘sons of the soil’ concept of the 1960s relevant in the century signified by economic liberalisation and globalisation, a scenario that has opened vast fields for the daughters and the sons of toil?

At a time when India beacons Bharat in every field, irrespective of the traditional pull-and-push factors operative at any time, anywhere in the labour market, isn’t parochial politics a short-term nuisance? For, those resisting ‘outsiders’ in their part of the country would be declaring themselves outsiders in other parts of the country.

Indeed, migration is both a socio-economic and a political issue and has triggered agitations from time to time in different parts of the country - Hyderabad’s Mulki movement, the Assam movement, the anti-‘diku’ drive in Chhotanagpur (now Jharkhand), the anti-Bengali rhetoric of the Darjeeling Gorkha Janmukti Morcha and the continuing disquiet in the north-east. All these movements have targeted migrants.

Integral part

On the other hand, the agricultural labourers, masons and construction workers from Bihar and eastern UP, the plumbers from Orissa, and so on, have now become integral to the economy. They live and work in Punjab, J&K and elsewhere. All states are now trying to attract investments; they cannot close their doors to qualified professionals from India and abroad.

The fact that campaigns of the MNS variety draw enough support to disrupt harmony deserves to be probed. Surely, the targeted taxi-drivers, washermen and milkmen from the east do not usurp jobs from the Marathi Manus; neither do those who compete for all-India jobs.

The state governments have over decades been insensitive and impervious to the needs of employment of the Marathis. That implicates not only the Congress-NCP combine, but also the BJP-Sena alliance. Interestingly, but for the family feud, Raj would still have been a part of this political construct.

The most worrisome aspect of the latest bout of chauvinistic politics is the abdication of constitutional obligation by the Union and state governments and the tendency of the parties and leaders to keep playing with fire.

The writer is Professor, Centre for Dalit and Minorities Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi