February 9, 2010

Special to ‘Financial Chronicle’

Like all bullies, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray backed down from his threat to unleash mayhem during Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Mumbai when Gandhi decided to confront him and made a gesture of solidarity with the common Mumbaikar by riding a suburban train. Thackeray also ignominiously retreated from his threat to make life difficult for actor Shahrukh Khan for criticising the India Premier League’s decision to boycott Pakistani cricketers. Khan stood his ground despite the roguish language of Shiv Sena leaders, including Manohar Joshi. Joshi warned Khan: when the Senapati issues a fatwa, everybody in Mumbai falls in line, or faces the consequences—simply put, violence. It is hard to believe this man was the Speaker of the Lok Sabha.

Yet, it was predictable that Thackeray would blink if Khan refused to withdraw his remark. Public opinion, including Maharashtrian middle-class opinion, is largely on Khan’s side on the IPL issue. Thackeray would have found it difficult to enthuse his Sainiks to set Mumbai on fire, a favourite project of his, and a threat he has got away with all too often. What was much less predictable was that Khan would not seek a compromise and the Maharashtra government would remain firm in offering him protection against Sena goons.

Khan broke a well-established pattern with only a few exceptions, under which the Shiv Sena or its twin, Maharashtra Navanirman Sena, imposes its will upon personalities, organisations and governments—because nobody stands up to it. Countless number of film actors, producers, artists, writers and performers have given up their freedom of expression when faced with Sena threats. Central to this capitulation is the state’s abdication of its responsibility to uphold the rule of law and constitutional freedoms, including the right to the freedom of expression and to equality before the law regardless of religion.

It’s not just the executive or the half-communalised police which has repeatedly surrendered to Sena-style bullying. The judiciary too has done so on critical occasions. Consider one in 1993, when public-spirited citizens moved a writ petition before the Bombay High Court pleading that it order the Maharashtra government to arrest and prosecute Thackeray under IPC 153 for his inflammatory writings in the post-Babri demolition period. The petition argued a watertight case by citing editorials in Sena organ Saamna, which instigated incidents of violence against Muslims.

The High Court, to its disgrace, dismissed the petition by abjectly pleading, “let bygones be bygones”. The Supreme Court did no better when it failed to reverse the verdict. The Indian state showed it had no stomach for arresting a communal bully who caused hundreds of citizens’ deaths through hate-speech and -acts.

This capitulation goes back to the 1960s, the Sena’s early days, when Congress Chief Minister VP Naik encouraged, pampered and shielded its thugs, deferred to its militant Shivaji cult and helped its trade union-smashing campaign. More recently, the Congress descended to exploiting regional-chauvinist sentiments for short-term gains. Chief Minister Ashok Chavan announced that new taxi licences would only be issued in Mumbai to drivers who know Marathi. This would destroy the integrity and cosmopolitan character of Mumbai’s taxi trade. More than half the drivers are North Indians. And Gujarati and Kannadiga drivers together outnumber Maharashtrians.

Mercifully, after the Sena split, at least some leaders, including Rahul Gandhi, Laloo Prasad, Nitish Kumar and Samajwadi Party legislators identified with Mumbai’s Northern migrants, gathered the gumption to challenge Sena bullies on jobs exclusively for the “sons of the soil”. Even the RSS-BJP distanced themselves from the Sena—if only because of the impending elections in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Rahul Gandhi countered the Sena’s vicious tirade by passionately arguing that all Indians have the right to live and work anywhere. He need not have referred to the role of the National Security Guards in the November 2008 Mumbai attacks and its wide recruitment base. But Gandhi’s successful visit to Mumbai put the Thackeray clan on the mat.

It is therefore deplorable that Sharad Pawar stooped low by calling on Thackeray ostensibly to discuss IPL matters—a cock-and-bull story for most people. The meeting might not produce a major political realignment through yet another defection by Pawar from a Congress-led formation. But it does bestow some legitimacy and respectability upon the Sena’s lumpenised, communal, ultra-chauvinist politics—just when it is unprecedentedly discredited. Instead of treating the Sena/MNS as politically untouchable, people like Pawar give them strength and self-confidence.

However, Pawar is not alone. Mumbai’s industrialists have funded, protected and used the Sena for decades to attack trade union and Left-wing cadres, create terror in labour bustees to evict people and grab land, and settle financial disputes with one another. The captains of Indian industry have kept the Sena’s extortion machine well-oiled—for purely short-term gains.

This has meant strengthening a monstrous force that further vitiates society and politics, and undermining the idea of India as a plural, diverse, secular society, where all citizens have equal rights. This idea of India is not something optional, to be used instrumentally whenever expedient. It is essential to India’s survival as a minimally civilised society which aspires to cohesion and progress. The idea is as important for industry as it is for politics. But Indian businessmen have yet to show this recognition.—end—