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Defending the idea of India

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.

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Hate-based politics

Frontline, March 01-14, 2008

by Praful Bidwai

Only forging a firmly pluralist notion of Indianness and defending fundamental freedoms can combat the ultra-chauvinist politics of the Raj Thackeray variety.

THE arrest of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray for inciting ethnic violence against Mumbai’s migrants and his speedy release on bail constitute yet another instance of the Indian state bestowing impunity upon the practitioners of hate-based politics. The irony is all the more sour because Thackeray was arrested on a non-bailable offence, which carries imprisonment for up to three years, but was let off within three hours. The government did not co ntest his bail application even as MNS thugs were beating up north Indian vegetable vendors and taxi drivers for being “disloyal” to Maharashtra, its language and culture.

This episode may only have pumped oxygen into the MNS, a marginal party that has failed to make a mark since its inception two years ago. But that is not the sole tragedy unfolding before our eyes amidst the fleeing of nearly 10,000 people of north Indian origin from Nashik, Pune, Mumbai and other cities.

The recent events underscore yet again the persistent failure of the Maharashtra government to muster the will to punish hate speeches directed at “outsiders” and religious minorities. The failure first became glaring way back in 1966 when the MNS’ predecessor, the Shiv Sena, was created amidst the explosive nativist and xenophobic violence orchestrated by Bal Thackeray.

For decades, the Sena inflicted countless atrocities and iniquities upon Mumbai and its citizens by attacking trade unionists, Muslims and non-Marathi-speaking groups. But it was never punished or effectively restrained. Even in the worst instance of Sena-organised communal violence, following the Babri Masjid demolition of December 1992, the government refused to act on irrefutable evidence against Bal Thackeray. This includes nine “open-and-shut” cases against him for inflammatory writing through which he virtually directed the anti-Muslim riots that led to 1,500 killings.

Despite solemn promises, the Vilasrao Deshmukh government has failed to implement the Srikrishna Commission report, which recommends the prosecution of the culprits of the violence. Going by an affidavit the government filed in January in the Supreme Court, it has decided not to reopen the 1,371 cases pertaining to that campaign of murder, arson and looting. It would be surprising if it treats Raj Thackeray any differently and prosecutes him thoroughly.

It arrested him only under pressure from the Congress party’s top leadership. To appear “even-handed”, it filed identical charges against Samajwadi Party (S.P.) leader Abu Azmi – although what the two men did was different. Raj Thackeray not only launched vicious tirades against north Indians, he incited/engineered physical attacks on them. Azmi merely issued statements.

As if this were not sordid enough, not a single major leader of Maharashtra – from Deshmukh to the Nationalist Congress Party’s Sharad Pawar, from State Congress chief Prabha Rau to Home Minister R.R. Patil – has condemned Raj Thackeray’s campaign of crass chauvinism or his goon tactics. They have not uttered a word against the intimidation and beating up of scores of working people from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. They have been silent on the MNS’ glorification of all that is Marathi and its nauseating condemnation of the culture of the north. Although the progressive and secular intelligentsia has spoken out, the politicians’ silence is revealing.

The top leadership of the United Progressive Alliance too has chosen to refrain from deploring the MNS’ hate campaign. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has taken to frequent exhortations to crush and eradicate “the virus” of “left extremism” (naxalites). But not once has he spoken in a similar vein against right extremism, which has caused far greater destruction to this society and posed a much more virulent challenge to its constitutional-democratic order. Leave alone “crush” the forces of vicious nativism and xenophobia such as the MNS and Shiv Sena, Manmohan Singh does not even talk of restraining, discouraging or combating them. About his expression of solidarity with the terrorised victims of the recent hate campaign, the less said the better.

This is creating a peculiar polarisation along narrow ethnic-linguistic lines. Thus, it is left to the maverick Amar Singh to defend the people of Uttar Pradesh against the MNS. And it falls to Railway Minister Lalu Prasad to come to the rescue of Biharis in Mumbai. He even threatened to hold the Bihari festival of Chhat Puja – which Raj Thackeray cited as an instance of the undesirable, growing “outsider” influence – right outside Raj Thackeray’s house in Mumbai!

Such polarisation does not speak of a decent, mature political leadership nor, more importantly, of a tolerant, democratic and inclusive social ethos. If our leaders and state institutions cannot even defend the fundamental right of all Indians to live and work in any part of the country, we are in trouble. At peril is the idea of the citizen’s identification with, and ownership of, democracy itself. Meagre response

Three factors might explain the tepid or meagre response to the Maharashtra events from secular liberals and defenders of constitutional values.

First, many believe that Raj Thackeray resorted to a cynical, probably counterproductive, tactic by embracing the ultra-chauvinist platform and that people will see through this crude political move and its link with the coming Assembly elections.

Second, anti-migrant slogans “won’t sell”. The proportion of migrants in Mumbai’s population has fallen, and the locals do not see them as a threat, unlike in the 1960s and 1970s.

Third, some argue, the appeal of cultural symbols is eclipsed by material realities. Mumbai’s economic boom and emergence as a financial centre ensure that people’s attention cannot be commanded by rank chauvinism.

There is merit in these arguments. But that cannot detract from the responsibility to proactively fight chauvinism. True, Raj Thackeray has his eye on the delimitation process, which will raise the weight of constituencies in Mumbai’s north-eastern suburbs and Thane, where the north Indian presence is strong. Recently, the Shiv Sena joined the S.P. and the Bahujan Samaj Party in wooing this group and became an easy target for Raj Thackeray, who has been in search of an emotive issue to revive his party.

This may not win him many votes, but it will trigger chauvinist competition with the Sena and put the anti-immigrant plank back on the agenda – with dangerous consequences.

Moreover, the proportion of migrants in Mumbai’s population sharply declined from 66 per cent in 1961 to 43 per cent in 2001. The proportion of migrants from within Maharashtra fell from 27 per cent to 16 per cent and of those from other States from 34 per cent to 26 per cent. Particularly sharp was the decline among migrants from the south, down from 10 per cent to 6 per cent.

However, the proportion of migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar rose one and a half times although its magnitude is still very low: 12 per cent. These largely rural, unskilled and poor people work in highly labour-intensive and low-paid occupations such as delivering newspapers and milk, vending vegetables and fish, or carrying heavy loads. Many old settlers refuse such work. Without its northern migrants, Mumbai would grind to a halt. They have done much to assimilate into Mumbai’s hybrid culture despite their language problem.

But the picture is different in other cities of Maharashtra, where the proportion of migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar has more than doubled in 20 years. Their greater visibility can be used to whip up xenophobic hysteria. For instance, a poll conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi, in 2004 found that 37 per cent of the State’s people feel that migrants take away job opportunities and 16 per cent say migrants affect both culture and job chances.

Maharashtra’s growth is non-inclusive and inequality-enhancing. Unemployment runs there at 15 million, in a population of 100 million. Fifty-four per cent of the unemployed resent migrants. This provides a fertile ground for hate-driven politics. Marathi chauvinism

The strength of Marathi chauvinism must not be underestimated. The Sena cynically exploited the Shivaji cult and the rancour among a section of Maharashtrians at the fact that their struggle for a unified Maharashtra succeeded politically but they remained “subalterns” economically: Mumbai, the “jewel in the crown”, was not “Marathi enough”; its economic levers were controlled by Gujarati and Marwari businessmen. This resentment was mobilised to attack underprivileged working-class south Indians active in Mumbai’s once vibrant trade union movement.

The Sena succeeded in rolling back many of the social gains Maharashtra made through its social reform movement and embrace of Enlightenment values, including reason, liberty, equality and tolerance. Some of these came from the one-and-a-half-century-long legacy of Shahu Maharaj, Jyotirao Phule and B.R. Ambedkar. Under the Sena, Mumbai became a city of prejudice and hatred, fear and loathing, character assassination, and lynching of innocents.

It will be impossible to combat this xenophobic chauvinism without campaigning for a pluralist notion of Indianness based on a multilingual, multicultural identity, defending basic constitutional freedoms, including the rights of residence and work, and advocating a passionate egalitarianism. This alone can counter the parochial ideas of an insular, insecure, lumpenised middle class, with its inferiority complex and propensity to blame “outsiders” for its own shortcomings. Regrettably, that combination is not on the horizon.