Among the hundreds of thousands of people who poured into Shivaji Park to witness the funeral of Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray in November were ordinary persons who did not fit the ready caricature of the Shiv Sena supporter as a thug. I have spent most of my life in a Shiv Sena stronghold, and have seen how regular folk, including lifelong friends, made common cause with Thackeray despite his pathological politics. The reason is that Thackeray gave voice to the unique anxieties of the Marathi speakers in Mumbai—anxieties that are less common in the neighbouring cities of Pune and Nashik.
One has to go back more than 50 years to understand the roots of these anxieties. The first decade after independence saw movements for linguistic states in many parts of the country. The government in New Delhi had already agreed to the right of many other linguistic groups to form states, but was dilly-dallying when it came to Maharashtra, which many Maharashtrians still ascribe to prejudice against them.
The movement for a united Maharashtra, with Mumbai as its capital, was led by a rainbow coalition—the writer P.K. Atre, the Communist S.A. Dange, the socialist S.M. Joshi, the social reformer Prabodhankar Thackeray, the Gandhian Senapati Bapat, the economist D.R. Gadgil, the peasant leader Keshavrao Jedhe and the proletarian bard Shahir Amar Sheikh, among others. The overall political leaning of this leadership was to the moderate Left, and there were hopes that the new state would be progressive in both social and economic terms. In fact, the battle to include what was then known as Bombay city in a Marathi state was split along class lines. The business class that funded the Congress wanted the city to become a Union Territory that it could control while the predominantly Marathi working class wanted it to be the capital of a progressive Maharashtra.
As street protests grew in Mumbai, the government led by Morarji Desai ordered the police to fire. The eventual death toll was 105, remembered in a plaque near Flora Fountain in the old business district. Among those dead were several for whom Marathi was not the mother tongue. Even moderates were miffed by the hostile reaction to the Maharashtra movement. C.D. Deshmukh, a technocrat and the first Indian governor of the Reserve Bank of India, resigned in protest from his job as finance minister in the Jawaharlal Nehru government. A new state was eventually formed in 1960.
The Marathi population in Mumbai soon realized it had neither political nor economic power in the state it had fought hard for. The Congress ran its political organization in the city quite independently of its network in the rest of the state. This is a unique arrangement that one does not see elsewhere in the country, with Mumbai having a Congress committee that is separate from the state committee. The city Congress has almost inevitably been controlled by leaders such as Rajni Patel, Murli Deora and Kripashankar Singh, who had little support in the Marathi population. The powerful sugar barons who run the state government have been happy to look the other way as long as they could use Mumbai as a cash cow to buy support in the rural hinterland.
Economic power also eluded the Marathi speakers of Mumbai. B.R. Ambedkar had pointed to a few brutal truths when the movement for a linguistic state had not yet won its battles. In one of his last books, Ambedkar contentiously claimed: “Bombay is a home only to the Maharashtrians and none else.” But he did not spare the Maharashtrians either, asking a series of tough questions with typical clarity. “Can Bombay be prosperous under Maharashtra? This in other words means: Can Maharashtra provide the capital necessary for the growing trade and industry of the city? No Maharashtrian can answer this question in the affirmative… What would be the effect on the standard of living of Maharashtrians living in Bombay if the city’s prosperity declines either by flight of capital or removal of business houses? The Maharashtrians must not forget, however it may hurt their pride, that they are a nation of clerks and coolies. What employment can they get in a declining city?”
The disempowered “clerks and coolies” eventually gravitated towards the Shiv Sena, because Thackeray spoke on their behalf. The menacing violence is well known. But his party helped local boys get low-level jobs in companies. He urged them to learn English and stenography. Many of them set up minor businesses, most famously the vada-pao stalls that still dot the city. It was useful work as well as a failure of imagination, because it locked aspirations at a very low level.
Much changed after that era. Thackeray himself realized the old strategy had its limits. He hitched his cart to the massive Hindu mobilization by the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in the 1980s. The campaigning during the 1989 Lok Sabha elections was vicious, and Mumbai eventually burst into flames after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. Thackeray openly boasted about the role of his boys in the violence that saw hundreds killed.
Much has changed since those heated days. His son Uddhav, a mild person, has tried to make the Shiv Sena even more inclusive since he took charge of the organization. It was widely believed that there was no juice left in the old nativist strategy, till his estranged cousin Raj swept through the Marathi heartland of Mumbai using the old slogans aimed at the sons of the soil.
The gambit worked. Even the old Shiv Sena bastions in central Mumbai, including the Dadar area where the Shiv Sena was born, fell to Raj. His Maharashtra Navnirman Sena has also made immense inroads into Pune and Nashik, at a time when the demographics of these two cities are also changing rapidly because of an inflow of people from other states.
To understand why Raj has won over so many Maharashtrians, one has to once again examine their anxieties. The past 20 years have seen important changes in Mumbai that have directly affected the lives of those who are the natural support base of the two Senas. The Marathi middle class has moved away from its clerical days to embrace new and more lucrative occupations. In the 1960s, Thackeray used to publish lists of the top employees in various companies, to show how Maharashtrians were hugely under-represented in the corporate sector; a similar exercise today would perhaps show a greater balance.
The economic success of the Marathi middle class has, however, been accompanied by an understandable fear that its cultural space is shrinking. The Marathi language is in retreat, as Hindi and English have become more common in the city due to migration and globalization. Marathi schools are losing students. The past two seasons in Marathi theatre have been dominated by revivals of old classics, a wave of nostalgia that is often seen in embattled societies that seek solace in the past. The new wave of Marathi cinema acts as a useful counterpoint to this trend, however. Incidentally, it is interesting to note that the Marathi cultural world has been ambivalent towards Thackeray; compare its muted reaction to his death to the public displays of grief in Bollywood. When the annual literary conference was hosted at Shivaji Park in 1999, there was a war of words between the literary establishment and the Shiv Sena chief.
The Marathi middle class has experienced a complicated two decades, with economic advancement and growing cultural disquiet. The working class has had a far tougher time. It suffered because of industrial decline that was hastened after nearly 250,000 workers were left without jobs following the textile strike led by trade unionist Datta Samant around 30 years ago. Some of the younger generation has moved up in life, but the vast majority of the old working-class families now scratch out a living in minor service-sector jobs, putting them in direct competition with poor immigrants from north India, just as the lower middle class found itself up against migrants from south India for clerical jobs in the 1960s.
Meanwhile, the old working-class neighbourhoods in central Mumbai have been torn down and replaced with high-rises and malls. The economic transition in Mumbai was inevitable, and it is hard to believe that the old textile economy could have survived in the city. But neither the political parties nor the trade unions helped the working class in the transition, as lucrative land was redeveloped in a hurry. The alienation in the old working-class districts is palpable as jobless youth are ready to vent their anger on immigrants.
New anxieties have replaced the old ones, with the fear of being swamped by immigrants being the common thread. It is something that Raj understands very well, with his Marathi mobilization up against north Indian mobilization by the Congress and Samajwadi Party. He has tried to reach out to Dalits and local Muslims as well, while his wooing of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi could win him brownie points with the large Gujarati community in Mumbai.
The national parties refuse to even recognize these fault lines in Mumbai, once again creating space for the two Senas to become the only voice for hundreds of thousands of people in the city.
(Note: Parts of this essay have developed ideas from a blog post written by the author in 2010, when Maharashtra turned 50.)
Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is executive editor, Mint.