Mumbai: The Shiv Sena acted true to its character by storming a press conference called by the Observer Research Foundation’s Mumbai chapter chairman Sudheendra Kulkarni on Tuesday. Kulkarni, who has consistently advocated peace between India and Pakistan, was briefing the media on a press photographers’ exchange programme organized by the Mumbai-Karachi Friendship Forum. A contingent of five Pakistani photographers arrived in Mumbai on 20 June and they will be in the city till 30 June. The Indian contingent is scheduled to travel to Karachi in July, according to a statement issued by the Forum.
Two Shiv Sainiks barged into the press conference and questioned Kulkarni on the propriety of this initiative in the backdrop of Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba killing eight Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troopers in Jammu and Kashmir just three days back. They raised anti-Pakistan slogans even as the police marshalled them out. Outside the Mumbai press club, stones were pelted at Kulkarni’s car. Shiv Sena’s Rajya Sabha MP Anil Desai justified the attack, blaming Kulkarni for “ignoring the popular sentiment in India and particularly in Mumbai against Pakistan and its sponsorship of terrorism against India”.
This is not the first time Kulkarni has faced the wrath of the Sena. In fact, the attack on Tuesday was much milder than the previous one on 12 October 2015, when Kulkarni had organized an event to release a book by former Pakistan foreign affairs minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri. A group of Sainiks smeared Kulkarni’s face with black ink, protesting against his hospitality to Kasuri. Kulkarni chose to not wash his face and addressed a press conference defending his democratic right to organize the event and work for India-Pakistan peace. The Sena was not sorry for the attack despite nationwide criticism.
Shiv Sena’s Pakistan problem is not new. It has always protested against India-Pakistan cricket matches and has been particularly aggressive against matches scheduled in Mumbai. In 1991, a group of Sainiks led by Shishir Shinde (who later joined rival outfit Maharashtra Navnirman Sena) dug up the pitch at Mumbai’s Wankhede stadium ahead of an India-Pakistan cricket match. Last year, famous Pakistani ghazal maestro Ghulam Ali cancelled a concert in Mumbai and instead obliged connoisseurs in Kolkata on an invite extended by chief minister Mamta Banerjee.
Quite paradoxically though, Sena founder Balasaheb Thackeray had hosted former Pakistan cricket team captain and star batsman Javed Miandad at his home, Matoshree, in 2004. Thackeray later said Miandad had come to request him to allow India-Pakistan cricket matches and he had rejected that request. Yet, the image of a saffron-clad Thackeray’s apparent bonhomie with Miandad has often been used by other political parties including its ally Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to expose what they call Sena’s hypocrisy on Pakistan.
The Miandad exception apart, the Sena has been fairly consistent in its opposition to Pakistan and Pakistani artists or players. Part of this is explained by the Shiv Sena’s natural animosity towards the neighbouring country. However, there has also been a political aspect to this: The Sena has resorted to this plank whenever it wanted to consolidate its Hindutva constituency. It needs this constituency now like never before as it faces a difficult civic election to the Mumbai municipal corporation in early 2017.
Founded on the issue of injustice to the native Marathi population in Mumbai in terms of job opportunities, the Sena in the 1980s expanded its footprint by taking up the Hindutva cause. The alliance with BJP was part of this plan—the BJP would bring in the non-Marathi votes while the Sena held on to its Marathi constituency. But over the years, the Marathi population in Mumbai’s 227 civic wards has gone down to barely 30%. Also, the Sena is not the sole claimant of even this 30% vote bank. Part of this constituency has been claimed by Raj Thackeray’s MNS and even the BJP now is a formidable challenger. So, the Sena needs non-Marathi voters, even the migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar that it has so often attacked, to support it in the civic elections if it wants to retain control of India’s richest civic body.
In the likelihood of Sena fighting the civic polls independently against the BJP and others, it would need to cause a split in the pro-BJP constituency of Gujarati and North Indian voters. The protest against Kulkarni and Pakistan is thus Sena’s attempt to show the non-Marathi voters that it is more pro-Hindutva than the BJP.