In 1990, V.S. Naipaul had pointed out the million sub-nationalistic urges that were brewing within India of the 1990s. He had underscored the aggressive language and symbols Balasaheb Thackeray and the Marathi-speaking members of his militant Shiv Sena were using to foment a blatantly xenophobic agenda.
Ever since the inception of the Shiv Sena in 1966, Thackeray had been saying publicly that Maharashtrians had the first claim to the wealth that Bombay generated, and if outsiders threatened this, they’d be thrashed and sent packing. Earlier the lungiwalla Madrassis (a pejorative used mainly for Tamilians) were targeted, now it is the turn of bhaiyyas from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Thackeray went into decline in the past five years. But, by that time, he had created a hugely profitable family empire and it was imperative that a war of succession would break out between his son, Uddhav Thackeray, and nephew, Raj Thackeray. As per tradition, the son, despite his lesser political worth, won the first round and the nephew, who had consciously moulded himself along his uncle’s lines, was thrown out of the Shiv Sena.
A highly ambitious Raj then created his own militant group, the infamous Maharashtra Nav Nirman Sena (MNS), and began his political innings. He targeted the outsiders (the north Indian, Hindi-speaking migrants or bhaiyyas) in Mumbai as his uncle had once done. This drew attention and attracted local votes.
Then last month, MNS followers beat up railway job aspirants from Bihar, forcing them to flee without taking the exam and at least one young man died in the process. Within a week of this, the Mumbai police gunned down an obviously deranged young man from Patna in a local bus because, they said, he was shouting death threats against Raj Thackeray.
Soon after this, a migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh was lynched by his co-passengers on a local train, and another, beaten up and thrown in a gutter, died in hospital. The police said these were not hate crimes but results of heated skirmishes among commuters.
It is ironical that Mumbai, a city created by the British out of a small island inhabited only by fishermen and their families, and developed into India’s first multi-ethnic metropolis with ample help from Gujarati, Parsi and Tamil creators of wealth, should have come to suffer from the delusion that it belongs to Marathi-speaking Maharashtrians, and its identity will get destroyed if Maharashtrians were to be outnumbered by people from various other states of India.
It is even more shameful that such paranoia should be tolerated and even bowed to, not merely by senior leaders from major political parties, but also the big names of Bollywood and so many corporate czars.
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Political debate about such murderous happenings in India has become more and more ephemeral on TV. Politicians from the Congress party and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) seem to have taken the stage in a new role: they’ve become social workers and mouth pleas for understanding the harsh reality of unemployment in Maharashtra that has made the poor killers “culturally disoriented”.
Those opposing them founder in such discussions and are content with turning the rabid slogans of the Sena on their head. This guarantees that discussions remain stuck either in abstract moralizing or complex hair-splitting over legal procedures to bring the guilty to book.
Every migration, irrespective of its cause, nature and scale, carries the seeds for violent conflicts, self-interest and xenophobia being historical constants that predate settled societies. One would like to raise a question here, which even if it is not central to the question of migration, is a matter of life and death for all of us who live in India, whatever their “native state”.
Is the country actually habitable? Is it possible to live with people who will set out on organized manhunts from time to time? In a heavily populated country such as ours, with wide disparities in income, people must move out of their native place to earn a living, especially the rural landless poor. This right of theirs is sanctioned by our Constitution and must be guarded by the state.
Trains and buses in an overcrowded Mumbai today are packed with desperate survivors not only from UP and Bihar, but also from villages and small towns in Maharashtra. Some may be planning to flee, but most are hell-bent on staying on and fighting it out. All of them—Marathi or Hindi speakers—aspire to the same things in Mumbai: to have a safe refuge, a job that pays enough to bring up their children, a bank to put their savings in.
Most of our vocal philosophers in the weekend TV channel discussions do talk of this. But they speak neither Hindi nor Marathi but only English, and seldom pay attention to the fact that by speaking in English they shall remain totally incomprehensible to both the street fighters of Thackeray and their victims. Has it ever occurred to them that in the long term, renouncing India’s vernaculars may have consequences which might harm their entire intellectual class?
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org