Marathi Manoos challenges India’s plurality

By Tushar Pandit

There is a curious fact about the countrywide outrage at the Shiv Sena family’s call for ‘Maharashtra for the Marathi Manoos’, the Manoos being defined as persons ‘born in Marathi families’. The Sainiks of Mumbai, led by the redoubtable Bal Thackeray and his nephew Raj, have a long list of prominent public figures dubbed by them as the enemies of the Marathi Manoos. But their actions do not invite any vigorous and unified response from the people or political parties.

The list of the ‘enemies’ of the Marathi Manoos, prepared by the Shiv Sena family, includes a trio of Bollywood stars, all with the names ending with ‘Khan’, and the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, Rahul Gandhi, who is also said to be biding time to take over the reins of the country.  By inference, the name of the Bollywood ‘living legend’ Amitabh Bachhan, can also be added to this list since he belongs to a Hindi-speaking family from Allahabad, though he is said to enjoy good personal rapport with the Thackeray clan chief.  All these figures have considerable fan following, not to speak of their own army of loyal supporters.

Yet very little or nothing has been seen by way of large scale protests that will establish that the utter parochialism of the slogans raised by the Thackeray family of Mumbai, uncle Bal Thackeray and nephew Raj Thackeray, is deeply resented by, if not the majority, at least a very large section of people in the country and also in India’s commercial capital.

This silence would encourage two conclusions: a sense of fear among the potential protestors because the Shiv Sainiks are quite fond of taking law into their hands while the law enforcing agencies twiddle their thumbs; or a kind of indifference among the people of India and Mumbai because for them getting on with their lives comes first.

The Congress shocked the country by allowing the chief minister of Maharashtra to suggest that taxi drivers of Mumbai—70 percent of them from UP and Bihar–would not be allowed to ply their vehicles unless they learned to read, write and speak Marathi.  The other major political force in Maharashtra, the Nationalist Congress Party of Sharad Pawar has long been suspected of having many closet sympathisers of the Shiv Sena. Some of the top NCP leaders are former Shiv Sena members.

Surprisingly, of all the political parties it is the Sangh Parivar which has sounded the first loud bugle against the war cries of the Shiv Sainiks. The RSS followed by the BJP did take the lead in what may be called a less ambiguous denunciation of the Marathi Manoos slogans of the Thackeray family. It may be a little too early to applaud them for this. The Sangh Parivar in Maharashtra has not shown much enthusiasm for the words coming out of the RSS headquarters in Nagpur, the second capital of the state. Many commentators want to wait till the end of the polls in Bihar to decide whether the Sangh Parivar is really ready and willing to tame the ‘tigers’ of Shiv Sena.

In recent years Mumbai has seen a lot of tragedies, mostly terrorist attacks and one horrible deluge. The people of the city were very quick to recover from the shocks of each of these tragedies. It is said that the diatribe launched by the champion of the Marathi Manoos against the non-Marathi Manoos will not materially alter the life and character of the ‘maximum’ city.

That is perhaps the dominant view of the ordinary people living in the city. But it may no longer be correct to ignore the nature of threat posed by the Shiv Sena family. It is a family that has adopted a toxic divisive political agenda that shakes the foundation of Indian plurality, not just the cosmopolitan character of Mumbai.

The Khans of Bollywood have been asked to migrate to Pakistan because they have expressed their opinion on the exclusion of Pakistani cricket players from the recent Indian premier League ‘auction’ of cricket players. Sachin Tendulkar, who is an Indian—and Marathi–icon has been lambasted for speaking up for the people of India and its constitution. Rahul Gandhi has been asked where he was when Pakistani terrorists were attacking Mumbai, implying thereby the Shiv Sena would have preferred to see him battling the terrorists in Mumbai on 26/11 in 2008, instead of sitting in his drawing room watching television — as no doubt was the Thackeray family.

The divided Thackeray family is united in narrowing down their political agenda based on crass exploitation of the most form of chauvinism. The two Thackeray political stalwarts make no bones about the fact that nobody other than the Marathi-born Manoos has a right to work and live in Mumbai and the state of Maharashtra. Damn the Indian constitution if it guarantees freedom of movement for the citizens of the country. As the BJP, an ally of the Shiv Sena, has said, the Thackerays are looking for an Article 370 type special status for the state of Maharashtra. Never mind their opposition to this constitutional provision as applied to Jammu and Kashmir.

Of course, Mumbai is not likely to be given an exclusive status. But by continuously ignoring the spate of pernicious political slogans raised by one or the other branch of the Shiv Sena the fissiparous tendencies latent among many Indians may be getting encouragement.

That is why the spectacle of the Khans of Mumbai being left alone to fight the battle against the Thackerays and their Sainiks shows a dangerous trend. Indians are becoming indifferent to the pulls being created by various cries for dividing the country on narrow considerations.

It is no less worrisome if the fear of physical harm from the Sainiks withholds the majority from protesting against the Thackeray brand of politics. The Thackerays are striking at the unity and integrity of the country. Its preservation is the duty of all, regardless of the perils involved in doing so.

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Journalist, South Asian Analyst