MUMBAI: Two events in India on Wednesday demonstrated sharply how this country really is two (or maybe many more) different places, with different values, different aspirations and goals, and different fears– what an academic friend calls India’s multitude of “temporal rhythms”.
While the country’s first moon mission was being launched in southern India with great pride and international acclaim, hordes of angry rioters were burning buses in Bihar, protesting against anti-Bihari migrant violence that had been incited by a regional politician in Mumbai. Achievement on the moon mission was measured in terms of scientific excellence: in Mumbai and Bihar it was by measured by riots and death.
The contrast is vivid. Soon after the chief scientist at the space launch proclaimed “our baby is on its way to the moon”, Reuters reported that a 10-year-old boy was hit by a stray bullet and killed when police randomly opened fire on protesters in Bihar.
What is it that allows the politician – Raj Thackeray, 40-year old leader of one of the two factions of the Maharashtra-chauvinistic Shiv Sena political movement – to wreak such havoc, not only in his home area but far away in Bihar? And in a country that is so advanced in so many ways? I know the question is not new, and is constantly being asked (especially by people from abroad), but Wednesday’s events make it worth raising it again.
The trouble started at the weekend when Thackeray, leader of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), attacked people from Bihar who were applying in Mumbai for Indian Railways jobs. There have been many past attacks on Mumbai taxi drivers and other workers from north India, and the weekend’s assaults led to four days of strikes, shop and school-shutdowns, violence and deaths in both Maharashtra and Bihar.
Thackeray is the nephew of Bal Thackeray, who founded the Shiv Sena, a Maharashtra-based chauvinistic party in the 1960s. Bal Thackeray, who made no secret of his beliefs in the value and justification of anti-democratic violent protest, started by trying to push southern Indian workers out of Mumbai and to raise the status of Maharashtrans.
Finding that this had little political resonance because the southerners were not a coherent political force, he switched in the 1970s to fighting Communist parties that were trying to recruit workers in Mumbai so that they could expand their power base from West Bengal, once the country’s political and commercial centre.
On that he was backed by the then all-powerful Congress Party, but it also faded as an issue when an anti-Communist trade union leader, Dutta Samant, became the dominant labour figure: so Thackeray returned to opposing people from the south.
He also broadened the Shiv Sena’s political base by making it a virulently anti-Muslim, allying with the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that ran India’s national government from 1998 to 2004. He took extreme positions on various issues, for example opposing Pakistan cricket teams playing in the state.
He has been responsible for many outbreaks of violence over the past 40 years, and has done nothing for the governance and growth and viability of Mumbai as a financial and commercial centre, though he has raised the status of Maharashtrans. He has been both tolerated and feared by politicians in Maharashtra and Delhi, who allowed him to set political agendas that they tamely followed for fear of losing out politically.
Raj Thackeray broke from his uncle and set up his rival group because he feared he would be eclipsed by Bal Thackeray’s son when Thackeray, who is now old and frail, faded from the political scene.
A couple of days ago I suggested in my last post that India would never attain super power status while it had politicians who played to their regional power bases instead of caring for the national interest. The subject I cited involved two cabinet members in the national government, who are based in Maharashtra, backing Raj Thackeray’s opposition to Jet Airways’ redundancies. That shows how he has inherited his uncle’s ability to set the agenda.
Raj Thackeray’s rise has been tolerated by mainstream politicians in the Congress Party and a Maharashtra-based breakaway, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). They have hoped that he would draw voters away from the BJP, and split the Shiv Sena’s political base, thus boosting their prospects in state and national elections.
But encouraging such potentially explosive new political figures is a dangerous game, because they can become too big and powerful to be controlled. The most dramatic example of this is Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the leader of the Punjab’s Khalistan independence movement in the late 1970s and early-1980s. He was originally encouraged by Indira Gandhi, the former prime minister, to split the vote of a regional Punjab political party, but his rise eventually led to her assassination.
The word now is that Delhi is considering whether Raj Thackeray should be stopped. It is trying to persuade Maharashtra’s Congress and NCP-led coalition government to jail him for months, in the hope that this would reduce his power and will to fight. Acting somewhat reluctantly on instructions from Delhi, the state government on Wednesday filed 54 legal cases against him on grounds of inciting riots and action prejudicial to national integration, and briefly arrested him. How ironic that politicians who tolerated such illegal activities when it suited them, should now initiate legal action – ironic, but not surprising in politics.
Commentators are however saying, understandably, that putting him in prison will do no good because he believes there are votes to be gained protecting Maharashtran’s jobs by hounding those who have come to the state for work, especially to Mumbai. They argue that he will only stop (or at least adjourn) his tyranny when he realises it will lose him votes.
That means that Maharashtra’s politicians need to condemn him publicly and point out the damage he is doing, not only to the state but other areas such as Bihar – if they have the courage to do so, especially with elections looming.
How sad if, as Sumit Mitra says in a supportive comment on my last post, I am “pointlessly fretting”.