Dilemma of identity

Published : Mar 28, 2008 00:00 IST

North Indians in Mumbai hiding because of the violence unleashed on February 13 by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, the group led by Raj Thackeray.-VIVEK BENDRE

North Indians in Mumbai hiding because of the violence unleashed on February 13 by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, the group led by Raj Thackeray.-VIVEK BENDRE

Access to education and skills training is the one factor that can neutralise the sectarian sentiments of groups like the one headed by Raj Thackeray.

THE distressing behaviour of some lumpen elements in Maharashtra, particularly in Mumbai, has raised once again an issue that must come up in a plural society like ours our identity. It is very simple to say that we are Indians and brush the issue aside, but that will not do. We need to look at what the phrase translates into in real workaday terms, not once but from time to time and not through learned academic treatises but in a manner that most people can relate to.

Some of the real terms have to do with facts that are fairly evident. The population growth rate in some States, notably the southern States and to a certain extent Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab and a few others, has slowed from near replacement level, or zero growth rate, to rates which approach that and will, in all probability, come down to that in a few years from now.

Coupled with that is the fact that economically these are the States that have been, let us say, more active. There has been more investment in them and this has led to, I say this with deliberate emphasis, relatively more employment opportunities. One has only to look at the new car manufacturing units that have come up and are coming up along the Chennai-Bangalore National Highway or between Pune and Mumbai or in Gujarat and at the other new units elsewhere in these States to see this for oneself.

On the other hand, in States such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh population growth continues unchecked. Even if couples wished to practice contraception, there are several areas where even condoms are not available in health centres or local shops. These are also the regions where there has been no private economic investment worth the name. State investment remains fitful and, from all accounts, is so ridden with corruption that its benefits hardly reach even a fraction of the people for whom it is meant.

Inevitably, the young men from these areas have begun to move to areas in the country where they can hope to find some kind of employment. Trains from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi and other centres of economic activity are full of such people looking for work.

Now, normally this would not really have created too much of a stir; in fact, it would not have created a stir at all. This kind of migration has been going on for years, a fact that is often forgotten. But now Raj Thackeray and his handful of followers have brought it to centre stage, so to speak, and a supine State leadership and an equally supine Central leadership have confined themselves to expressions of anguish and hand-wringing as people are beaten and their taxis and shops or the wares they sell are destroyed and trashed. Belatedly, the police in Mumbai did something but in a manner that made Thackeray a kind of hero as he went to court smiling and waving to his supporters.

The reason for the weak State and Central response to the hooliganism in Mumbai and elsewhere is obvious. The State and the Centre sensed, rightly or wrongly, that there was some simmering resentment among local people, who felt that employment that was theirs by right was being taken away by others, and did not want to alienate them, especially in an election year.

It is more likely, though, that these assessments are only partially correct. It is not that there is universal resentment at the influx of outsiders as one has pointed out, the influx has been going on for decades with no reaction of any kind, except years ago when the Shiv Sena stirred people up against outsiders from the south. And at that time too, ironically, the people coming to Mumbai from the south had been doing so for years before the Shiv Sena began its commotion against them.

The fact that Thackeray was able to get away with the violence that his followers unleashed against North Indians has more to do with the fact that not enough is being done in the so-called prosperous States for local inhabitants. Had the administration in these States been more active and focussed, there would have been, to take an example, more schools, more educated people, and an upward movement in the nature of employment that would have complemented the other developments that were taking place. There would have been more polytechnics, more professional institutions and courses. There would have been better infrastructure, such as roads and water supply and health care facilities, that would have provided a more developed and diverse set of employment alternatives for local people.

Where such activities have been relatively effective the result is there for all to see. In Punjab, they actually depend on labour from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh for their agricultural operations, especially harvesting, and there has for decades been a regular movement of Oriya workers to Gujarat to help in that States extensive jewellery trade. For years now, Oriya labour has moved to Andhra Pradesh to work in the construction industry, which is a major economic activity.

It finally goes back to the stagnation in the rural regions of the so-called prosperous States. The economic boom, such as it is, benefits the relatively more affluent, better educated, for instance, in Kerala through the emergence of tourism the marginal and poor have not really benefited. They then migrate to the cities where they think work will be available. And find similar people arriving from other parts of the country.

The fact is no one, even among these poor people, questions the Indianness of those looking for work; they are seeking an advantage, a better place in the queue. And this is not, again, a new phenomenon but something that has endured for centuries. Recently, one had occasion to look at the Sanskrit classic Dasa Kumara Charitam. The writer of this set of tales is Dandin, a resident of Kanchi, near modern-day Chennai. His grandfather Damodara was from a town near Nashik and migrated to Kanchi, then the capital of the great Pallava dynasty. Dandin himself was clearly familiar with all of what we now call India his stories are set in Magadha, in present-day Bihar; in Avanti, in modern-day Madhya Pradesh; and in other places as far afield as Bengal and Punjab.

The term Indian would probably have astonished him, but he would, certainly, not have been surprised to find Biharis in the south or Tamils in the east. If the in-phrase today is inclusive growth, it necessarily follows that there should be an inclusive identity. If we work towards the one, it is to establish and define the other. What is crucial is that the focus of development must continue to be on the larger objective of enabling an easier movement of persons not geographically, which will happen anyway, but upwards, to higher levels of employment.

This is the one factor that can neutralise the narrow, sectarian sentiments of groups like the one headed by Thackeray and others like him. Access not just to education but to different kinds of education and skills training has to be the basis for development.

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