A xenophobic agenda

Print edition : May 26, 2001

The Shiv Sena's support for the April 25 Maharashtra bandh and its renewed offensive on Mumbai's identity are part of an enterprise to end its moribund and discredited status.

FEW observers paid attention when the Shiv Sena's would-be Fuhrer Bal Thackeray launched a savage attack on Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee last month. On April 8, Vajpayee told a rally in Mumbai that the Bharatiya Janata Party believed Mumbai should be "a city for all". Thackeray responded two days later, through the pages of his party organ Saamna, by putting the blame for all of Mumbai's problems on "people from Atal Behari Vajpayee and Laloo Prasad Yadav's States". "The only thing outsiders have brought to Mumbai," he told Saamna, "is population. They did not develop the city; they caused its deterioration. Because of them, the city's footpaths have disappeared, the crime rate has shot up, and the jungle of unauthorised constructions and slums have turned the whole of Mumbai into Dharavi (a slum). These people steal electricity and water, and encroach upon government land. They have transformed Mumbai into a toilet."

Mumbai at dusk. The Shiv Sena's political aspirations could see the city turning into a communal cauldron yet again.-

Most people put the venom down to the kind of ritual political feuding that has characterised the Sena-BJP alliance, without endangering its existence. Days earlier, the Sena had pulled out of sharing a platform with Vajpayee at the rally, claiming it would not "justify the BJP's gross misdeeds". Given that its leading luminary and former Chief Minister Narayan Rane was to face High Court strictures for gross violations of regulations in land deals on April 9, this concern for propriety was more than a little ironic. But the Sena's anger with the BJP in the wake of the Tehelka scandal was not new. In late March, for example, Saamna had demanded that Vajpayee's son-in-law, Ranjan Bhattacharya, along with key aide Brajesh Mishra be divested of their respective roles in government. Shiv Sena politicians had also let it be known that their support for the National Democratic Alliance would be contingent on the government adopting a more hawkish policy in Jammu and Kashmir.

It soon became clear that the attack on Vajpayee was part of a larger political project. On April 17, the Sena stunned analysts when it announced that it would join a Left-sponsored bandh to protest against the economic policies of both the State and Union governments. Thackeray's son and potential heir-apparent Uddhav Thackeray said he would be willing to "join hands with anyone to defend the interests of workers". A week later, Thackeray said he had told the party's three Union Ministers to oppose labour reforms designed to make retrenchment easier. The Left parties, which had planned the bandh for months, succeeded in organising an effective shutdown of Maharashtra on April 25, a demonstration of the depth of frustration brought about by shrinking employment opportunities and economic distress across the State. But the Sena had also succeeded in broadcasting its commitment to protecting the interests of its desperate lower-middle class and sub-proletarian constituency in Mumbai.

The Maharashtrians' working class concerns, and anxieties about the ethnic character of Mumbai, have been used with skill by the Shiv Sena in the past. Maharashtrians form some 30 per cent of Mumbai's population, and their feeling of linguistic marginalisation has been manipulated by the Sena to fuel its xenophobic agenda. In a March 8 editorial in Saamna, Thackeray had provided a foretaste of his anti-north Indian migrant polemic by attacking the Mumbai Doordarshan Kendra's news chief, Bhupendra Kainthola. Kainthola, he demanded, had to be replaced by a Maharashtrian. Interestingly, politicians of the Muslim Right had prepared the ground for the new Sena offensive. The Muslim League demanded in March that Mumbai be sundered from the rest of the State on the grounds that the majority of its population was not from Maharashtra. The demand, for which there was little apparent provocation or support, was played up in the pro-Sena press.

Sena support for the Maharashtra bandh and its renewed offensive on Mumbai's identity are part of a carefully constructed enterprise to aid its moribund and discredited organisation. The communal venom that brought the Sena spectacular gains in the 1990s has not been exhausted. But Hindutva is no longer in the foreground of Sena polemic. Three and a half decades after its formation, the Shiv Sena has begun to reinvent itself in its original form.

History helps understand why the Sena has chosen to break from a narrow Hindutva agenda and seek a wider mass platform. When Thackeray addressed the Sena's first rally at Mumbai's Shivaji Park on October 30, 1966, he tapped the tensions created by industrial recession and urban decay. The Sena's agenda was securing employment for lower-middle class Maharashtrians, who, it claimed, had been denied white collar opportunities by migrants to Mumbai, mainly from Tamil Nadu. Thackeray's cadre spent their early years terrorising south Indian-owned enterprises, and compelling Mumbai offices and businesses to hire personnel through its union, the Sthaniya Lokadhikar Samiti (Local Peoples' Rights Committee). The campaign won the Sena support from many of Mumbai's Maharashtrian-origin residents, and also provided a lucrative source of revenue to party cadre.

Such recruiting of regional chauvinism was instrumental to the Sena's subsequent political growth. Central to the success of this project was the feud between the Bombay Pradesh Congress Committee (BPCC) and the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC). While the BPCC, the representative of high capital, had opposed the creation of the State of Maharashtra, the MPCC was made up of the new elites of rural western Maharashtra. The Sena's first electoral success, in the 1968 Mumbai municipal elections, was in large part the outcome of the BPCC-MPCC conflict. Then Chief Minister Vasantrao Patil arranged for questions to be raised in the Maharashtra Legislative Council, alleging that a Union government-sponsored plan was afoot to sunder Mumbai from Maharashtra. It was suggested that the plan had been authored by the BPCC's Murli Deora. Patil then promised never to allow the non-existent proposals to be realised. The Sena reaped the electoral harvest, winning 42 municipal seats.

It is also instructive to note that opportunistic alliances have been a second key element of Sena strategy. Many of its collaborators have been improbable allies. It fought the 1973 Mumbai municipal elections, for example, in alliance with the pro-Dalit Republican Party of India, and then had its candidate elected as Mayor in a deal with the Muslim League, the socialists, the Congress(O), and both the BPCC and the MPCC; all these were wooed and in turn courted the Sena. The only consistent element in Sena politics was its hostile anti-communism, a project that had the gleeful support of both factions of the Congress. Through the 1970s, Sena gangs repeatedly attacked leading Communist trade union leaders, and in 1973 were responsible for the murder of popular Parel MLA Krishna Desai. It was only in 1984, with the Sena discredited as a criminal mafia and in electoral decline, that Thackeray sought alliances with the Hindu Right, first forming the Hindu Mahasangh, and then allying with the BJP.

Violent riots, starting with the anti-Muslim pogroms in Bhiwandi, Kalyan and Thane, and through similar butchery at Panvel, Nashik, Nanded and Amravati, marked this new direction taken by the Sena. Although the organisation had historically been anti-Muslim, the posture of the post-1984 period was strikingly new. It was, for one, cast as part of a larger Hindutva project, not just regional antagonism. The Sena's Hindutva also allowed it to build bridges with those like south Indian Hindus, people it had only a decade ago represented as the enemy. Interestingly, Thackeray appears to have had some ambivalence about the new ideology until very late in the course of the Ram Janambhoomi agitation. Top Sena leaders only left for Ayodhya by train on December 5, 1992, ensuring they would not be there the next day. And while the Sena claimed to have mobilised thousands of kar sevaks, it in fact only sent some three dozen.

The new-model Sena, or rather the reinvention of the old-model Sena, became evident at its 34th anniversary celebrations in June 2000. Thackeray's address was full of communal venom. "Muslims cannot be trusted," he said in the keynote address, "They are like snakes. You never know when they can turn around and bite you." But there were new elements as well. "Marathi industrialists like Kirloskar and Garware," he complained, "have been replaced by Marwari businessmen." The Sthaniya Lokadhikar Samiti's Gajanan Kiritkar gave express form to the new Sena thinking, arguing that "of the four parties in Maharashtra, we are the only one which is a truly regional party. Neither the BJP nor the Congress(I), not even the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), can meet regional aspirations." This was followed up with energetic campaigns to force shopkeepers to put up Marathi-language signboards, and demands for more recruitment of Maharashtrians in government-run institutions and corporations.

Some critics believe that the broad Left is helping this new Shiv Sena agenda, albeit inadvertently. Leaders of the Congress(I) and the NCP, for example, believe that the Shiv Sena was the principal beneficiary of the Maharashtra bandh. "It's disgraceful," says a key aide of Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal, "for the Left to ally with Marathi chauvinism, no matter what the cause." But Left leaders rebut the argument, saying the real reasons for the Sena's revival lie in the flawed economic policies of the Congress (I) and the NCP. "This is a spurious position," argues Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Ashok Dhawale. "All the issues on which the bandh was called," he points out, "had been spearheaded by the Left for a number of years. The Sena just jumped on the bandwagon because of pressure from its own ranks. If only the NCP and the Congress(I) had taken issues like unemployment and anti-labour legislation seriously, the Sena would have been completely marginalised."

And that, indeed, points to the real problems underpinning the Sena's slow, but evident, revival. Data on industry in Maharashtra points to declining organised sector employment. New jobs are being created, but only in small numbers, and largely in the unregulated informal sector, where both wages and working conditions are appalling. The number of jobs in Mumbai's textile mills, one of the worst victims of industrial decline over the last two decades, has fallen from over 2.5 lakh in 1981, to 30,000. At an April 31 trade union rally, where Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh shared a platform with Uddhav Thackeray, he held out few hopes of a better future. In the wake of the World Trade Organisation-propelled restructuring of the global economy, Deshmukh said, trade unions now had to adopt a "pragmatic approach to the welfare of workers". That is of little comfort to workers pushed to the wall by state laws enabling easier retrenchment, and freeing companies from many worker welfare rules.

Chauvinist forces, both Hindu and Muslim, thrive in this kind of climate. In March, Hindu fundamentalists threatened to block the ritual sacrifice of animals by Muslims on Id, while the previous month saw rioting in Nashik after the local authorities demolished a mosque. The State government, sadly, chose to buckle in the face of pressure. Several people were arrested for having published a booklet critical of the Maratha king Shivaji in February, while actress Sonali Bendre was booked in late March for having posed in a short kurta bearing Hindu religious motifs. The Democratic Front government has even sought to compete with the Hindu Right, sponsoring official Shivaji jayanti celebrations in February. Muslim chauvinist organisations have done their bit too. The Muslim League claimed on February 12 that Hindu census enumerators were seeking to "conceal the real strength of Muslims". Its Mumbai president, Farooque Azam, proceeded to support the Mumbai serial bombings of 1993 and the Taliban's demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas on March 27.

The success of the early Shiv Sena, wrote Jayant Lele in a 1995 essay, lay in the "unstable political context, and the growing inability of the state to govern. The Shiv Sena was in that context a populist eruption. It thrived parasitically on diffused and generalised discontent". Three decades on, things appear alarmingly similar.

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