Hate campaign

Published : Nov 21, 2008 00:00 IST

Raj Thackeray has reverted to old Sena-style lumpen politics as his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena has been losing support steadily.

in Mumbai

SHIVAJI Park, March 19, 2006. The crowd numbered about one and a half lakh. The occasion was the launch of Raj Thackerays new party, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). Everything about the rally was deliberately different, to emphasise that Raj Thackerays break with the Shiv Sena meant a break with the Senas ways too. When the leader himself rose to speak, this impression was carried further. The partys aims seemed to cut across barriers of caste, religion, age, education and language. Rajs goals appeared rational. In fact, he projected himself more as a committed social worker than as a politician. He spoke about MNS workers giving protection to women commuters on local trains, of the cadre acting as a back-up for the overworked police force, of the rights of senior citizens to safety, of farmers to electricity, and of the youth to employment. In short, he was focussed on the agenda of navnirman, or rebuilding.

His appeal as a leader on that day was undeniable. As far as the crowd was concerned, it was definitely not the moment to reflect and recall similar words uttered by the same man in 1996. That year, Raj organised a performance in Mumbai by the American musician and entertainer Michael Jackson to raise funds for the Shiv Udyog Sena (SUS), an organisation started by him for the express purpose of generating employment for Marathi youth.

Jackson performed to a packed stadium, but the SUS claimed the concert generated no funds. The SUS, like other such projects started during the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party rule in Maharashtra, folded up quietly with no public accountability.

In much the same manner, Raj has kept none of the promises he made at the launch of the MNS. In fact, he has backtracked on so many issues in the past two years that public opinion is that he may as well rejoin the Shiv Sena. Whether this is the reason the MNS has been losing party members steadily is not yet clear. In February, 200 Shiv Sena activists who had followed Raj to the MNS rejoined the Sena. Violence is the quintessence of Shiv Sena, or for that matter MNS, politics.

Raj was back in the public eye for all the wrong reasons early this year. In February, MNS workers clashed with Samajwadi Party (S.P.) workers at a rally in Mumbai over Rajs disparaging comments about actor Amitabh Bachchans decision to start a girls college in Uttar Pradesh. Questioning the location of the college in another State, Raj pointed out that the actor owed his fame and millions to Maharashtra.

In August, Raj revived the old Sena campaign demanding Marathi signboards for commercial establishments in Mumbai. While most shops already display signboards in Marathi, Raj gave his demand a new vigour by saying that the Marathi letters should be larger in size. Aware of his penchant for violence, thousands of traders replaced their display boards overnight with vinyl sheets bearing Marathi lettering in large size.

In September, at an audio release of a film, S.P. Member of Parliament Jaya Bachchan said she would speak in Hindi as she was from Uttar Pradesh. Raj saw this as an insult to Marathi and threatened to enforce a boycott in the State of films that have something to do with the Bachchan family. The matter was resolved with an apology from Jaya Bachchan.

In October, 1,900 Jet Airways workers who had been laid off sought Rajs intervention in the matter. Raj threatened to prevent Jet Airways from operating in Mumbai and the rest of Maharashtra if the employees were not reinstated. The workers were taken back, although not entirely owing to the intervention of Raj. However, it was important for Raj to be involved in this high-profile issue as the Shiv Sena controls airline unions in the State. Later in the month, Raj reverted to his pet hate: MNS activists attacked North Indian job aspirants who had come to Mumbai for a Railway Recruitment Board examination.

On October 19, the MNS attacked 13 Railway Recruitment Board examination centres in suburban Mumbai and Thane district and disrupted the exams protesting against inadequate representation of Maharashtrians among the candidates. Raj justified the attacks claiming that advertisements for recruitment had not been placed in Marathi newspapers. The attack drew wide criticism from across the country. On October 20, Lok Sabha members demanded that Raj be charged with treason. A directive was issued for his arrest, and Raj was arrested at Ratnagiri in the early hours of October 21.

The arrest is something of a record, for the Maharashtra government has always been reluctant to arrest members of the Thackeray clan in view of the threat of violence by their supporters. This time, however, the State government followed the Centres directive. The chain of command is believed to have started with Union Railway Minister Lalu Prasad. Apparently, the Rashtriya Janata Dal chief used his power as a constituent of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at the Centre to demand stringent action against Raj.

As the news of Rajs arrest spread, violence exploded. By mid-afternoon, about 350 taxis and 60 autorickshaws were damaged, 38 State transport buses were set on fire, and approximately 40 private vehicles were damaged by stone-throwing mobs. The police lobbed teargas shells and resorted to lathi-charge to quell the rampaging mobs, especially in the northern suburbs. About 90 per cent of the taxis and autorickshaws were off the roads and most shops downed their shutters in the central and northern suburbs out of fear. The violence was restricted to small pockets in the metropolis and in Nagpur and Satara, where the MNS has a presence.

The State Home Department has registered 54 criminal cases against Raj and the MNS in 27 police stations. Raj has been named an abettor in the cases. He has been charged under Sections 423, 427, 535, 107, 106(II), 506(II) of the Indian Penal Code, which pertain to rioting, assault, damage to private and public properties, and under Section 153(A) for provoking hatred among different communities. There is also a case of murder that has been registered in Bihar by the parents of one of the students, Pawan Kumar, who died in the MNS attack in Kalyan in Thane district.

When Raj was produced at the Bandra Metropolitan Court, Metropolitan Magistrate G.R. Wankhede ordered 14 days judicial custody in a case relating to attacks on outstation job aspirants in Mumbai. He obtained bail in this case but was denied bail in the case pertaining to a similar attack in Kalyan. He managed to obtain bail in this case, too, after spending a night in a police lock-up in Kalyan. However, he was restrained from addressing rallies or speaking to the press for two months. Two non-bailable arrest warrants have been issued by two courts in Jamshedpur. One case, filed last year, pertains to derogatory comments made against Biharis in March 2007. The second was filed in February 2008 after Raj made derogatory comments on Chhat Puja, a Bihari festival. This case relates to provoking religious passions and to attacks on North Indians in Mumbai.

Just when the turbulence seemed to end came the controversial shooting of Rahul Raj, a young man from Patna, by the police in Mumbai on October 27. The incident has left several questions unanswered. Rahul Raj, it was alleged, came to Mumbai with the intention of killing Raj Thackeray. If that were the case, would he have revealed his intentions by brandishing a pistol on a double-decker bus in the suburb of Kurla, far away from Raj Thackerays residence? Clearly, he was acting under mentally unstable conditions, a fact that the police later acknowledged. This was reason enough to disarm and arrest him.

The police are already trying to label the shooting as an encounter killing despite the fact that Rahul Raj had no criminal record. A rumour is being spread that the youth wanted to take the bus passengers hostage. This is incorrect because the passengers later said Rahul Raj kept saying he had no intention to harm them. Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukhs response was merely to order an inquiry.

The killing of Rahul Raj appears to have given the public the licence to target North Indians. On October 28, a person from Uttar Pradesh, who was returning home from Maharashtra, was killed on a local train in Mumbai. Apparently, a minor argument turned into a fight when the mans North Indian identity was discovered. The man was beaten up brutally. He died on the way to a hospital. Ironically, these incidents have given a fresh momentum to Raj Thackerays campaign. Ignoring the gag order, Raj lambasted the State government for downgrading his security cover (he refused the second-tier security offered by the government and hired his own security). The government immediately restored the original security arrangement.

Raj also used the alleged attempt on his life to further his new role as the messiah of the Marathi manus, saying he would not cease to fight for the cause.

The explosive growth in the population of Mumbai has been a source of worry for traditional Mumbaikars and the administration as the pressure on resources is growing proportionately. This is not to suggest that Rajs call to oust outsiders has the support of the average citizen. People are beginning to question his commitment. Is Raj really bothered about the Marathi people or is he just a power-broker interested in publicity and cheap politics?

Judging by his past actions and his unwillingness to see an issue through, it would seem that Raj is leaning towards cheap politics. From a strictly political point of view, targeting North Indians was, perhaps, the only way Raj Thackeray could get himself noticed. The MNS has not fared well when it comes to delivering political promises, and this is mirrored in its lack of political success. In the recent municipal elections, the MNS experienced only minor success. To add to Rajs political burdens, the Assembly elections are scheduled for next year and he has done little to build a strong foundation for his party.

Not surprisingly, the other political parties are not watching Raj with any particular interest as he does not pose a political threat to any of them. For someone who has grown up with politics (albeit of the street variety), it is probably a crushing realisation not to be taken seriously. When the MNS was formed, the BJP hoped that it would fracture the Sena and place the BJP as the senior partner of the alliance in Maharashtra. This has not happened. But for a slight blow dealt to the Senas ego by the split, the parent party has remained unaffected. So much so that even Rajs attempt to muscle in on its territory did not affect the Sena.

However, Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray was concerned enough about the partys dubious record to make a statement that it was the Sena that had first brought up the issue of North Indians and beat up the railway recruitment aspirants in 2003. Without trying to sound like supporting his cousin Raj, he said the Chief Ministers of other States should not interfere in the matters of Maharashtra.

Change is the key to progress, Raj said at the launch of the MNS. Two years on, he seems to have lost faith in his own beliefs and has taken the easy way out by reverting to the comfort of lumpen politics.

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