After decades of lassitude, a battle is being joined. The outcome could be momentous because the goal is to reclaim Mumbai for the country. It has taken a diverse cast of characters — Mukesh Ambani, P Chidambaram, Rahul Gandhi, Mohan Bhagwat, and even Baba Ramdev — to vociferously emphasise that Mumbai belongs to all Indians. Now the country needs to determinedly put the Thackerays, who have held India’s premier commercial metropolis to ransom, firmly in their place, in jail.
People will say that Ambani’s all-India business interests are the reason for his stand or that Rahul and Chidambaram are eyeing north Indian votes. Perhaps that’s true, but in the past sixty years the idea of India has been endorsed by the people of the country, as electors who help form governments, soldiers who fight to secure it, entertainers, educators, doctors, pilgrims, tourists and workers who move their skills and labour across thousands of kilometres to enrich a region or an industry.
Diversity is what marks out the Indian nation state from others. Other multi-ethnic and multi-lingual states like the USSR and Yugoslavia have foundered, but the Indian project is flourishing, and getting stronger by the day. By and large the nation is based on political consensus and provides an enormous amount of political freedoms for all its citizens. The Thackerays represent a throwback of sorts, highlighted by the fact that even M Karunanidhi, the product of a one-time secessionist movement, has condemned their approach to Indianness.
The controversy had its beginnings in a Maharashtra government requirement that taxi drivers in Mumbai would have to be fluent in Marathi to get licenses. Had this been an administrative measure, you could have questioned its efficacy. But it is a pernicious political gesture, aimed at showing Chief Minister Ashok Chavan in good light with the Maharashtra chauvinists.
Pandering to extremists with a view of outflanking political rivals has an old and infamous history in this country. It was in the 1970s that Indira Gandhi and Giani Zail Singh began to cultivate Sikh religious extremists to embarass the Akali Dal which makes no bones about its connections to the Sikh faith. In 1981, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale of the Dam Dami Taksal was taken into custody for involvement in the murder of Lala Jagat Narain, the proprietor of Punjab Kesri newspaper. But he was released after 25 days, and Giani Zail Singh, then Union Home Minister, declared that there was no evidence against him. It took more than a decade of blood and iron thereafter to set things right again in Punjab.
Something similar has been afoot in Maharashtra for a while and could have similar baleful consequences if not dealt with now. The Congress party has encouraged and condoned Shiv Sena’s breakaway faction, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena led by Bal Thackeray’s nephew Raj Thackeray. It was the nephew who launched the most virulent attacks against North Indian taxi drivers and then topped it up with an attack on candidates for a Railways recruitment examination. The Congress-NCP alliance government of the state did little to curb the MNS, and the reason for this became apparent in the 2009 state assembly polls, when Raj’s party played spoiler and ensured the return of the Congress-NCP alliance in the state.
After having watched his cousin steal his father’s thunder, Uddhav Thackeray has got into the act and is hurling threats and invective all around. The consequences of pandering to this chauvinism should be apparent to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his union government. Not only could the situation make India’s first metropolis dysfunctional, it could lead to terrorist violence of the type that Punjab witnessed in the 1980s. Prolonged pandering to chauvinism has already gained an extremist edge as evident from the activities of the likes of Sadhvi Pragya Thakur and Lt Col Prasad Purohit, both of whom have received vociferous support from the Shiv Sena and the BJP.
There is a blithe assumption that the India we see today has been immutable through history. Nothing could be further from the truth. The May 1947 appropriately named Plan Balkan would have had the British giving all the provinces of British India—Madras, Bombay, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Central Provinces, Orissa, Ajmer-Mewara and Coorg— an option for independence. Punjab and Bengal would be divided and the Princely States could negotiate with any of the units to whom the British devolved the powers.
Pandit Nehru’s vehement protest led to the last-minute cancellation of this plan and the acceptance of the simpler Partition scheme. The present boundaries of India may be the outcome of Partition, but it was the Congress-led interim government team of Nehru and Sardar Patel which deftly wove together the crazy quilt pattern of British India and the nearly 600 Princely States into the nation we celebrate today.
But the glue that has kept the country together is the Indian Constitution that came into force on January 26, 1950. By declaring India to be a sovereign, secular and democratic republic, it enabled people of all faiths and communities to be a part of India. Minus the commitment to secularism, for example, six states—present day Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh— may not have remained part of the country for long.
The founding fathers also wrestled over the issue of the federal and state rights. In its size, India is not only as large as western Europe, it is probably more diverse. On the other hand, the received wisdom from nationalist historians was that every time India had been divided, it had been overwhelmed by foreign invaders. So the founding fathers put in place an oxymoron—a unitary-federal nation state. In other words, a federal constitution with a strong dash of unitary power.
In the last sixty years, the politics of the country has seen a tug-of-war between the Centre and the states. At first the battle was between Congress Chief Ministers and the Congress union government. Later after Indira Gandhi’s supremacy, regionalism became a means of challenging Congress supremacy. In the 1990s, caste and religion were thrown into the equation and the country’s polity was even further divided.
By itself, there is nothing wrong with regional parties, even strongly regional ones like the DMK. But there is a problem when regionalism degenerates into chauvinism. In Tamil Nadu this tendency is only visible at the fringes of the Dravidian movement today which argues that the interests of Tamils world-wide trump those of the Indian state. In Maharashtra the chauvinists are also approaching a similar conjuncture and that is why it is important to confront the Thackerays and politically destroy their pernicious spoiler role in the politics of the state.
This is an opportune moment because Bal Thackeray is in his dotage and his son and nephew are divided. Unfortunately, the unbridled and unprincipled three-way competition between the Congress, the NCP and the BJP has provided the space for the Thackerays to flourish.
Having helped to shape the character of the Indian Republic at the outset, the historical responsibility of confronting this threat has once again devolved on the Congress party. India today stands at the threshold of transformation. The coming decades represent perhaps the last opportunity to destroy the monster of poverty and deprivation that have dogged this country in the past three centuries.
But to reach out to our destiny, we need to, once and for all, settle the issue of what is India, and who is an Indian.
This appeared in Mail Today February 5, 2010