Posted on 01-02-2010
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

Barely a week after I commended the Indian constitutional set up and politicians for marching towards a common nation purpose (see link) comes a piece of rank demagoguery arising out of cynical political opportunism.  As with any culturally diverse nation, India has had to deal with various ethnic groups feeling threatened from time to time.  The early 1960s saw a dispute over language where the southern state of Tamil Nadu successfully opposed the imposition of Hindi as a national language.  Assorted regional grievances spawned separatist movements along India’s periphery in Kashmir, Punjab and Assam.  The Assamese insurgency is relevant to the events of the past week as it arose from concerns over illegal Bangladeshi immigrants taking away local jobs (not to mention like any good neighbors Assam and Bengal have had about 1300 years of mutual enmity).  The rise of regional parties caused some concerns about the balkanization of India, but apart from making sure that immigrants learned the local language in schools an active campaign of discrimination was never proposed by any major political party.  Until last week.

The western Indian state of Maharashtra has been India’s industrial and financial powerhouse.  Its capital Mumbai is the most cosmopolitan city in India.  As the home of India’s financial markets and the Hindi film industry Bollywood, it is at once India’s New York and Los Angeles.  Since the 1960s it has been the magnet drawing fortune, dream and job seekers from across India.  The competition from outsiders and a perception that the immigrants only hired their own has always created an undercurrent of tension.  It is this tension and the perceived plight of the “Marathi manoos” (the Marathi man) that the Shiv Sena a local right wing party founded by former cartoonist Bal Thackeray has historically tapped into.  Thackeray has a history of baiting Muslims and others and controversially claiming Hitler as a hero, but until last week had not crossed beyond a certain line.

But times have changed.  A succession struggle over the ailing Thackeray has split his party.  Thackeray anointed his son Uddhav as his successor.  This caused Thackeray’s thuggish but more charismatic nephew Raj Thackeray to split off and form his own party, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.  For the last two years Raj Thackeray has stirred up protests and occasional violence against North Indian immigrants in Maharashtra.  It had the unusual effect of making the Shiv Sena look like a mature party.  However, the 2009 Indian parliamentary and Maharashtra elections showed that Raj Thackeray had tapped into an undercurrent of resentment.  His MNS split the Shiv Sena vote costing it seats in parliament and the state assembly.

Threatened by the emergence of the MNS, the elder Thackeray has decided imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  Starting with his comments on the cricket dispute noted in this blog yesterday he has ramped up the volume by asserting that cosmopolitan Mumbai belonged to Marathis.  See link.  Fuel was thrown on the fire when the Congress party which rules Maharashtra suddenly issued a directive (since withdrawn) that all Mumbai taxi drivers needed to speak Marathi.  See link.  The xenophobic oneupmanship is escalating with Raj Thackeray asserting that jobs in Maharashtra must go only to people of Marathi descent (not just people who spoke Marathi).  See link.

This is a line no political party in India has crossed so far.  It has also caused serious rifts in the Shiv Sena’s already strained alliance with the national Bharatiya Janata Party and the Hindu nationalist organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.  See here and here.

One heartening feature of this has been the united front put forward by every other political grouping to the Shiv Sena and MNS’s insanity.  Less heartening is the threat by local demagogues else where to engage in retaliatory attacks on Maharashtrians in their states for attacks by the Shiv Sena/MNS.  The Shiv Sena’s stance is hypocritical for a political party that has railed against Article 370 of the Indian constitution granting special rights to (Muslim majority) Jammu and Kashmir (one guess on what fuels the opposition to Article 370).  Indian nationalists can be forgiven for wondering if the uncle-nephew duo are in fact Manchurian candidates trying to achieve what Pakistan sponsored terrorists have not managed for the past 25 years.

While the bluster of the Thackerays’ practically amounts to a lot of hot air at present, a dangerous line has been crossed.  Without electoral repudiation of such tactics it will encourage demagogues in other parts of India.  While the increasing percentage of India’s labor force crossing state lines for work will cause some tensions, it is the best way to encourage national integration in a country that sometimes resembles the Tower of Babel.  The past week also demonstrates the delicate balance Indian democracy must maintain to achieve its dreams of becoming a world power.

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[…] What often exists is rank selfishness.  In Belgium a once dominant community is now the economic underclass taking more than its fair share of state resources.  In Italy some in the more prosperous North would rather get rid of the far poorer South (if that was where Italy would end up, they might as well have left poor Francis II on his throne).  It is a sentiment sometimes expressed in the United States where residents of certain states are convinced they are subsidizing everybody else (some with more justification than others).   It is also evident in India as noted by the recent brouhaha in Maharashtra.  See link. […]


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