Bombay on the Boil

Call it insider v/s outsider or natives v/s migrants or we v/s the other, the fault line in Indian’s premier commercial capital, long known as Bombay since its early days

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Call it insider v/s outsider or natives v/s migrants or we v/s the other, the fault line in Indian’s premier commercial capital, long known as Bombay since its early days, and as Mumbai, when Marathi Manoos muscled in on brute muscle power, is going through a major eruption. Post liberalisation and onset of globalisation, Mumbai is being buffeted in a season of unbridled growth, led by explosion in real estate prices. With money pouring in, come the money grabbers. And the key to the grabbing of the lion’s share is to hold political power and rule the state and the city.
An open and cosmopolitan city that prospered on its ability to welcome people from all states of India, as well as from distant lands, is being held to ransom, by a small group of greedy politicians, who would rather wreck the city than let any of their compatriots rule the roost. With a gang of few rowdy boys reared in the tradition of the Shiv Sena hooliganism that started to rock Mumbai since 1960s, had appeared on the streets of Mumbai, coinciding with a Samajwadi Party rally at the famous historical Shivaji Park, invited willing electronic media people to accompany and staged a thrashing of few hapless taxi drivers and bhelpuri walas, to impress the rest of the world that they have arrived on the streets of Mumbai in the name of Marathis and that the ruling Sonia Congress/Sharad Pawar coalition government that is reaping corruption opportunities exclusively, has no moral standing to lift a finger to control or even chastise them. The city of Bombay is on the boil, though the city of Mumbai has yet to awaken to its repercussions.
In fact, as local political parties had more or less resigned to a changeover of power from on group in the Marathi cartel to another, in some face-saving way of mutual survival, when a series of outsiders started holding their rallies at Shivaji Park. First to arrive was Uttar Pradesh’s indomitable new Chief Minister, Mayawati, with fresh vigour and fuller kitty to venture forth into new areas of money making, with the conviction that Maharashtra’s substantial Dalit population, with a long history of caste struggle, is still fractured and being denied its fair share by the high caste establishment, is ready for a Mayawati revolution and alignments of a new kind where Dalits will be leading others to form a coalition government.
Next visitor to Shivaji Park jamboree was none other than Gujarat’s Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, whom the Maharashtra BJP planned to present as the new successful face of the resurgent Hindutva. Though Shiv Sena supremo, with his own equation to exploit Hindutva plank to emotionally mobilise support for his party, publicly welcomed Modi; after Shivaji Park rally, Bal Thackeray could suddenly realise that by organising huge rally at Shivaji Park, which is at the centre of Shiv Sena power base and a stone’s throw from Shiv Sena’s fortress-like Shiv Sena Bhuvan, outsiders are virtually stealing his thunder and trampling on his territory. He came out with a strong declaration that Maharashtra is neither suitable for Mayawati nor for Modi pattern of politics.
By the time Mulayam Singh Yadav planned his own rally at Shivaji Park, and brought in a third force contingent of national leaders with a wider national agenda, Bal Thackeray can easily be imagined as sitting on open pit fire.
It is anybody’s guess how Raj Thackeray decided to challenge Samajwadi Party’s ‘Desh Bachao’ rally by street hooliganism to frustrate people of decidedly Uttar Pradesh origin, to come to Shivaji Park and make the rally a success; a case can be made out for a “Good Cop – Bad Cop” strategy between Bal Thackeray and Raj Thackeray. In the aftermath of last assembly elections, when Shiv Sena could make out that they cannot increase their tally without appeasing Uttar Bharatis in Mumbai, as their substantial voting power was clearly ever-increasing and Udhav Thackeray started making open public overtures to Uttar Bharatis by attending their gatherings. He played the role of good cop. The bad cop role was given to Raj Thackeray, to herd distressed Uttar Bharatis to seek security in the waiting arms of Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena. Sure enough, a first contingent of 200 of Raj Thackeray’s workers, who had left Shiv Sena to join Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, saw it fit to appear at the doors of Bal Thackeray’s residence, Matoshree and pleaded to be taken back into Shiv Sena fold.
All the while when Raj Thackeray spewed fire against Uttar Bharatis, his goons targeted poor taxi drivers and bhelpuri walas, stormed Cinema theatre screening Bhojpuri movie and publicly destroyed the movie film reels in front of specially invited dumb media people, who were so cleverly exploited by MNS, to spread terror in the city, threatened Bhojpuri film shoot at location outside Mumbai; the grand old man Bal Thackeray and his son kept their cool. There was no public comment of any kind; even though media reports were splashed with the story of bad blood between the two cousins. There is no sign this strategy has moved Uttar Bharatis any closer to Shiv Sena. On the contrary, the fault lines have become more pronounced and publicly visible, thanks to media coverage.
The victim or beneficiary of the street violation was Samajwadi Party’s State President Abu Asim Azmi, who appeared on TV screen openly challenging Raj Thackeray for a street fight between workers, leaving aside common people. Abu Asim mocked Raj as Eunuch who had no stomach for a pitched fight. While SP threatened to give lathis – “Gandhi’s walking stick” – Raj countered by threatening to give swords to his workers.
By default, Abu Asim Azmi, who was earlier identified only with Muslims of Maharashtra, fortuitously appeared to become the voice of Uttar Bharatis, ready to shed blood on the street of Mumbai, to protect and mobilise security for them. The line up of the new third front leaders, under Abu Asim Azmi’s organised rally, gave him a much larger image than his erstwhile strong Muslim identity.
All the while Congress and NCP, dominated by Marathas, did not dare frustrate Shiv Sena family’s game plan to mobilise public opinion and prepare to take over Mumbai and Maharashtra.
Raj Thackeray’s ill-conceived campaign was in fact in the best tradition of Shiv Sena and Bal Thackeray who had used similar brand of street violence in its long history, to first target South Indians, then Gujaratis, and then Muslims, to consolidate his political power. However, times have changed. Mumbai is poised to become a very important international centre of trade and finance. It is attracting and is bound to attract huge FDI funds that are supposed to turn Mumbai into Shanghai. The stakes for a peaceful and prosperous city of Mumbai is now held by much larger and diverse groups. The Marathi Manoos and its parochial policies cannot gel with the times and nationwide condemnation is heaped on Raj Thackeray for his villainous role to sow the seeds of divisions and to threaten the very integrity of the nation.
These are early days and even though spot violence is being perpetrated on an ongoing basis, just to keep the pot boiling; the situation could change overnight with a single countermove by opposing forces. On the other hand serious planners will have to plan how best they can depend on communal and political fissures in the city not to get inflamed to a repeat of the dark period of Bombay riots and Mumbai bomb blasts. This time around, there are portents that the violence will be joined. And it is for national leaders to move fast and reach a consensus to counter all polarising attempts that could blow up peace and prosperity of the commercial capital of India. Longer term institutional remedies, at national, state and city levels should be initiated at the earliest and supremacy of Indian constitution and all its institutions should be speedily restored.