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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 12, March 13, 2010

Wider Lessons of Shiv Sena’s Latest Mumbai Experience

Friday 19 March 2010, by Balraj Puri

The setback that the parochial form of Maharashtrian regionalism has recently received may result in revival of the progressive potentialities that regional nationalism had once displayed. Its experience is of wider relevance in other parts of the country also and needs a more thorough debate than has taken so far. First, let us recall what happened in Mumbai.

The overwhelming response of the Mumbaikars to My Name Is Khan in defiance of the Shiv Sena’s call for the boycott of the film will have deeper lessons and for a longer period than any other contemporary event. Though multiplexes were reluctant to open the show in the morning due to the threat of the Sena, soon the houses were full as the police arrived to provide protection.

So far the Sena used to be handled by kid gloves and its threats used to work. But this time its bluff was called. Though the police was deployed in large numbers, still no action was taken against the leaders of the Sena.

Whatever differences one may have with the RSS, it has to be conceded that it took the first initiative in exposing the threat of the Sena’s parochial regionalism as a threat to its concept of extremist nationalism. The BJP dutifully followed suit and its spokesperson in Mumbai is said to have arranged two private shows for the glitterati of the town to convince them that there was nothing objectionable in it. Later it reiterated that despite differences with the Sena, the alliance with it would continue. This has demonstrated how two kinds of parochialism clash and weaken each other.

These developments emboldened the Congress party also. Its General Secretary Rahul Gandhi, in his usual novel style, had a one-day round on local trains. The Sena could not do anything to prevent it.

This further emboldened Shah Rukh Khan also; he refused to apologise and asserted his right as an Indian for free expression of his views. After all, what was his crime? He regretted non-inclusion of Pakistani cricketers in the IPL which many other Indians had done. Why was SRK the only target of the Sena’s ire? Just because he is a Muslim? But the foregoing developments had somewhat lowered the morale of the Sena and it withdrew the call for the boycott of SRK’s film.

Sena chief Bal Thackeray recovered his morale when Sharad Pawar visited him. Whatever transpired between them, the visit was untimely and unwise. Pawar is an important member of the Union Cabinet and his party is an ally of the Congress in the Maharashtra Government. It was after his visit that Thackeray revived his call for boycott of SRK’s film.

The Sena’s spokesman has discounted the extent of popular response to the film. But even he would not deny that SRK’s popularity rating at the national level is far higher than that of the Shiv Sena, if at all it has any. How could North Indians, whose boycott is the latent plank of the Sena, have any admiration for it? Even in the BJP-ruled State of Gujarat, the film was shown to packed audiences despite the protest of other members of the Sangh Parivar like the Bajrang Dal and VHP, besides the Sena. Internationally also the film has set a record in the sale of tickets. Above all, Shah Rukh Khan has emerged as an icon of Indian nationalism and has emboldened other voices of dissent. Karan Johar who, for instance, had apologised to the Shiv Sean for using Bombay instead of Mumbai in his film, and had offered an apology to the Shiv Sena giving an undertaking to correct his “mistake”, has now regretted to have done so.

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The Shiv Sena had survived on hate campaign and lack of courage of its opponents. Sometimes South Indians were its target. At other times it whipped up hatred against Muslims. In 1984, the Sikhs were attacked. Its current tirade is against the North Indians.

It we go back, at one time the Leftists were champions of regional nationalism and apart from Maharashtra championed it elsewhere also, when they believed that it had progressive potentialities. It did serve a progressive cause and also acted as a check on chauvinistic nationalism. The Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti for the formation of a Maharashtra State was led by the Leftists who became a formidable force when socialist leader George Fernades was called a giant killer after defeating S.K. Patil, the Congress strong man of Mumbai. It was also a period when socialist leaders like Asoka Mehta, Nath Pai, Madhu Limaye and N.G. Gore were returned to Parliament. It also saw rise of the Communist leader S.A. Dange and the trade union movement led by his party. Why could not the progressive character of Maharashtra’s regional nationalism be maintained for long? Why could not its progressive icons, like social reformers, be projected instead of the distorted and chauvinistic image of the symbols that the Shiv Sena adopted. For a while it served the Congress purpose of weakening the Leftist stronghold.

Bengali and Kashmiri patriotism have also shown positive and negative potentialies. Jyoti Basu could set up a record of three-decade rule of the CPI-M led government as a champion of Bengali patriotism and could introduce radical land reforms. But the failure of the West Bengal Government to reconcile the aspirations of Bengali patriotism with those of sub-regional identities was the main cause of the collapse of this citadel of communism.

Similarly, it was due to the strength of the sentiments of Kashmiri nationalism that it could maintain remarkable communal harmony in 1947 when the entire subcontinent was engulfed in communal conflagration. Land reforms in Kashmir were also unparalleled for their radical content. Kashmiri nationalism was, in turn, encouraged by India, the Soviet Union, America and Pakistan. But it could not throw up a powerful leadership of its own and control its direction. Moreover, its failure to come to terms with the urges of the other regions and non-Kashmiri speaking communities led to many complications in what is called the Kashmir problem. If rightly handled even smaller identities play a positive role. After all, it was caste politics that stemmed the Hindutva wave in UP and Bihar. The advantage of India’s rich diversity is that excesses of one often check those of the other.

Balraj Puri is the Director, Institute of Jammu and Kashmir Affairs, Jammu. He can be contacted at www.humanrightsjournal.com

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