Thursday, May 08, 2008

Redeemer of the Marathi maanus?

I was interested in finding out the reactions of bloggers to Raj Thackeray's onslaught on “para-prantiya” परप्रन्तिया (pronounced in Marathi) which means “people from outside the state of Maharashtra”. But to my dismay, the event seems to have been ignored or at best, given a passing mention in the blogosphere.

What Raj is doing is not new. Neither is it unique to Maharashtra alone. Awakening the linguistic identity of a populace and instilling a sense of injustice and hurt pride in them is the easiest way to get ahead in Indian politics.

About two years ago, Raj Thackeray had separated from the Shiv Sena because he saw no meaningful future for his political career in the party as Thackeray Sr had thrown his weight behind his own son, Uddhav. At that time, the tone of his politics was progressive and pragmatic. There was no rhetoric which the Sena was famous for nor was there pandering to the linguistic or religious sentiments of people. After the initial hoopla about how the emergence of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena could affect future elections, everyone seemed to forget about the man. A small local election ensued and the MNS had a poor showing. A large number of MNS workers who had come in from the Sena were contemplating a return. With his back to the wall, our hero had no other option but to take refuge in the oldest and sure-fire strategy to win a votebank for himself.

Having said this, the “Marathi maanus” propaganda is neither without basis nor has it failed to evoke strong support among the locals, particularly in the larger cities like Mumbai. The ever-increasing influx from other states is getting a bit tiresome. There is a feeling among the locals that the outsiders bring in their own alien culture and never make any attempts to harmonise themselves with the local ones. There is also the sentiment that the outsiders look at say, Mumbai, just as a place to milk and make money and then go back to their roots in their home states. These feelings are not unjustified. Particularly if you look at the UP-Biharis, who are currently the target of the MNS, these have increasingly begun to assert their presence in the state. The “chat puja” which is largely a North Indian festival may have been celebrated in Mumbai for many years. But of late, the event has started attracting huge money and hype. The celebration of the UP diwas was totally uncalled for. Worse, the UP-Biharis are finding influence with the local politicians who are finding their sheer numbers a convenient vote bank. The increasing clout is represented by the cabinet minister Kripashankar Singh, who is from UP, but now a minister in Maharashtra.

Amitabh Bachchan’s fans may cringe at the MNS chief’s diatribe against the superstar. However, Raj uses the Big B only as an example to prove his point. Despite having made a name for himself after staying in Maharashtra for so many years, the Big B has become an ambassador for UP. Which means what? That the Big B has his roots in UP! This must be true for most of the other Upites. If you have roots in one state, you will never ever want to assimilate in the ethos of your adopted state.

As Raj Thackeray in his May 3rd carefully drafted speech outlined, language chauvinists from all states are guilty of poisoning minds. Many of the arguments put forward by him are not easy to refute. He read out a statement attributed to Sonia’s partner in govt, Anbumani Ramadoss, who has warned Dravidians against Rajnikant’s attempts to come into the centerstage of TN politics. This, despite, Rajnikant (who is a Maharashtrian) has completely transformed himself into a Tamilian and is a hero to the locals there.

We know of language chauvinists in other states like Andhra, Karnataka etc.

We also know how it is difficult, nay impossible, to have a comfortable stay in capital cities of states if you cannot follow the local language – try living in Chennai without knowing Tamil or in Kolkata without knowing Bengali. The lingua franca in offices is not English, it is the local language. But in Mumbai, you need not really know Marathi. Hindi is good enough. That shows the liberal attitude of Maharashtrians. It is this liberal attitude which politicos like Raj Thackeray is trying to change for his electoral gains. You can fault him for his crudeness and foul language, but you cannot bar him legally, as Home Minister RR Patil has recently found out. Then, politicians cannot be given moral sermons too. So how does one stop him?

Not easy. In a country where states are drawn on linguistic basis (a Nehru legacy), we must be prepared for hardening of such identity differentiation. Only if you redraw the states on some other basis, will the language identity be dented. To take the poison out of Raj’s bite, we have to first take away the luxury that chauvinists from other states have.

Then, and only then, can we look at Raj Thackeray in the eye and tell him to shut up!