x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Hatemonger's rise shames Indian city

Comment:David Lepeska reports on how a steady influx of migrants from northern India has provoked a violent backlash in Mumbai.

A policeman wielding a baton charges hardline Maharashtra Reconstruction Party supporters in Mumbai last month.
A policeman wielding a baton charges hardline Maharashtra Reconstruction Party supporters in Mumbai last month.

A small independent film was banned from Mumbai theatres last week. Unremarkable in another place and time, Deshdrohi just happened to hit on the incendiary issue in Mumbai society today: migrant workers. Thus the release of this tale of a north Indian labourer trying to make it in the big city has been delayed for 60 days. "Some of the scenes in the film are such that they can provoke a law-and-order situation," a police spokesperson claimed.

A roiling wave of xenophobia first welled here in February, when a rising political figure, Raj Thackeray, criticised workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh - two poor, north Indian States - for taking all of Mumbai's taxi and auto-rickshaw driver jobs. Such work is for "sons of the soil", he said, referring to speakers of Marathi, the local tongue. In the days that followed, local youths attacked immigrant drivers viciously, injuring dozens and killing two.

Mr Thackeray continued his anti-outsider campaign and the wave swelled, cresting in late October, when representatives from his political party, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), attacked north Indians as they were taking exams for local positions with the Indian railways. The next day police arrested Mr Thackeray for inciting violence, which touched off widespread riots and acts of arson by MNS members and brought Mumbai to a near standstill.

By the time he was released on bail the next day, Mr Thackeray had struck fear into outsiders and captured the hearts of millions of dissatisfied locals. One week later, when Rahul Raj, a Bihari immigrant, was shot dead by police after commandeering a bus with a pistol and threatening to kill Mr Thackeray, few were surprised. Mumbai is India's commercial heart and most cosmopolitan city, and immigrants have long been integral to its evolution. Indo-Iranians first settled this stretch of Arabian Sea coast in the third century BC. Marathi speakers arrived en masse only after the collapse of the Maratha empire in the early 19th century. In recent decades, as the Indian economy has boomed, skilled and unskilled workers have poured into the city to seek their fortune. Today, Marathi speakers represent less than 50 per cent of Mumbai's population of 17 million, and migrant workers - the majority from north Indian States - snatch up the low-paying jobs disdained by suddenly middle-class Maharashtrians. They keep banks and businesses secure, build homes and office buildings, clean streets and pick up trash, drive locals from place to place and deliver Hinduism's most revered consumable - milk. Without them, the city would grind to a halt.

To combat their advancement, Raj Thackerary has followed in the anti-outsider footsteps of his uncle Bal Thackeray, who founded the Shiv Sena in 1966 with the stated goal of securing jobs for Maharashtrians in the face of steady north Indian immigration. A local political icon partially retired at 82 years old, Bal - whose extreme exclusionist views are well known - is alleged to have helped incite violence which led to the slaughter of hundreds of Muslims during Mumbai's religious riots in 1993 and, more recently, called for Hindu suicide bombers in response to a recent rash of bomb attacks in Indian cities.

Following that line, Raj Thackerary's aggressive, pro-Marathi stance has touched a vein of disenchantment and stirred an angry young army of committed indoctrinates. With each unchecked incident, each arrest, his power has grown. "Far too much latitude had been shown to Raj Thackeray and the MNS," Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, wrote in a recent letter to Vilasrao Deshmukh, Maharashtra's chief minister. "We need to dispel any impression that people from one part of the country are not welcome in another, and cannot live in peace anywhere they choose."

Mr Thackeray's stance brings to mind a darker age, in which fearful citizens of fortified city-states were protected from the mysterious and dangerous by warlords who unleashed their minions on invaders. For ratcheting up the fear and subtly validating defence of the homeland in its sensationalist, non-stop coverage, the media must accept a portion of the blame for Mr Thackeray's rise. And he is not alone. Taking its lead from the British Raj-era policy of divide and rule, politicians across India - in Andrha Pradesh and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Assam - have begun to exploit the uneducated lower classes, appealing to local fears and highlighting regional divides to blame the other for the sad state of the majority - when in fact it is the politicians themselves who have failed to serve the people.

The trend is particularly worrisome as India has long been both strung together and pushed apart by its astonishing diversity. One of the Upanishads, a series of ancient and influential Hindu scriptures, claimed "the whole world is my family", more than 2,500 years ago. "The roots of this culture go back to ancient times and it has developed through contact with many races and peoples," Kota Shivarama Karanth, a south Indian intellectual, wrote more recently. "Hence, among its many ingredients, it is impossible to say surely what is native and what is alien, what is borrowed out of love and what has been imposed by force." And 60 years after his death Gandhi remains the world's defining symbol of non-violence.

Yet the country he fathered was born in one of the last century's great orgies of violence, Partition, which has been followed by lesser if also horrifyingly violent spasms: against Sikhs after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 and during a recent anti-Christian pogrom in Orissa, to name a few. Historically, such disputes have hinged on religion, but politicians have shown few qualms with shifting their focus to linguistic and regional divisions. Now the hate that dares speak its name threatens, according to Mr Singh, to "undermine the unity and integrity of the country".

That Mr Thackeray's embrace of Dark Ages divisiveness has garnered him much support is a sad commentary on the state of Indian politics. One that suggests it may have been unreasonable to hope that Deshdrohi, with its simple depiction of a migrant labourer tossed about and finally killed by an unwelcoming metropolis, might spark a little understanding. * The National