x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Life grinds to a halt in Mumbai after riots

Activists of a western regional party went on a rampage after their leader was put behind bars for inciting anti-migrant violence.

Policemen stand guard beside burning material in Kalyan, near Mumbai, on Oct 21 2008.
Policemen stand guard beside burning material in Kalyan, near Mumbai, on Oct 21 2008.

MUMBAI // There was no official curfew, but with large parts of the city shutting down, Mumbai, India's financial capital, seemed nearly paralysed yesterday. The city was recovering after rioting sparked by the arrest of Raj Thackeray - the leader of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), also known as Maharashtra Reconstruction Army, a regional party in the western state of Maharashtra - on Tuesday for inciting anti-migrant clashes in Mumbai.

Mr Thackeray was arrested after an explosion of violence in Mumbai on Sunday when MNS's squads of political cadres beat up north Indian migrant job seekers attempting to take a recruitment test at the city's railway board. Yesterday, after spending a night in a jail in Kalyan, Mr Thackeray was released on bail. Outside the court police had to beat back his supporters. While there was little violence in Mumbai yesterday, a 10-year-old boy in Bihar was killed after police opened fire on people protesting against the MNS-inspired violence.

After their leader's arrest on Tuesday, MNS's cadres fanned out in different parts of Mumbai and other parts of the state torching scores of public buses, smashing taxis and pelting autorickshaws with stones, especially those driven by north Indian migrants. As they went on a rampage, police fired tear gas shells and wielded batons to control the mobs. Three people were killed in rioting, and scores were injured, many of them Maharashtrians. In recent months, Mr Thackeray, a Hindu nationalist politician, has made a series of incendiary statements against migrants from northern India, accusing them of "swamping" his state, stealing jobs of native Maharashtrians, and depressing wages. He also blames them for not learning the local language of Marathi and embracing the local customs.

Civil society activists accuse Mr Thackeray of unleashing a wave of polarisation, which goes against the grain of Mumbai's pluralistic social fabric. More than any other South Asian city, Mumbai is a maelstrom of diverse ethnicities and languages. For centuries, it has lured Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians and Parsees, as well as millions of migrants from all over the country. Paromita Vohra, 39, a filmmaker from Delhi who moved to Mumbai nearly 20 years ago, said she was unsettled by Mr Thackeray's identity politics and his tirade against "outsiders". By no means, she said, should such use of muscle power to intimidate be countenanced.

Two carpenters from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh working at Ms Vohra's apartment did not show up for work on Tuesday, out of fear of being targeted by MNS's cadres. "It's the poor like them who're at the receiving end of such communal violence," she said. "It's not the migrants who are taking jobs away from locals - it's the skewed economic system of this country which never takes the poor into account. I don't hear the MNS questioning that system.

"Migration is a continuous process here, and the city would be non-existent without migrants," said Bachi Karkaria, a columnist with the Times of India. "Migrants are Mumbai's shapers, not its shame." India is urbanising at a blinding speed. Goldman Sachs predicts that 31 villagers will continue to show up in an Indian city every minute from the country's rural interiors over the next 43 years - 700 million people in all - in search of employment. Mumbai, being the financial hub of India, receives millions of migrants each year.

The broader pattern of migration over the past half a century indicates that the flow of migrants to Mumbai has been dominated by people from northern India. One out of every five migrants is from Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state in the north, according to the International Institute of Population Studies. A majority of them work as taxi drivers or snack vendors. MNS cadres ran wild in Mumbai for several days in February, randomly beating up taxi drivers, and assaulting street vendors and hawkers. Some migrants were forced to flee their neighbourhoods, some intimidated enough to flee the city forever. A few MNS cadres also pelted glass bottles at the bungalow owned by the Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan.

Mr Thackeray's political party, MNS, was founded two years ago on the ideology of being the benefactor of the local Marathi population, colloquially called "Marathi Manoos". It is a coinage of the Shiv Sena party of Raj Thackeray's uncle Bal Thackeray which carried out similar backlashes against south Indian migrants in the 1960s. Bal Thackeray, too, was accused of aggressively pushing an insular "Maharashtra for Marathis" agenda, and pedalling the mother tongue as a chauvinistic badge of honour for the "Marathi manoos".

Earlier this year, Raj Thackeray wrote to 45,000 industries and private companies, asking them to reserve 80 per cent of jobs for Maharashtrians. The coercion did not work, at least not officially, though there were reports of job discrimination against north Indians after MNS issued its threat. "Our aim is to protect Marathi culture, our underemployed 'sons of the soil'," said Manoj Chavan, MNS's chief co-ordinator. "If we don't act now, outsiders will rule over us."

As some national parties are calling for a ban on MNS, a few political commentators dismiss Raj Thackeray as a "paper tiger" who should not be taken too seriously. But some political observers view his tirade against "outsiders" as a clever ploy to earn political mileage in a pre-election year. His arrest, said Shailesh Gaikwad, the political editor of the Hindustan Times, could elevate his image to that of a crusader, a "martyr to the Marathi cause". * The National