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In the Midst of Sub-Democratic Politics

The apparent resurgence of Marathi nativist politics in and over Mumbai has to be understood in the specific context of the city's history, as well as the larger one of how democratic politics in India has dealt with the issue of diversity inside the nation. The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and the Shiv Sena build on practices of linguistic localism in India and it requires more than the mere legalism of constitutional rights to understand and fight it.


In the Midst of Sub-Democratic Politics

Suhas Palshikar

The apparent resurgence of Marathi nativist politics in and over Mumbai has to be understood in the specific context of the city’s history, as well as the larger one of how democratic politics in India has dealt with the issue of diversity inside the nation. The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and the Shiv Sena build on practices of linguistic localism in India and it requires more than the mere legalism of constitutional rights to understand and fight it.

A substantial part of the argument presented in this article is based on my Marathi essay, “Nimitta Marathichya Swabhimanache; Mudda Sarwajanik Vivekacha”, serialised in two Marathi magazines, Parivartanacha Watsaru and Sadhana over November and December 2008.

Suhas Palshikar ( teaches politics at the University of Pune.

uring the 1990s, the Shiv Sena gave up its strident regional politics and turned to more lucrative political pastures by adopting the politics of Hindutva. Today, it is trapped in a dilemma – its breakaway Sena, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) has been enjoying the limelight in the media following its consistent attack (mostly verbal, sometimes physical) on north Indians. Practically, the MNS has appropriated the political agenda in Maharashtra. Everyone from the political parties to analysts, most columnists and media commentators seem busy responding to the MNS and the stand taken by it.

There is no paucity of serious issues facing politics in Maharashtra. If one takes a quick look at the period from 2004 onwards, the Khairlanji massacre, farmers’ suicides, localised agitations caused by “SEZs”, and the disquiet occasioned by the demand for reservations for the Marathas could be listed as pressing issues. In contrast, for the last two years – and much more so for the last few months – the only issue that has dominated state politics is that of Marathi pride. This was quite noisily raised by the MNS formed and led by Raj Thackeray and then tepidly taken up also by the Shiv Sena.

When Raj Thackeray quit the Shiv Sena and formed his own Sena in 2006, it was quite clear that his main target would be the Shiv Sena and that he would like to reduce the strength of the latter in all spheres. Elections to the municipal corporations of Mumbai, Thane, Nashik, Pune and other large cities were the first round of confrontation between the Shiv Sena and the MNS where the latter could not push back the Sena much. Subsequently, both in the Lok Sabha (LS) election and the assembly election in 2009, the MNS contributed to the dismal performance of the Shiv Sena. In other words, much of what the MNS does may be seen in this twin context of its efforts to form a niche for itself and its ambition to undo the Shiv Sena. Besides, one should remember that Raj Thackeray – when he was in the Shiv Sena – specialised in the art of dramatic and rabble-rousing politics and it is no surprise that he should be employing those skills through his new party because that is the only politics he and his followers are adept at. In any discussion of the recent politics of the MNS (and Shiv Sena) these elementary points need to be kept in mind.

After parting company with the Shiv Sena, Raj Thackeray formed the MNS with a somewhat ambiguous objective of navnirman – one does not know what he knows about the political history of that word in the Indian context, but in any case, given his training in the Shiv Sena, he was unlikely to give up either parochialism in approach or a sub-democratic style of operation. At least in the Thane-Mumbai belt, the Shiv Sena had shaped the paranoid sensibility about “others” – first understood in terms of non-Marathi people and later projected as non-Hindus. Banking on that, the MNS soon decided to take a leaf out of the political biography of the uncle of its founder. It all began when Raj Thackeray burst out against the cultural domination of the north Indian community in early 2008. This was followed by an agitation insisting that name boards of shops and establishments should be in Marathi (in Devnagari script?). All this followed the pattern set by the senior Thackeray. As we shall see later, there is one difference though – Raj Thackeray’s politics is much more dependent upon publicity and hence on the media. It is more spectacular and cinematic. Therefore, the MNS then took on Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan and ensured that its balance in the bank of publicity would soar. And the apology by Amitabh added to the cinematic strength of the MNS in the eyes of its followers – the lesson was that its strategy pays.

One also needs to note that a large section of Marathi middle class, including media persons, intellectuals and even a cross-section of the political class, now seem to be taking recourse to the position that the issues raised by MNS are right, though their methods may be wrong. What are the issues that find resonance among sections of Marathi intellectuals

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and publicists? That name boards be in Marathi, that routine business be conducted in Marathi, those living in Maharashtra need to know Marathi, outsiders need to integrate themselves with local culture rather than emphasising their distinct cultural practices, central government establishments in the state local residents be given preference, flow of migrants from other states be restricted, Marathi people should give patronage to Marathi artisans, shop owners and Marathi establishments, all Marathi politicians should come together on the issue of the just demands of the Marathi people, there is a conspiracy in Delhi against Maharashtra and this needs to be exploded. One can keep adding to this. But this is the summary of the arguments presented by the MNS (and the Shiv Sena too). If taken in isolation, many of these points individually may find many takers. After all, we live in linguistic states where a limited dose of linguistic chauvinism and identity are unavoidable. A linguistic state feeds these sentiments and tries also to tame them and accommodate them. Raj Thackeray always gives the example of Tamil Nadu for aggressive linguistic assertion. How does one respond to this politics?

Today, when the MNS and Shiv Sena indulge in identical posturing of an intimidating nature, the state Congress and state government not only ignore it, they collude with these parties hoping perhaps that this would make them popular among the Marathi manoos. While the Congress in Maharashtra is confused on this issue, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) is clearly waiting for an opportunity to outsmart the MNS and engage in insidious politics of fanning regional fires. As it is, in Maharashtra, the NCP is more known for being a Maharashtrawadi party rather than a Rashtrawadi (nationalist) party! The BJP has been making appropriate noises, but it was reliably rumoured before the assembly elections in the state that one section of the BJP wanted to sever the party’s alliance with the Shiv Sena and tie the knot with the MNS. Whatever may be the case, a party that thrived on communal mobilisation on a religious basis, and whose most touted leader in Gujarat has unabashedly engaged in the fusion of religious and regional sentiment, cannot protest much against the politics of the MNS. In contrast, opposition

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to the stand taken by the Shiv Sena (on the Shahrukh Khan matter) or the MNS on overall issue of Marathi identity, mainly comes from cosmetic cosmopolitans and so stops merely at mouthing clichés that any citizen can go anywhere and the Constitution has given the rights to all citizens. These are not arguments against the MNS and certainly even if they are arguments, they lack a political understanding of what is happening and how to comprehend the challenge posed by the MNS. I would argue that the Shiv Sena and the MNS pose a set of challenges. First, the challenge is about the nature of Mumbai, migration into that metro, the money involved in controlling the Brihan Mumbai Corporation, the clout over Mumbai’s business and industry (including the film industry) – by implication, it is also about urban policy and the dream of shaping megapolises. Second, it is a challenge about defining and practising diversity. But, foremost, it is about how to conduct politics and how to shape public reason. Unless we take note of this multidimensional nature of the challenge we cannot even begin protesting against it.

Mumbai and Beyond

The MNS’ story about Mumbai is not new; Raj Thackeray’s uncle scripted it originally in the 1960s. It is appropriate to remember the mutuality of interests between Bal Thackeray and the then Congress Chief Minister, Vasantrao Naik, for which the Shiv Sena used to be caricatured as “Vasantsena”. Like a remake of Hindi movies of yesteryears, the nephew is rescripting that story today and getting away with it. Mumbai is a delicate corner of the post-Independence collective consciousness of Marathi society. It is also the lifeline of Maharashtra’s “progress”. Mumbai has the lure of a mythical seductress – not only for Marathi people but for multitudes seeking to “make it” in life. This attraction has been the cause of much conflict and disquiet.

One of the difficult issues in forming the state of Marathi people was the status of Mumbai. It was not only about the claim by Gujarat over the city; more than that, it was about maintaining Mumbai’s traditionally diverse character transcending linguistic barriers. The demand that Mumbai should belong to Maharashtra met with much resistance and that resistance and its tragic outcome in the form of deaths of over 100 persons in the course of police firing shaped Marathi sensibilities about the city (for details of this movement and the incidents leading to police firing see Phadke 1979). It is not clear if those leaders of the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement (SMM) were really aware of the sensibilities their agitation caused to shape. Leaders like S A Dange and S M Joshi were not interested in fanning regional identity beyond a point and once Mumbai was made capital of the


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new state of Maharashtra, for them at least, the issue was over. But in shaping the sensibility of the Marathi people, more than Dange and Joshi, Acharya Atre (1898-1969), a versatile publicist and journalist was more instrumental. He revelled in ahistorical populist rhetoric in his role as a publicist. He practised linguistic excess as political weapon. Even after the formation of Maharashtra in 1960, Atre continued to employ this weapon against a large number of his adversaries. But Atre was a maverick and not an organiser; his linguistic excess, therefore, never took the form of a political outfit. He shaped the paranoid sensibility but it was not in his nature to ride on that sensibility. Besides, Mumbai’s story is much more complex – like a multi-starrer blockbuster, it has scripts within script. One such script unfolded after 1960 – the state government (literally) created space for the bourgeoisie of Mumbai, particularly big finance and construction interests.

Real estate thrived under the dispensation of V P Naik. Many of Mumbai’s crowding problems and pressures on infrastructure emanated from the policy of the state government. All advice about restricting the growth of Mumbai and about encouraging the creation of twin cities around Mumbai were ignored. Today’s Mumbai has to pay dearly for that brazen policy of uncontrolled growth to satiate the capitalist class of Mumbai. This speeded up the process of throwing out the middle/lower middle classes (which incidentally happened to be mostly Marathi) from the centre of the city. The Shiv Sena appeared on the scene in the mid-1960s in this overall background and claimed to be the representative of Marathi interest. This phase of the Shiv Sena has been well documented and does not need repetition here (Gupta 1982). Suffice to remember that this politics unfolded in and around the issue of Mumbai

– though it was couched in the language of Marathi identity and interests of Marathi people. Control over Mumbai was at stake then as it is now.

Political parties want to fleece Mumbai for their financial and political gains, but rarely talk seriously about two issues pertaining to Mumbai. One, no party wants to take up the issue of planning and governance. From V P Naik onwards, ruling parties in the state have had a cynical view of the problem called Mumbai. The capitalist class too did not bother to look beyond immediate interests and, in fact, pressurised the government to make what is today’s Mumbai – they contributed to the overthrow of the middle class Mumbai and later even the working class Mumbai to make space for their businesses.

Business and industry in Mumbai never cared to think of the larger social issues involved in thoughtless expansion of the city. This added to the governance burden, it expanded squalor, strained Mumbai’s infrastructure beyond limits and made way for parochial politics that could appear plausible for a large majority. Second, those engaging in parochial politics over Mumbai and their self-proclaimed cosmopolitan critics ignore the meaning of Mumbai. In the course of the agitation for the state of Maharashtra, some rhetorical claims may have been made about whom the city belongs to. But even at that point, it was appreciated that Mumbai is India in microcosm. Not just because it houses people of different languages and religions, etc, but because it is an example of accommodation without homogenisation. The city and its social universe do not demand – at least did not demand so far – that you have to give up your language or culture in order to be acceptable here.

That has been the strength of Mumbai. But those who want to make Mumbai homogeneous and Marathi also know well that they cannot wipe out this identity of the city. Why do they then stoke the fires of hatred based on language and region? To answer this, we must take the discussion beyond merely “ownership” of Mumbai. Raj Thackeray has repeatedly shown that the suspicion about the outsider can arouse emotions not only in Mumbai but in many other urban centres. As cities grow, they tend to become more diverse and attract “migrants” from different places. Thus urbanisation produces both objective conditions and sensibilities that can be exploited in favour of the “ownership” argument. In this way, the MNS raises the issue of ownership of the entire state. This has helped the MNS spread its popularity beyond Mumbai to many other cities and towns of Maharashtra. Therefore, a rejoinder to the MNS cannot stop merely at the historical specificity of Mumbai’s very natural cosmopolitanism; we need to take the response further.

Politics of Anti-Diversity

In most responses to the MNS, there is an attempt to argue how citizens of India can go and seek work anywhere. Apart from this legalistic argument, it is also said that excessive regionalism is not good for national unity – an argument that will not cut much ice in the wake of various regional movements in history and in the present. Third, it is pointed out that the targets of MNS are mostly poor, unskilled or semi-skilled labourers who are victims of capitalist development and/or semi-feudal oppression and lopsided regional devel op ment of the country. Such counterarguments miss the central point – the defining characteristic of the politics of the MNS variety. The MNS attempts at singling out one dimension of people’s complex identities and constructs

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an identity that is based on exclusion of “others” from the idea of community. We must remember that the MNS, and organisations like it, thrive in times of identity politics; in times when identities, more than social location, matter as principles to mobilise the masses. So, the MNS claims that one community, the Marathi people, own the physical space called Maharashtra, its resources and also the realm of symbols and identity markers.

Notion of Ownership

The idea of ownership gives rise to claims of preferential treatment and demands for exclusion. City spaces are seen as belonging to one (linguistic) community and while realistically speaking, one cannot drive out the “others”, various exclusionary strategies are propounded and practised. When the MNS says that jobs in Mumbai or Maharashtra should go only to the Marathi people, this is certainly not a new demand at all. This is a majoritarian position that cuts at the root of diversity.

But do we practise diversity? Diversity is paraded at the Republic Day but not practised, nor theorised adequately. Surely, diversity does not mean museumising institutions and social universes (Palshikar 2008). Similarly, diversity should not and does not mean denial of any regional aspiration or sentiment. In other words, a prodiversity policy would refer to our social resolve not to privilege one identity or cultural practice or interest of one community over any other. The MNS refuses to subscribe to this resolve and hence it is antidiversity. And the MNS is not alone in this respect. Cynical politics and raw understanding of regional claims have allowed regional identity to slip into nativism, not just in Maharashtra, but in other parts of the country too.

As a society, we have not given enough thought to the meaning of and possible response to such “nativist” demands. Existing policy wisdom seems to believe that it is a good strategy to ensure that the locals will get a certain proportion of jobs (or admissions). Governments and semi-government establishments including colleges and universities all over the country practice this strategy of preferential treatment to locals, or “domiciles”. When the MNS raises a din, we search for counterarguments, but

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when these policies are routinised, we do not realise that stands like that of the MNS are already legitimised through an unthinking policy discourse. MNS or no MNS, preferential treatment to locals is always an easy and attractive policy proposal. What is wrong with it? It is wrong simply because it creates an untenable category of “local”. In admini strative parlance it becomes “domicile” – meaning resident for 15 years. This strategy practically abandons diversity. Apart from raising issues of definition of the local, such a policy encourages inbreeding and denies its beneficiaries the advantage of greater exposure and competition. It produces ghettoisation at schools, colleges and at workplaces – resulting in non-diverse social universes – hostels, localities and cities. At the other extreme we have sanitised ideas of diversity often proclaimed in isolation from social reality. This extreme view would have us believe that the “local” is altogether a myth. The argument here is that just as a college or university that keeps out the non-locals is incongruous with diversity, a college that has only non-locals as its staff and/or students is equally incongruous with diversity.

In a vast and diverse country like India, we need to appreciate that the idea of the local does achieve some resonance – not only because the country is so large but also because the principle organising our political life is governed by the idea of linguistic community. Hence, just as the “nativist” platform is anti-diversity and untenable, the idea of diversity that does not imply a balance between the competing interests of locality and translocality is also untenable.

Apart from nativist demands about preferential treatment in jobs, the MNS (and perhaps other similar political formations too) would like to establish the majoritarian norm in the sphere of culture and social life. This allows the MNS to draw support not only from semi-skilled, semiemployed youth, but also from the middle classes. The post-poll survey of voters in Maharashtra conducted after the assembly election of 2009 shows that over 80% of MNS supporters come from the upper and middle class backgrounds (Palshikar et al 2009: 47). This support is obviously not based on concerns about employment opportunities but on majoritarian sensibilities

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that these sections share with the MNS. Having begun with an attack on north Indians for the celebrations of chhat puja, the MNS has been speaking frequently about the legitimate domination of Marathi language and Marathi people in the state of Maharashtra. This language is different from the aspiration that Marathi may prosper or Marathi may become richer in its vocabulary. Here, the emphasis is on forcing non-Marathi people to learn and speak Marathi – “make Marathi compulsory”. Such ideas emerge from within a majoritarian view of society and politics. Most arguments supporting or opposing the MNS appear oblivious to this larger context.

Form of MNS Politics

If the content of MNS politics is sub-democratic, the form it adopts, too, is not less so. The impunity with which newly elected MLAs of the MNS physically assaulted the Samajwadi Party leader and MLA, Abu Azmi, inside the legislative house, only dramatically showcases its politics. The leader of the MNS might have been copying from his uncle when he publicly appreciated his MLAs for this attack. Thus we are confronted with another distortion of the idea of democratic politics. In the preceding section we saw how democracy is distorted to mean the will of the majority community. This distortion emanates from the ideology and content of MNS politics. The other distortion is that political actors are encouraged to take action that effectively negates the possibility of argument.

To be sure, strong-arm politics is not new and not the monopoly of the MNS. Yet, in assessing the MNS and in responding to it, this dimension deserves mention. Like in the case of the Shiv Sena and many other more recent practitioners of strong-arm street politics, the state government consistently handled MNS with kid gloves. The message is obvious: if you take to the streets, the government will not stop you, the public will be frightened of your power and the media will make a hero out of you. In fact, the strong-arm politics of the MNS variety has an unwitting ally in contemporary times in the form of the media.

Ever since Raj Thackeray took the antioutsiders position, he has been in permanent limelight both in the print and electronic media though one could argue that


this is not necessarily out of sympathy for his politics. For the media, Raj Thackeray and his type of politics is a good spectacle. During the assembly election in 2009, television channels telecast Raj Thackeray’s entire speeches live. This can give an idea as to how popular the MNS is with the media and Raj Thackeray, in fact, tongue-incheek, publicly thanked the media for this extraordinary largesse!

Media collusion apart, the issue that concerns us here is about both language and action that the MNS indulges in. The MNS is only an instance. The larger issue is about the sub-democratic possibilities in a democratic set-up. Democracy should and does admit of debates on the very idea of democracy. What happens when this space is appropriated to challenge or weaken crucial constitutive elements of democracy? Organisations like the MNS (and it is not alone in this class) undermine the acceptability of diversity. They impose a new ethic of non-argument. They shrink the possibility of argument; a culture of violent aggression is propounded; public vilification and possibility of physical assault haunt the critic and the opponent; vile language and cheap caricaturing mesmerise the audience and delegitimise differences of opinion. Just as the MNS and others like it raise issues about diversity and public policy, they alert us to the other concern of democracy – the growing difficulties in engaging in debate and dissent. Debate is not necessarily thwarted by physical threats; it is also possible to thwart debate by framing the questions wrongly. That is where the MNS excels. As a corollary, the response to the MNS and similar political organisations is often voluble in its mistakes and naiveté. One must admit that the MNS has been successful in forcing its critics to respond to mainly the Mumbai dimension of its politics without touching upon the core of that politics. To wit, the issue is not to convince the non-Marathi outsider how she has the right to go and live in Mumbai; the issue is partly to convince the Marathi follower of the MNS that identifying communities as locals and outsiders is fraught with pragmatic and philosophical difficulties.

The story may appear to be a repeat of the Shiv Sena story. One could always derive succour from the fact that such repetitions of history are likely to end up only as farce; but farcical though they may seem, such repetitions of history also represent the tragic side of our democracy: large sections of the community are lured by linguistic excess; thousands of young activists are (mis)led to believe that they are fighting for a cause; and the culture of democracy is tainted by the inability to evolve robust public reason.


Gupta, Dipankar (1982): Nativism in a Metropolis: Shiv Sena in Bombay (Delhi: Manohar).

Palshikar, Suhas (2008): “Of Democracy and Diversity”, Seminar, 581, pp 83-87.

– (2008a): “Nimitta Marathichya Swabhimanache; Mudda Sarwajanik Vivekacha” (Marathi, in the name of Marathi self-respect – but the issue of Public Reason) serialised in a fortnightly, Parivartanacha Watsaru and a weekly, Sadhana in November-December 2008.

Palshikar, Suhas, Rajeshwari Deshpande and Nitin Birmal (2009): “Maharashtra Polls: Continuity amidst Social Volatility”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 54, No 48, 28 November, pp 42-47.

Phadke, Y D (1979): Politics and Language (Bombay: Himlaya).

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