Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Thoughts on the Bombay municipal elections

Proving that bigotry and its oft-handmaiden of poor sartorial flourishes don’t respect geographic boundaries, George Wallace’s spiritual successor here in Bombay, Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray , informed Bombay’s voters that “the city will burn if it is taken away from Maharashtra," this week, days before a civic poll to pick the new members of the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) and other posts in the city.

Readers may remember that Thackeray is the political leader that the author (and native Bombayite) Suketu Mehta memorably described as "the one man most directly responsible for ruining the city I grew up in."

The Shiv Sena (or Army of Shiva, referring to Shivaji) was formed by Thackeray in 1966, promoting themselves as Bhumiputra or "sons of the soil," while propagating that native Maharashtrians (those born in Maharashtra state and speaking the Marathi language) deserved greater rights in their eponymous state (of which Bombay is a part) than "foreigners," which in this case meant basically Muslims (the Shiv Sena also promoted the rather exceptionalist Hindutva philosophy) and "southerners" (those from south India). Following the destruction of Babri Mosque in northeastern India by Hindu extremists in December 1992, Bombay was engulfed in ghastly rioting that left over 2,000 dead , many of them Muslims targeted by Hindu mobs. The Srikrishna Commission Report on the violence, released in 1998, stated unequivocally that “from January 8, 1993 at least there is no doubt that the Shiv Sena and Shiv Sainiks took the lead in organizing attacks on Muslims and their properties under the guidance of several leaders,’ singling out Thackeray for special condemnation.

Yet another example in the world of an individual and a political current promoting that idea that for one group to be uplifted, another group must be crushed.

“In the Bombay I grew up in,” Mehta writes in his book, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found “being Muslim or Hindu or Catholic was merely a personal eccentricity, like a hairstyle. We had a boy in our class who I realize now from his name, Arif, must have been Muslim. I remember that he was an expert in doggerel and instructed us in an obscene version of a patriotic song, “Come, children, let me teach you the story of Hindustan”, in which the nationalistic exploits of the country’s leaders were replaced by the sexual escapades of Bombay’s movie stars. He didn’t do this because he was Muslim and hence unpatriotic. He did this because he was a twelve-year-old boy.”

“Now it mattered.,“ Mehta concludes. “Because it mattered to Bal Thackeray.”

And now, for reasons I haven’t quite figured out yet, despite guiding one element of Bombay’s citizenry in an attempt to ethnically purge another element of this great mosaic, Thackeray is still a free man to make statements such as the one above.

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