Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Chasing out Biharis from Mumbai

Nothing unique about Mumbai
The deplorable assault on 'North Indians' and 'South Indians' in Mumbai, Nashik, Pune and other towns of Maharashtra by hoodlums masquerading as 'political activists' has understandably fetched condemnation from saner sections of society, including in those places where hawkers, taxi drivers and labourers are being targeted because they speak a language other than Marathi. It is immaterial whether the thugs on the prowl owe allegiance to Mr Raj Thackeray, who heads the so-called Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, or to Mr Uddhav Thackeray, executive president of the Shiv Sena. If the situation so demands and the opportunity is rewarding enough, they would as well offer their services to the Congress or, for that matter, any other political organisation.
The Shiv Sena, of course, is the original sinner: 'Maharashtra for Maharashtrians' is not only a slogan for Mr Balasaheb Thackeray's sainiks, but also the raison d'ĂȘtre of the deeply parochial organisation he founded in 1966 to combat "Marathi marginalisation". That was six years after Maharashtra's formation following an often violent agitation by Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti, culminating in the infamous police firing on agitators at Mumbai's Flora Fountain in which 105 people were killed, forcing a cussed Morarji Desai to climb down from his high horse. Strangely though, Mr Balasaheb Thackeray did not unleash the city's lumpenproletariat on Gujarati traders and businessmen, who stayed put after Bombay State was carved into Maharashtra and Gujarat, but immigrant Tamilians and their Udupi eateries. It is the turn of 'North Indians' now.
Much has been said and written to denounce the current spate of violence against 'outsiders'; the Thackeray cousins deserve much of the castigation that has come their way. But in our haste to criticise their noxious politics of nativism, let us not forget that parochialism is the other name for regionalism. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that 'State politics' across India, as opposed to 'national politics', is largely based on pandering to parochial pride and provincial sentiments camouflaged as regional aspirations. In Tamil Nadu, the idea of a 'Dravida Desam' where Brahmins -- described as "agents of North India" in DMK pamphlets -- shall have no place, continues to titillate popular imagination. In Andhra Pradesh, NT Rama Rao made 'Telugu Desam' the platform of his politics; his political heir, Mr Chandrababu Naidu, who now heads the Telugu Desam Party, continues to build on it.
It may be entirely coincidental, but it is interesting that soon after Mr Raj Thackeray set his goons on 'North Indians' in Mumbai and elsewhere, Mr Shibu Soren, who heads the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, addressing a rally in Dumka, asserted that Jharkhand is the "sole preserve" of adivasis and moolvasis. Reminding his adivasi audience that Jharkhand was created for the "rights of tribals and not non-tribals", Mr Soren said, "What we wanted was the rapid development of Jharkhand... (for) the actual sons-of-the-soil. We (adivasis) helped create Jharkhand, but we are yet to taste its fruits."
Mr Soren cunningly stopped short of declaring that dikus, or 'outsiders', are not welcome in Jharkhand, but his message was no less unambiguous than that of the Thackeray cousins. The lib-left intelligentsia will, of course, disingenuously suggest that there is merit in pursuing a 'tribals first' policy in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh; after all, they are the original inhabitants and have been marginalised in their own land. But shorn of shrill and crude rhetoric, this is precisely what is being claimed in Maharashtra -- 'sons-of-the-soil' have the first right to jobs, housing and amenities.
A similar sentiment is cited to justify violence against non-Assamese in Assam where migrant labourers and traders from Bihar continue to be targeted by 'sons-of-the-soil' seeking to assert their rights in their State. Many would still recall the anti-foreigners agitation that was triggered by the discovery of voters in Mongoldoi having multiplied several times over, thanks to illegal immigration from Bangladesh, when a by-election was necessitated following the death of Hiralal Patwa on March 28, 1979. Till the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, the All-Assam Students' Union, which organised the 'Bangaal kheda' agitation, held the State, and the country, to ransom. It is another matter that despite being in power twice, the AGP has failed miserably in tracking down and deporting Bangladeshis; the IMDT Act of 1983 is not alone to blame for this failure.
But few would recall that the seeds of the anti-foreigners agitation were sown during an earlier virulently parochial agitation against 'outsiders', disparagingly referred to as "Ali-Kuli-Bangaali". Very few Bengalis now remain in Assam, most having migrated back to West Bengal, while kulis -- tribals from what was once known as Chhota Nagpur -- employed in tea gardens continue to face the wrath of the 'sons-of-the-soil', some of whom recently stripped and chased a young tribal girl in the streets of Guwahati as others gawked.
It would, however, be incorrect to believe that the perceived rights of 'sons- of-the-soil' over those of 'outsiders' followed the creation of linguistic States. TN Joseph and SN Sangita, in their research paper, Preferential Politics and Sons-of-the-Soil Demands: The Indian Experience, have pointed out how the 'sons-of-the-soil' demands were advocated by leaders of the nationalist movement. "For instance, a report prepared by Rajendra Prasad for the Working Committee of the Indian National Congress presents an extensive survey of the Bihar situation as of 1938. This report, endorsed by the Indian National Congress, uses the term provincials to refer to the sons-of-the-soil and declares that their 'desire to seek employment in their own locality is natural and not reprehensible, and rules providing for such employment to them are not inconsistent with the high ideals of the Congress.' Rajendra Prasad argued in the report that it is 'just and proper that the residents of a province should get preference in their own province in the matter of public services and educational facilities... It is neither possible nor wise to ignore these demands, and it must be recognised that in regard to services and like matters the people of a province have a certain claim which cannot be overlooked'."
Between 1938 and 2008, India has travelled a long distance and the national economy is now vastly different from what it was even a decade ago. But provincialism -- or call it what you may -- remains as deeply ingrained as ever. 'Cosmopolitan India' is a figment of South Delhi's imagination.

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