India's Divisive, Dark Ages Politics

A small independent film was banned from Mumbai theatres this week. Unremarkable in another place and time, “Deshdrohi” just happened to hit on the incendiary issue of Mumbai society today: migrant workers. Thus the release of this tale of a north Indian laborer 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 said.

A roiling wave of xenophobia first welled here in February, when rising right-wing politician Raj Thackeray bashed 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.

Thackeray continued his anti-outsider campaign and the wave swelled, cresting in late October when goons from his political party, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, or MNS, attacked north Indians as they were taking exams for local positions with the Indian railways. The next day police arrested 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 the following day on bail, Thackeray had struck fear into outsiders and captured the hearts of millions of dissatisfied locals. When a week later Bihari immigrant Rahul Raj was shot dead by police after commandeering a bus with a pistol and threatening to kill 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 percent of Mumbai's 17 million population, 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 and place and deliver Hinduism's most revered consumable – milk. Without them, the city would grind to halt.

To combat their progress, Raj 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 claims to admire Adolf Hitler and hates without prejudice: outsiders, foreigners, Muslims, Christians, you name it. He is alleged to have coordinated the slaughter of hundreds of Muslims during Mumbai's religious riots in 1993 and, a few months ago, called for Hindu suicide bombers in response to a recent rash of bomb attacks in Indian cities.

Following that line, Raj's aggressively hate-filled, 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,” Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wrote in a recent letter to Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh. “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.”

In its inherent ignorance and incitement to violence, Thackeray's stance brings to mind a darker age, in which fearful citizens of fortified city-states were protected from the mysterious, dangerous other by warlords who unleashed their minions on invaders. Such divisive, Dark Ages politics remain effective in India partially because they offer such great spectacle. Images of desperate, blood-splattered outsiders, flaming taxis and carnage in the streets, marauding gangs of angry young defenders and inflammatory remarks are played repeatedly on dozens of news channels and displayed prominently in local, regional and national newspapers. For ratcheting up the fear and subtly validating defense of the homeland in its sensationalist, non-stop coverage, the media must accept a portion of the blame for Thackeray's rise.

And he is not alone. Taking its lead from the Raj era British policy of divide and rule, politicians across India – in Andhra Pradesh and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Assam – have begun to exploit the uneducated lower classes, appealing to local fears and highlighting regional divides in order 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 2500 years ago.“The roots of this culture go back to ancient times and it has developed through contact with many races and peoples,” south Indian intellectual Kota Shivarama Karanth 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 sixty years after his death Gandhi remains the world's defining symbol of non-violence.

Yet even he was assassinated, and 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 horrifying 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 dare speak its name threatens, according to Singh, to “undermine the unity and integrity of the country.”

A world away, another, almost equally diverse democracy recently made history by electing a dark-skinned minority to its highest office. Around the time Barack Obama began his campaign on a message of unity and change, an upstart Maharashtrian politician began his own political career with a call for inclusiveness.“I am seeking a chance, with a clean slate, to show you that change is possible,” Raj Thackeray told a Mumbai crowd in January 2007.

That Thackeray's embrace of Dark Ages divisiveness over the past year has garnered him much greater 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 laborer tossed about and finally killed by an unwelcoming metropolis, might spark a little understanding.

-- an edited version ran in The National, www.thenational.ae, on Nov 16.

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