This post will be repetitive if you've been reading about it already, and also very long. But I was taught as a kid that the pen (or keyboard) is mightier than the sword and there is something about the overwhelming outpouring of "love and respect" for Mumbai's Bal Thackeray that has been bothering me for days, so here goes :
I am no Mumbaikar but Mumbai most definitely ranks as my most favorite city in India. I am definitely not Marathi and my only connection with Maharastra stems from the little over two years I lived, studied and worked in Pune and Bombay.
As a Bengali brought up in Bengal in the late 80s and 90s, my association and acquaintance with Thackeray and Shiv Sena started late in life, mostly when they began ravaging cities, towns and youngsters who, egged on by love and loyalty for Shahrukh Khan and Archies Gallery "dared" to celebrate Valentine's Day. If they found a Feb 14 that was also a full moon night I do not know, but if they were unlucky enough to find rallying Shiv Sainiks while romancing their partners, I am sure no amount of films or Archies or Hallmark could get them back the next year. Love? Only if we live, no?
The "protests" were all over the papers-- and I remember heated discussions in faraway Calcutta (yessir, I still can't do "Kolkata" unless I'm speaking in Bengali. We all have our own colonial hangovers to deal with, you see)about the ridiculousness of it all. We're bongs, we're intellectual, we are open minded and we turn up our noses in disdain at the conservative till our professors get arrested for drawing cartoons.
Which, incidentally, was Bal Thackeray's profession. If you hear the man talk and follow closely, you can still see that edge of wit that is necessary for someone in that profession to have. But to what end?
For, for me, and many others like me that I know, wit is not what comes to mind when you say Shiv Sena. What comes to mind is ethnic chauvinism, Hindu hardliners and mass upsetting of daily lives for reasons that to my teenage mind were non issues. I am not sure I've moved much from my stance on the non-issues bit, but I am definitely in a better place to exercise Voltaire's wisdom. I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.
Which no one seems to care for anymore nowadays, since Facebook posts and cartoons can warrant arrests, so we'll let that slide. And here, I realise as I type, this post stops being just about this one man. It is more about the ideas he propagated, and the bunch of clones they spawned.
My first real brush with the zeal of Shiv Sainiks was in Pune, again on Valentine's day. It is a VERY important day when you are 18, you see. Our's was among the rich, yuppie colleges in town, but its day to day running was under the charge of a man who had his priorities set largely in the right places. And the grapevine said he came from Bihar. I do not know whether it was the first or the second that make him stick to his guns, but while most other colleges shut down for fear of violence on V day, we went to school.
And sure enough, mid way through the lectures there came the slogan raising Sainks, creating a great deal of commotion in the grounds. No one was hurt and nothing was broken (except maybe a part of the main gate. I am not sure). But there, sitting inside the classroom of one of India's more tony universities, I realised how true that fear of being roughed up, mobbed or threatened could get for other people who were not under the safety net of a well known institute in a prominent city in India.
The next brush that left a bitter aftertaste was when a PG mate started voicing her feelings against "outsider encroachers" very vocally one night, while a debate on the same topic was on on TV. In the presence of four other girls who were all "outsiders". There, in the middle of the heat of it all, this girl, who had moved from Thane to further her education, said "that is why my family and I support the Shiv Sena. They protect our culture...all you outsiders just spoil it." Ok, I am not quoting her, it happened some six years ago and I don't remember her exact choice of words, but I remember enough to know the gist. You can understand if I did not form a very warm opinion of her, her family or the Sainiks after that outburst.
I moved houses soon (not because of the girl but because the college moved to a bigger campus) and found myself in the more Marathi neighbourhood of Viman Nagar than the ultra cosmopolitan settings of Senapati Bapat Road and FC Road. Barring about four students, everyone else in my class was an immigrant like me, which basically means we were from other states. If there's one thing that my Masters degree taught me in life, it is the art of living closely with, appreciating and getting along with people from various regions and of different cultures. It is also where I heard a classmate from Chennai classify Bombay as "North India", but that is another story.
After my flatmates and I had overcome challenges of budget, security, convenience and singlehood, we were finally staring at the outsider challenge.
The bhaji-wallah would cater to the Marathi speaking customer before you even if you've been patiently waiting for a long time, the autowallah would be especially ready to fleece you since you are an outsider and can't shout back in Marathi.
I now know this exists everywhere but when you are a student on a budget you interact more with the local people because you are cutting costs. Read: take the public transport as opposed to cabs, shop at the local kirana shop as opposed to expensive malls. Hence, you are more exposed to the local culture: its warmth and its hostility all come in a package.
I must not and will not ever say all my interaction with local residents were bitter, no way. My PG owner in the first year went out of her way to make the "bahar ki bachchi" feel at home, I was even invited to their household Lakshmi Puja. Our neighbours in the other place treated me to many a breakfast of pohas and their kids, on more than one occasion, turned our living room into a ball practice arena. But this was not our daily living. Interacting with the bhaji wallah and the auto wallah was our daily living.
It was here that I started appreciating how hard line groups like the Shiv Sena, MNS and others in other parts of the country survive and grow, feeding on a misdirected sence of local patriotism. I had no such close experience of regional communalism but this is where I made friends from Ahmedabad, who had seen the riots rape their city and watched as their neighbours' houses burnt to the ground. And this is also where I started appreciating why local residents would resent their city being "taken over" by raving, suddenly-taken-to-drinking-and-cannot-hold-their-alcohol teenagers.
I see that. What I do not see is what gives a local resident the right to refuse housing to a boy just because he is "not from here". I do not see how a group that backs the local auto union can give drivers so much authority so as to have one of them slap a young girl across the face because she was calling out to a guy friend to hurry up and join her, while threatening "I'm a local person, I'll see what you can do."
I know it is a huge leap and borderline wrong to say all of this is the result or even the heritage of one man and his ideologies. It probably is not. I'll never be entirely sure if popular demand spawned it or it was the other way round. And being a non Marathi, I understand that I may be missing out on a whole lot of local sentiments that spur these outbursts.
But I do know I have a right, backed by the constitution of our country, to move freely with the land and call any part home (except for Kashmir) without constantly battling charges of "you don't speak our language, you are not from here, you are Bengali and eat fish so we can't house you". Yes, I've heard that last bit too.
And so, when a Bal Thackeray dies and the entire nation, barring a few, joins forces to sing paeans for him, it scares me. This is a man that proudly said he admired Hitler. I would be apprehensive of any man that says that, for leadership qualities or not, business acumen notwithstanding, a mass murderer is a mass murderer. This is a man that was responsible for the killings of many; who in 2002 and in 2008 asked Hindus to form suicide squads to attack Muslims. While living in a nation that calls itself a "sovereign, socialist secular, democratic, republic."
I know enough of India and its politics to not expect him to be taken to task for any of it when he lived. What rattles me is the en masse bending over of the Indian media when they put up his obits. Everyone spoke of how he changed the face of politics in Maharastra. That change was triggered by the killing of Krishna Desai, and if that is someone's legacy, I am not sure it's much to deify anyone for. One prominent news anchor pulled a suitably sombre expression and went on about how "well managed" the funeral was and "how you cannot prompt 2 million people to attend." I agree, surely most of those people were there of their own accord, but I have learnt enough to know not to mix up the multitude's curiosity and fear of missing out for love and loyalty.
And I am not sure if any of those on that TV panel who went on about mass popularity have read Julius Caesar closely, but if they have, they would know it is terribly easy to lead the multitude and sway its loyalty if one caters to populism and has the gift of the gab. And with 75 drachmas.
The same crowd that exalted Brutus went after him after Anthony asked his friends, Romans countrymen to lend him their ears. For we, the people, do not think. We fit in and follow.
As for the well managed funeral, all I can understand is we are so used to have a certain sect of people disrupt our daily lives with that an act of normal consideration does not stay that, but gets promoted to an act of greatness.
For WE have a misplaced sense of greatness. For Brutus was an honorable man.