Saturday, March 1, 2008

This is not patriotism

Bombay was my home for nine years. Though I was too old to learn how to speak Marathi or Gujarati, I did not feel like an outsider and managed to adjust with Mumbai type of Hindi—ayenga, jayenga, thamba, khalas. No one ever made me feel unwelcome because I did not belong to the city. There were millions of others like me who came from different parts of India. We had unflattering names for different communities which we only used when they were not listening: ‘Gujjus’ for Gujaratis, ‘Ghatis’ for Maharashtrians, ‘Bawajis’ for Parsis, ‘Makapaons’ for Goan Christians and ‘Mianbhais’ for Muslims. I was a ‘Sikhra’, ‘Surd’ or ‘Surdy’.

There were also Sindhis, Armenians, Jews and Europeans. We got on very well with each other. All communities had contributed to making Bombay India's first city. The largest contribution was made by the British; the second largest was by the Parsis, Gujaratis and Marwaris.

Bal Thackeray, founding-father of the Shiv Sena, is an admirer of Adolf Hitler
Bal Thackeray, founding-father of the Shiv Sena, is an admirer of Adolf Hitler

I am not being unfair in my assessment that the smallest contribution was that of the Maharashtrians, who formed the predominant majority. The combination of resentment and envy was of combustible material for some Maharashtrian to exploit to his political advantage. That Maharashtrian was Bal Thackeray, founding-father of the Shiv Sena. I met him once at his sresidence. He was as different looking from my idea of a Maratha warrior as any Maratha I had met—frail, bearded, bespectacled, dressed in saffron kurta with a necklace round his neck.

But he surrounded himself with emblems of militancy—pictures of snarling tigers, busts of Chatrapati Shivaji and armed guards. He was a man of little learning, a second-rate cartoonist, an admirer of Adolf Hitler and his belief was that Aryans were God's chosen race. Thackeray's chosen race were Marathas. So he exploited Maratha pride. Hitler's victims were Jews and Gypsies. Thackeray's first victims were South Indians, mainly those who ran idli-dosa eateries all over the city. He had his hoodlums beat them up and wreck their restaurants. There was nothing to stop Maharashtrians from opening eateries of their own, but that would not have served his purpose. He got his lumpen followers to do what they knew best. They roughed up Tamilians, Kannadigas and Malayalees and vandalised their properties. He became a hero amongst his people.

He spread ill-will against Muslims and boasted that his sainiks had played the leading role in bringing down the Babri Masjid. No action was taken against him. On the contrary, non-Marathi Mumbaikars, notably those with political ambitions like the Dutt family, kow-towed before him. His demagoguery helped him to become a formidable figure in all of Maharashtra. Contenders for Bal Thackeray's legacy of hate are his son Udhav and nephew Raj. They have gone a step further than Bala Saheb. Udhav took the easier route to notoriety—he insulted India's number one icon Amitabh Bachchan and attacked his residence. Raj went a step further. His goons attacked their own countrymen from the North and made thousands flee from their homes.

He should have been handcuffed the day he committed the crime. But neither the state nor the Central Government had the nerve to do so till well after a week. He was immediately released on bail. Neither the Prime Minister nor Sonia Gandhi condemned his actions. L.K. Advani took his time to describe his doings "unconstitutional". That was a euphemism for anti-national and communal. They should have known that the only way to deal with bullies is to call their bluff and hit them back as hard as possible.

No one can deny that when it comes to jobs, all things being the same, locals must be given preference to outsiders; it does not create housing problems or any ill-will against outsiders. That is plain common sense. Indulging in abuse and violence is unpardonable. No one is entitled to question another of his Indian identity. It is unpatriotic and must be condemned in the strongest of terms.

First War of Independence

Was the rising of 1857 really India's First War of Independence? Our politicians say yes. They have political reasons for doing so. Our historians are sharply divided in their views. Most of them say yes and no in the same breath. They have good reasons to be confused. The rebellion was limited to northern India, extending from Ambala to Barrackpur (Calcutta) down to Madhya Pradesh. It did not spread in Punjab, Kashmir, NWFP, Sindh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra or the Deccan. Most of India remained indifferent and much of it sided with the British. Indians who rose against the British had different motives for doing so.

The sepoys—both Hindu and Muslims—who first opened fire felt their religions were in danger as they were made to bite bullets greased with cow and pig fat. Indian rulers who joined them were aggrieved that their estates had been grabbed by outsiders and fought to restore dynastic rule. They included the Muslim ruling family of Avadh, the exiled Peshwa and the Rani of Jhansi. The 80-year-old Mughal Bahadur Shah Zafar was bullied into becoming the figure-head of anti-British elements. Muslims wanted restoration of Mughal rule; Hindus did not. For some it was more property than patriotism; for a few it was desire for freedom from alien domination.

There has been a flood of books on the subject. The latest is Dateline 1857: Revolt Against the Raj by Rudrangshu Mukherjee and Pramod Kapoor (Roli Books). Mukherjee has a formidable reputation as a historian. He has spelt out the case for both sides in lucid prose. Kapoor has specialised in getting illustrated material of the times from archives in England and India. He is a master-craftsman of re-packaging old stories and presenting them afresh. The only problem with his latest product is its size. It is too large to hold in one's hands to read and too out of proportion to be put in a bookshelf or on a coffee table.