I have been researching Maharashtra’s society, culture and polity for some time now and I have been impressed by the fact that it has been the most progressive Indian state of all time (that is, if you exclude Bengal which has also had many reformist movements over centuries).
The galaxy of Maharashtra’s reformers, including its bards who impressed with their poetry, has been legendary. Bal Gangadhar Tilak democratised the celebration of the Ganpati festival by bringing it out of priestly domination to the common masses, even if it was to cock a snook at the British. Mahatma Jyotiba Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar fought bitterly to dignify Dalits and even Bal Thackeray’s illustrious father Keshav Prabodhankar Thackeray fiercely took on the Brahminical order to secure entry into temples for the so-called untouchables who were being blocked by priests even post-Independence. Even the tradition of safety and respect for women follows from Chhatrapati Shivaji and the influence that his mother Jijabai had on him. And, unlike in Tamil Nadu, where Brahmins were marginalised by the Periyar movement, they were not quite excluded by the Marathas who, though, made sure they themselves continued to remain the ruling class even post-Independence. And, in today's times, non-Maharashtrians regularly make it to the state assembly from all political parties.
Maharashtra’s is as inclusive a society as you can get anywhere in this country. The fact that it has remained cosmopolitan and eclectic, despite what the Shiv Sena tried to do to it over fifty years says much for its progressive DNA. But why the Shiv Sena thrived and the Rashtriya Swayamevak Sangh failed to make inroads for nearly a hundred years of its existence in both the city (Nagpur) and state of its birth is in the difference of tactics. The Sena used brute force and the RSS tried gentle persuasion – people were not persuaded to give up their progressive mettle, however. But, now when the RSS bodies are beginning to use brute force, albeit through their numbers, I am not surprised that one of the sanest voices in the debate should come from the Shiv Sena, whose MP Sanjay Raut recently wrote an impassioned editorial in the Saamna calling for the prevalence of dissenting voices in democracy.
To many that was cause for raised eyebrows, for the Shiv Sena was never known to allow dissent. But, the Shiv Sena is nothing if not Maharashtrian and the true progressive nature of the native Maharashtrian will always assert itself. So, while the Bombay Municipal Corporation has banned the slaughter of animals, including chickens, for four days of the Jain Paryushan (a tradition practised by past governments too, I might add)– in a corporation ruled by the Shiv Sena, it is significant that its ally’s demand to ban the eating of meat for all people for eight days was reduced by half. But, more significant, and rather unnoticed, was the fact that the Sena bitterly resisted the move to ban meat eating in Mira-Bhayandar for ten days and failed to block the move by the BJP only because there was some absenteeism by corporators that lost them the numbers.
Still, I am pained to see that despite the progressive nature of the state, the recent political changes have brought about all kinds of regressive measures by the government – starting from the beef ban (I am vegetarian but believe in everybody’s right to eat what they wish – even those who go herbal, though I abhor such ‘ghaas –phoos’ that, literally, takes so much spice out of life). Now the government proposes to give the police complete authority to charge its critics with sedition . But, while that is disturbing enough, I must remind readers that though the Congress might now bitterly oppose this move, their government, as recently as 2012, had charged cartoonist Aseem Trivedi with sedition for poking fun at parliament (I later learnt that Trivedi’s cartoon was not even original but inspired by a US cartoonist’s lampooning of the White House – but that is beside the point). And, one must also not forget that the first 'thought killing', if I may call it that (of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar), too, happened during the Congress-NCP regime, yet the police have been unable to crack the case (perhaps because there has been no political will to do so).
So, governments of whatever hue will have the same intentions with varying degrees of blatancy or surreptitiousness. I am convinced that it is only the progressive nature of the people in general which will ultimately defeat such sinister diktats. In Maharashtra’s people I have great hope.