It is an unnecessary debate based on a non-existent provocation. But that it should have raged for so many days and drawn in nearly all of Maharashtra’s political parties tells us something about the state of Indian politics today.
On July 31, author and columnist Shobhaa Dé tweeted, ‘Maharashtra and Mumbai??? Why not? Mumbai has always fancied itself as an independent entity, anyway. This game has countless possibilities.’ Because the tweet went out in the aftermath of the decision to create Telangana, it was not unreasonable to imagine that Dé was suggesting some kind of separate status for Mumbai.
Such suggestions are not new. When Maharashtra was carved out of the old Bombay state in 1960, there were those (including such Maharashtrian politicians as SK Patil) who wanted a special status for Bombay, arguing that if the principle behind the creation of new states was linguistic, then Bombay city, the majority of whose citizens were non-Marathi speakers, did not belong in Maharashtra.
But nothing came of that proposal and over the years it has been forgotten, surviving only as an occasional chattering classes conversational subject. No political party of any consequence supports the separation of Mumbai from Maharashtra.
So, there was no reason to be perturbed by the tweet. And as its author quickly clarified, she was a proud Maharashtrian who did not support the separation of Mumbai. Her intention, she said, had been ‘satirical’ and light-hearted.
But the political establishment reacted with high-decibel outrage, intimidation and vitriol. The attacks came from all parties. Raj Thackeray said that Dé should understand that creating a state was not as easy as getting a divorce. A Shiv Sena spokesman described Dé as belonging to a Page 3 set who drank free liquor and then vomited. Not only was she attacked in Saamana, the Sena paper, but Shiv Sainiks demonstrated noisily outside her home. Even the Maharashtra chief minister, a decent man, who should have spoken out for the right to free speech, was dismissive about the controversy.
As far as freedom of expression in Mumbai is concerned, there are no surprises in the treatment meted out to Dé. As Bal Thackeray used to declare, “You can say what you like about me. But if my admirers get angry and then break your legs, I am not responsible.”
The more intriguing question is: why.
By Twitter standards, Dé is relatively popular (just under 3 lakh followers), but in electoral terms, the number of people who receive her tweets is too small to matter. Moreover, once she clarified that she did not support the break-up of Maharashtra that should have been the end of the controversy. Instead, it has raged on, regardless.
So, why are Maharashtra’s politicians getting so agitated over a single tweet about a non-issue?
The answer came in the form of the Congress response. Nitesh Rane is the son of Narayan Rane, an ex-Shiv Sena man who is now a Congress minister and a full-time chief ministerial aspirant. Nitesh is a Congressman who aspires to bigger things. Riding the wave of pro-Marathi sentiment, he began tweeting against Gujaratis.
Though, in theory, his contributions were part of the Shobhaa Dé controversy (‘Shobhaa De should say the same thing on the streets of Mumbai openly after which she won’t be left with any shobha forever’) his real intention was to spread hatred. He tweeted: ‘Either Gujjus go back to Gujarat or they turn Mumbai into Gujarat. Red Alert.’ Or ‘Take them back to Gujarat and ask them to earn there n show.’ And, ‘Apparently, Modi saved 15k Gujjs in two days. Can he also direct his plane towards Mumbai to pick sum Gujjus from here too?’
The rhetoric had a familiar ring. When Bal Thackeray founded the Shiv Sena in the 60s, he painted Mumbai’s Gujaratis in terms that recalled Nazi-era portrayals of Jews, as greedy people who controlled the financial system and exploited poor Maharashtrians. Rane was clearly channelling Thackeray. Gujaratis have ‘cleverly kept Mumbai’s financial chords with them’, he tweeted. And in a deliberate echo of Narendra Modi’s comments on the Gujarat riots, he said, ‘12 per cent Gujjus in Mumbai are like a ‘puppy’ in front of the Marathis.’
The reason for Rane’s return to the original Thackeray rhetoric against Gujaratis is that Maharashtra politics is now being divided on ethnic lines across all parties. As disillusionment with political promises grows, the politicians are falling back on hatred. Though Maharashtrians are Mumbai’s single-largest ethnic group, they still do not constitute the majority. North Indians are the second-largest group and Gujaratis come third. As the economy has tanked, inflation has risen and economic frustrations have increased, all political parties have targeted the Maharashtrian vote.
That’s why an innocuous tweet caused such an uproar. Maharashtra’s politicians were not as much offended as looking for offence. When it comes to creating imaginary threats (‘they will take Mumbai away from us’) any excuse will do. And when it comes to spreading hatred, the traditional targets, such as Gujaratis, are always available.
What is shameful about the episode is that the tactics once associated with the Thackerays are now a part of everyday politics in Maharashtra. All parties follow Bal Thackeray’s methods and pander to the lowest common denominator in the Maharashtrian vote bank. Several days after he began tweeting hatred, Rane was unapologetic (‘Shobhaa De should apologise, not me’) and found refuge in the idiotic and mendacious claim that he was criticising Modi’s development model.
There was a time when the Congress would have stripped him of his membership for making such statements. But in today’s India, it is hard to tell where the hatred ends and the politics begins.
The views expressed by the author are personal