Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray confuses and confounds many by his constant raging against the BJP and targeting of Narendra Modi in particular. But both Modi and Uddhav know very well why there is no love lost between them – and much of it has to do with how Gujaratis treated Maharashtrians during the struggle for a Samyukta Maharashtra (United Maharashtra) in the 1950s and Modi’s own current attempt to reduce Bombay in significance and accord more importance to his neighbouring Gujarat.
Morarji Desai, India’s first Gujarati Prime Minister, was the chief minister of the bilingual Bombay state in the 1950s when the Samyukta Maharashtra movement was at its peak. In the 19th century, the British had reclaimed land from the sea and joined seven islands into one whole, headquartering a province in Bombay and making a strategic port city – both naval and commercial – of the new city. That reduced Surat, which had been India’s major port city from the times of the Moghals, drastically in importance. But enterprising Gujaratis, Jains, Parsis, Khojas and Bohra Muslims quickly realigned themselves to the changing georgraphy and moved to Bombay. After a major failure of the cotton crop in the United States in the 1860s, which was the major supply of raw material to the textile mills of Manchester, the British decided to settle large tracts of their territory in India with cotton-growers. Some of it was in Gujarat but a major portion of raw cotton came from their Central Provinces and Berar which is the Vidarbha region in modern day Maharashtra. To cater to the surplus stock, they encouraged the setting up of textile mills in Bombay – and this was done by the migrating communities from Gujarat. The labour force in these textile mills, however, were migrants from the interiors of Maharashtra who came looking for jobs as the traditional balutedar system in the villages collapsed. Balutedars were village servants like potters, carpenters, weavers, scavengers etc, who were paid for in barter – food or land – by the upper castes whom they served. So in addition to jobs, working with Gujaratis in a British province also helped them to escape caste discriminations in their villages.
At Independence, thus, Bombay ended up as a city built largely by Gujarati enterprise with local Maharashtrians – even then just about 50% of the population – mostly in the lower middle class bracket. By then there were also a large number of South Indians in the bureaucracy and in white collar jobs in private enterprises, with Maharashtrians being edged further to the fringes of society. The Shiv Sena was formed to protect their interests. But before that, there was a bitter struggle between Gujaratis and Mahrashtrians for the possession of Bombay. Desai, as chief minister, was reluctant to cede Bombay to Maharashtra but Desai’s cabinet was heavily loaded in favour of Gujaratis and much of the find allocations went to Kutch and Saurashtra than to the Konkan and Western Maharashtra which were also part of the bilingual Bombay state.
When bifurcation became inevitable, Desai fought hard for the Gujaratis’ possession of Bombay and Maharashtrians put up a bitter fight for the same During the agitation, Samyukta Maharashtra leaders led a morcha with the slogan “Mumbai aahe aamchi, naahi konachya baapachi” (Mumbai belongs to us, not to anybody’s father). That angered Desai no end and he shot back with, “Bara. Mumbai tumchi, aata bhandi ghaasaa aamchi.” (Ok. Mumbai is yours but now get back to scrubbing our utensils.)
The implication was that Maharashtrians were capable of being only servants in the richer Gujarati homes. The same taunt was returned decades later by Sena leader Sanjay Raut to Gujaratis during the 2014 assembly campaign -- We will get them to scrub utensils in our homes once we form a government in Maharashtra, he said. But back in the 1950s, a morcha in protest against those remarks was fired upon on Desai’s orders killing 107 people at the Flora Fountain. The Martyrs’ Memorial there is a permanent reminder to this bad blood between Gujaratis and Maharashtrians and though ultimately Bombay was ceded to Maharashtra, the bitterness between the two communities continue to this day.
When BJP’s Pramod Mahajan first forged an alliance with the Shiv Sena, he took care to keep this paranoia under wraps but since the BJP now has two Gujaratis at the top of its affairs, old wounds tend to open up and bleed again. Last July, some Shiv Sainiks and a group of Gujaratis and Jains almost came to blows at a suburban housing society because of Gujarati food facism. Maharashtrians, even some Brahmins among them, are non-vegetarians. While they may not be beef-eaters, Gujaratis in the society objected to even the fish-eating habits of a particular Maharashtrian family. The matter reached the police, though eventually the issue was sorted out.
But apart from such social and demographic dimension to this conflict, there has been a concerted attempt by the Modi government at the Centre to shift significant institutions out of Mumbai and to neighbouring Gujarat – like the Bombay Port Trust to Porbandar, the Reserve Bank of India to Ahmedabad, the diamond bourse to Surat, etc. Many of these institutions have workers’ unions belonging to the Kamgar Sena, an affiliate of the Shiv Sena, and their shifting would have a direct bearing on the Sena’s capacity to garner votes by providing employment to its supporters. In fact, some months ago, Maharashtra industries minister Subhash Desai, the senior most in the Shiv Sena, wrote a bitter letter to the Centre protesting these covert moves, which were put on hold only after the political realisation in the BJP that it was beginning to lose several local self-government elections in Maharashtra and might need the Shiv Sena more than the other way round, after all.
In view of the upcoming major election of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation in February 2017 – which will cause a tectonic shift in the polity were the Sena to lose the corporation after 25 years – the BJP has been somewhat conciliatory. But the Sena has been more combative than before, even describing their alliance with the BJP a waste of a quarter of a century. While Modi ignores Uddhav’s barbs, the Sena president carries past insults and present attempts to decimate his party as a chip on his shoulder. Local BJP leaders recently described him as a ‘rakshas’ who needed to be confined to a bottle. Not very endearing to his supporters.
His assertiveness, however, goes down well with local Maharashtrians. And Gujarati voters might ultimately end up making peace with the Shiv Sena. That is what both the BJP and the Congress, both trying hard to oust the Sena from the BMC, are afraid of.
The views expressed are personal. The author tweets as @sujataanandan