I am a mix of the North and the South (my mother is from Madhya Pradesh). I was brought up in Maharashtra (Bombay and Nagpur). I do not gel too well with my North Indian cousins and I stand out like a sore thumb anywhere in South India.
But I really come into my own in Bombay, which is my karmabhoomi. And even if I do not speak Marathi too well, I know it better than any South Indian language of my origins. And I can get by with my Hindi in any village in Maharashtra (or anywhere else in India, for that matter).
So what does it do to people like me when ignoramuses like Hema Malini say, “If you do not like how you are being treated in Bombay, just leave.” Actually, it does nothing — who cares what she thinks? — except to prove that if you must promote film stars as politicians, at least choose some people with a modicum of political intelligence.
Hema Malini, no doubt, is a great actress, a good dancer and a wonderful human being. But I seriously doubt how much she knows of the Indian polity (or of Bombay’s demographics). And if she were to take her own advice, she and her husband would have to quit as well, along with the rest of us.
The actress has been in a controversy before. During the 2004 general elections, she was used by the BJP to attract Tamil-speaking crowds in Dharavi. With some similar uninformed statements (“If Kamraj were alive today, he would have joined the BJP”), she only ended up handing the Congress a stick to beat the BJP with.
Manohar Joshi eventually lost the elections from Bombay North Central. The then Minister of State for Home, Kripa Shankar Singh, had fumed at the time, “That’s like saying Mahatma Gandhi would have joined the RSS!” The Congress took to calling her a beauty without brains.
But this time round, even those angry Congressmen are laughing at her faux pas, and while they did burn some of her effigies, they are making no tart comments against her as in the past. Even Singh is quite benign when he says, “Jo bolin, woh naadani mein bolin (She said whatever she did in innocence).”
Which is a rather polite way of saying Hema Malini is of no serious consequence to the elections underway in Bombay. But it also indicates that the BJP — and Hema Malini — are doing very well for the Congress-NCP, without Congressmen having to mess up what has been handed to them on a platter.
For, after tying themselves up in knots by first denying that Hema had said what she did and then saying that she did not mean what she had said, the party offered her up for an apology.
“I said nothing wrong but still I am apologising,” she said, adding to the Congress ecstasy twice over — even if they had tried they could not have done better in mobilising North Indian votes against the saffron alliance.
The actress’s uninformed remarks and defiant apology, coupled with Bal Thackeray’s comments on Sunday, have come as a welcome relief to the non-saffron parties in forging a North Indian consolidation in the city.
I find it interesting that Sanjay Nirupam, once the North Indian face of the Shiv Sena and today a spokesperson for the Congress in Maharashtra, says that for the first time the nation (or, at least, this part of the country) is seeing the emergence of North Indians as a ‘vote bank’ — much like the Dalits or the Muslims (further fragmentation of society, I should think). “And they are by and large with the Congress,” he says.
I see another irony in this situation — in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the Congress is of no consequence to these voters. But the moment even featherweights like Hema Malini ask them to “go back” (what is this, a Quit Bombay movement, a la Quit India, started by the Sena and the BJP?) they consolidate as a force behind the very party they reject in their home states.
“It is the minority syndrome,” says Nirupam. “Anywhere in the world, a minority group is an insecure lot. So they seek protection and security from whoever they feel has their best interests at heart. And here in this city, the Shiv Sena certainly has had a major role in driving them into the arms of the Congress.”
Which is a far cry from the time when the saffron parties could take North Indians for granted — the temple issue and Hindutva had united them as never before and for years they unquestioningly voted the BJP alongside the Sena.
But economic issues will always drive political ones to the fringes of even politics — and that is what is happening in Maharashtra and Bombay today. Sadly, neither Thackeray nor the BJP is able to see it with the blinkers they have been wearing for years now.
I remember the time, soon after the 1992-93 riots, when jewellers and cloth merchants in the city lost millions worth of business and trade when these very North Indians, who were either diamond cutters or embroidery or zari workers, decided to leave the city and return to the very poverty of their home states that they were trying to escape by migrating to Bombay. Their lives were threatened by the saffron forces (many of these North Indians were also Muslims).
“Sar salaamat toh pagdi hazaar,” one of them had told me at the time. When things calmed down, they were persuaded to return by the traders, who bowed their heads and laid their turbans at the feet of the North Indian workers with assurances of safety and security and peace in which to pursue their livelihood without interruption.
So perhaps both Thackeray and Narendra Modi (who campaigned with him on Sunday and would like to appropriate Thackeray’s favourite title, ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’, for himself) might like to put that in their pipes and smoke it till they realise how livelihoods are interlinked in the city.
And that those very people they wish to woo with their Hindutva and anti-North Indian rhetoric are the ones who need these North Indian workers the most.
I agree with Nirupam when he says that what Hema Malini advocates is a most dangerous line of thought, however innocently or thoughtlessly she might have said it.
Much of the problem that Bombay is facing — “overgrown and illegal slums, pressure on the infrastructure, etc” — is on account of migrants. But if it were so easy, a succession of governments would have deported them as soon as they arrived.
However, the Constitution of India is so glorious and binding on every Indian that even Thackeray could not do the impossible, despite his infamous decision to deny ration cards to migrants to the city.
That, after all, was the very first policy statement he made as soon as the Sena-BJP government came to power in 1995. But when a deportation did happen, they were all Bengali-speaking Muslims from Bihar or West Bengal (not one Bangladeshi among them) and they all came right back, armed with birth certificates from their respective village panchayats. That was the end of Thackeray’s attempts to rid the city of migrants. Since then he has had only so much rhetoric.
I fail to understand why in the four decades since the Sena was set up, Thackeray has been unable to understand this simple truth: that India (and Bombay) belongs to one and all and one and all belong to India (and Bombay). In the Sixties, it was the South Indians (and Hema Malini is one) that he wanted to throw out of Bombay.
Today, it is the North Indians. In this polar change, one thing has remained common, though: his concern for the local Maharashtrian. But even they have migrated in droves — to Britain and the United States, yes, but also to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
For all that we speak ill of our North Indian states (Bimaru, etc), I know of a Maharashtrian lady (a retired school teacher) who could not take to life in Bombay after retirement.
So she has returned to her beloved, though anarchic, Patna where she spent a lifetime training those very children who, today, contribute to the economy of her original home state and city.
Her children live in the US. But it is Patna and Bihar that my mother’s friend now calls home.