India’s new Raj
An explanation for the apparent lunacy — and growing popularity — of Bal Thackeray’s nephew lies in Maratha history. It’s just the start, writes Samar Halarnkar.india Updated: Nov 11, 2009 22:30 IST
First, a disclaimer
I share origins with the Thackerays: Bal, Raj and Uddhav. From my mother’s side, I am a Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu, commonly known as a CKP, the same as the Thackerays, the clan that runs the parochial Shiv Sena, and its breakaway, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), whose legislators this week slapped a north Indian legislator who dared take his inaugural oath in the national language, Hindi.
Unapologetic for introducing an ironically violent UP-Bihar-style disrepute to their legislature, the MNS insist nothing can stand in the way of their love of the Marathi language and the advancement of the Marathi (mostly Hindu) man.
With the ruling Congress issuing the mildest of censures, India’s most industrial state is tacitly accepting the glowering Raj as the true heir to the Sena’s dubious legacy. The timid Uddhav is a pretender who will fade away. When Bal, now a frail 83, passes on, the bulk of the Shiv Sena will simply transfer loyalties to the man who would be king.
<b1>Complex caste and social equations explain why the Shiv Sena has never once ruled its modern homeland alone. Raj’s MNS is threatening to wreck those equations. Only three years old, the MNS garnered a seemingly modest 5.7 per cent of the votes in Maharashtra’s October assembly elections. But in the bellwether city of Mumbai, it grabbed 24 per cent of the vote, second only to the Congress.
Political observers believe the violent parochialism of the Senas is a carefully crafted USP in a fast-changing electorate. The chattering classes of Mumbai’s high-rises hate and fear the Senas, ascribing to them a lunacy beyond understanding. But scratch many seemingly sensible Maharashtrians, and they will gradually talk of culture, tradition, language and the fear of being swamped by Mumbai’s great and growing diversity. Of course, they will insist, the way Raj is going about this is wrong, there must be no violence, but you know, what he says isn’t really wrong.
My mother is a proud CKP, brought up in Shivaji Park, the middle-class Marathi heartland of what was then Bombay. Contemptuous of the Senas and what they stand for, she has a deep love and knowledge of Marathi literature — reading the classics aloud when we were children — and her family, Deshmukhs and Jaywants, knew the Thackerays in the 1950s, a time when Bal was a cartoonist of no mean talent and Bombay was a kinder, gentler city of manners and tolerance.
On my father’s side, I am a Maratha from Goa, descended (according to a 1911 gazetteer) from former pirates forced to become farmers. The origins of my father’s family lie in the guerrilla army of rude, coarse peasants raised more than 450 years ago by Shivaji Raje Bhosle, or Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the mountain-rat-turned-emperor who relaunched Hindu rule in India and set the Marathas on track to create a confederacy that later conquered Delhi, and by the late 18th century reigned over India, from the Himalayas to the Krishna river on the Deccan Plateau.
From medieval India to previous eras, travellers found the prickliness of the Marathas a common feature, and in their descriptions you will find some explanation to why the Sainiks, the Sena footsoldiers, are what they are.
“The Mahrattas (sic), who inhabit this country have from the remotest antiquity been a strong and self-reliant nation,” observed Louis Rousselet, a French author who visited the court of Daulat Rao Scindia in Gwalior, after the Marathas had been subjugated by the British but were still strong. “For the most part husbandsman or shepherd, they were content to remain among their native mountains, and, owing to their excessive pride and intrepidity, succeed in retaining the most complete liberty and independence.”
Earlier, in the 7th century, the Chinese traveller Huen Tsang, after observing the Marathas, wrote this: “They prize honour and duty and have a contempt for death… their king has warlike tastes and places military glory in the first rank.”
Go further back in time, and you will find the CKPs originated from Indo-Aryan tribes that migrated south from Kashmir. Even today in Pune, the base of their greatest literary, administrative and military achievements, you will find CKPs with ancient genetic markers like uncommonly fair skin and green or light-grey eyes. For centuries, they straddled the world of the Brahmin and the Kshatriya, the pen and the sword.
The Marathas were their own worst enemies, losing their hold over India permanently in the early 19th century as families and clans fought each other (yes, much like Raj and Uddhav). The British took advantage of their fractiousness and edged them out.
A Maratha would never rule Delhi again.
Those Maharashtrians who discard faded past glories and either work hard enough or are lucky enough to make it in the New India, transcend the violent politics of grievance that now defines the Senas.
Among the rest, insecurity and paranoia take over, casting their deepest roots among the educated and semi-educated, not among the poorest. So it is with the jihadis, so it is with the extreme right rising in parts of Europe, so it with the Marathi manoos (man).
The modern Marathi manoos is only too conscious of faded glories, is stubborn, has problems with authority (I do too, always have) and tends to attack first and reason later — or not at all. As the state’s velvet-glove, rubber-fist approach indicates, he won’t be stopped.
Raj’s raj is just beginning.