When two women were publicly molested outside a five-star hotel on New Year’s eve, commentators like Bharat Dabholkar and Julio Ribeiro presumed it was the handiwork of “outsiders” — a euphemism for north Indians, mostly Biharis and Uttar Pradeshis. The Shiv Sena came out loudly condemning north Indians, with whom they have had a longstanding battle.
The Sena, however, ended up with egg on its face when nine of the 14 arrested turned out to bear Maharashtrian names. They are now putting up a weak defence by claiming saying they were actually trying to save the girls.
The incident shows up the racist (or even supremacist) face of the Sena lot — Raj Thackeray, Bal Thackeray’s nephew, beat up a bunch of Bihari students coming to Mumbai for Railway Recruitment Board exams in 2004.
But the issue is far more complicated. Migrating north Indians in Mumbai occupy slots that Maharashtrians have either discarded as ‘beneath them’ or are unable to fit into. For example, Mumbai’s earliest inhabitants are the Koli fishermen, whose customers would need to visit stinking markets for the fish. Then, Bihari immigrants stepped in with door-to-door services that threatened to drive the Kolis out of business. Ditto with breakfast services like bread and eggs. Once local chauvinists wake up to the political possibilities of this economic displacement, campaigns begin against north Indians.
Why is Vilasrao Deshmukh the only chief minister so far to endorse Delhi Lt Governor Tejendra Khanna’s move to make photo identity cards compulsory? He is possibly thinking of the Bangladeshis and the terrorists among them who have become a pain for Mumbai’s police and government. Former home minister Kripa Shankar Singh first reacted as a north Indian, but quickly backtracked when he realised his CM was supporting it.
Deshmukh also realises how difficult the task may turn out to be. Among those caught in ID checks could be Bihari and Bengali Muslims without ID papers. The irony is that while most Bangladeshi migrants here have worked the corrupt system and are now armed with ration cards and even Indian passports, many Indian Muslims suffer discrimination because they “look like” Bangladeshis. It’s a no-win for both.