The recent attacks on North Indians in Mumbai and other Maharashtra districts hide a political and socio-economic pattern. Appeals made by Raj Thackeray — and seconded grudgingly by the Shiv Sena — for unity of the Marathi manoos on an anti-North Indian plank are also meant to cement the increasing divide within Marathis themselves — between Marathi OBCs and forward castes, a political chasm so subversive and threatening for the forward caste Marathi elite that political analysts see it as capable of changing the discourse of Maharashtrian politics.
What has gone unnoticed is the opposition of NCP Minister Chhagan Bhujbal to Raj and Uddhav Thackeray. Bhujbal belongs to the OBC Mali caste. A quick glance at Mumbai’s history shows that it was never a ‘pure’ forward caste ‘Marathi’ city. As ‘Bombay’, it was a string of islands first under the Portuguese, and then from the mid-17th century, under British control. Shivaji Maharaj, the personality whose movement provided cohesion and status to the Marathi identity, never developed Mumbai as his base. Shivaji’s base was Raigad in the Konkan. During the 18th century, the time of the Peshwas and the great Maratha expansion to all corners of India, Pune was the Marathi cultural and political capital.
In fact there is a large section of Marathi intellectuals who believe that the ‘Bombay-isation’, now ‘Mumbai-isation’ of the Marathi identity, has led to the decline of Marathi culture. A paranoid focus on Mumbai has led to the marginalisation of Pune, Kolhapur and Satara, the traditional centres of Marathi scholarship. There was a time when all these districts boasted of an active theatre movement, a rich art and poetry scene. There was even a cinema that reflected the indigenous Marathi ethos and not the hotchpotch Bollywood-Mumbai culture.
Raj Thackeray is on a weak wicket when he rails against Bhojpuri cinema while talking of the way Marathi cinema has suffered. Marathi culture in general has suffered because of the Shiv Sena, which started the process of the goonda-isation of the Marathi ethos. It is not for nothing that major Marathi literary figures never found their voice reflected in the Sena movement. It is also significant that an actor like Nana Patekar, who did gravitate towards the Sena in the 1990s, finally had to withdraw. Nana’s parting comments that Bal Thackeray is pursuing a ruinous course as far as Marathi culture is concerned, still haunts the Sena.
Raj’s mentions that he is expressing the sentiments of the ‘Mumbai Street’. Which Mumbai street is he talking about? Currently, out of the 1.9 million population, North Indians, both Hindus and Muslims, constitute between 30-40 per cent of the total figure. South Indians make up 20 per cent; the Marathi component is only 28 per cent. So the Mumbai Street is a hybrid mix of many cultures — it cannot by its very nature express a singular, anti-North Indian sentiment. Also within the 28 per cent Marathis, OBCs and Dalits constitute the majority. They form part of the remnants of the Marathi work force that was once a major player in the city.
In fact, the rise of the Shiv Sena owes a lot to the machinations of Delhi-based anti-Marathi forces. The Sena’s rise as a State-backed, anti-working class goonda force snuffed out centres of ‘living’ Marathi culture in Mumbai such as Girangaon, the premier working class area of a Bombay when the city was a manufacturing hub. Girangaon Marathis were mostly OBCs, active from the beginning of the freedom movement during the time of Bal Gangadhar Tilak down to the Communist ‘phase’ and then right up till Dutta Samant’s historic textile strike. Who were the chief allies of the Marathi OBCs in their struggles? They were the Poorabia-North Indian working class, which had started becoming part of Mumbai’s workforce since 1857.
The Poorabia-OBC Marathi unity has a long history. Hindu and Muslim Poorabias employed in the Bombay Army fought alongside Marathi OBCs, Dalits and Kolis in 1857. India’s First War of Independence included a major Maharashtrian chapter. The Nasik belt, the Aurangabad-Marathwada area, the Parbhani-East Maharashtra portions, Konkan or western Maharashtra districts of Pune, Satara and Kolhapur saw major risings. The Marathi elite, with the exception of Chitpavan Brahmin figures, were pro-British. The Brahmin Patwardhan Jagirdars of the South Maratha belt, or the Chaitanya Kayastha Mahaprabhus — the caste to which Bal Thackeray belongs — supported the British. The massive OBC-Mahar/Dalit subaltern participation in the Maharashtra 1857 chapter was confirmed by no less a person than Babasaheb Ambedkar in a speech given at Ludhiana on October 21, 1951.
The OBC Marathi-Poorabia unity continued till the late 1980s. It was ruptured only in the 1990s when Bombay died as a manufacturing centre and re-emerged as a financial centre with service sector industries as its main core. Then the demand for a new, physically tough, partly educated work force with a rudimentary grasp of English pulled many migrants from UP and Bihar to the city.
People who say that the backwardness of UP and Bihar are responsible for ‘Bhaiyyas’ migrating to Mumbai do not know the ABC of economics. Even a cursory glance at the employment status of North Indians shows their heavy preponderance in the service sector. It is the logic of capitalist development and the play of market forces of the 1990s — phenomena lauded by those very corporate and political figures who curse ‘Bhaiyyas’ — that created a situation which North Indians fulfilled because of their skills. The Marathi working class too could have filled in. But during the textile strike, big Bombay-based industrialists, those very forces that supported the Sena, killed its character and crippled it for ages to come. Service sector magnates also were wary of employing OBC Marathis mainly for class reasons. They did not want a work force with regional roots.
The current scenario, however, is throwing up possibilities for a re-alignment of Marathi OBCs and Hindu and Muslim Poorabias against the Savarna Marathi class. If this happens, the Shiv Sena — or its offshoots — will be exposed for what they are: outfits with two emerging leaders who are caricatures of an ageing leader who in turn is a fascist caricature of the authentic, humanist Marathi manoos lost somewhere in the ruined landscape of Girangaon.
Amaresh Misra is the author of War of Civilisations: India AD 1857. He is based in Mumbai.