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Me? Mumbaikar!

As India’s economic slump squeezes out jobs, Mumbai’s resource battlelines between Marathis and migrants will only get worse. But in the underbelly of fear, a north Indian ghetto, a question rings for Raj Thackeray: “I am a Mumbaikar. What do you want to do with me?” Neelesh Misra reports.

india Updated: Oct 27, 2008 00:35 IST
Neelesh Misra
Neelesh Misra
Hindustan Times

Raj Thackeray can take Rakesh Radheshyam Gupta out of Mumbai, but he can never take Mumbai out of Rakesh Radheshyam Gupta.

Fish trade worker Gupta, 30, stood under a huge shed reeking of the smell of fish in the heart of the metropolis, in the underbelly of fear — a ghetto of non-Marathis recently targeted by Raj’s workers. As others cheered at the washermen’s colony in the Mahalakshmi neighbourhood, Gupta addressed a question to Raj gesticulating with his arms: “Mumbai is everything for me. I was born here, I have never been anywhere else. I am a Mumbaikar, what do you want to do with me?”

His story resonates across Mumbai, as India’s financial capital comes under siege from Raj’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena that is leading a violent campaign to cleanse the city of non-Marathis, especially north Indians.

With the economic slump threatening retrenchments and cost cutting, the battle for jobs between Marathis and migrants is expected to only get worse.

Gupta’s grandfather, now 85, migrated to the city from the Faizabad district in Uttar Pradesh two generations ago and sold peanut snacks and toffees. Gupta has never been to his ancestral village. He doesn’t even know its name.

“I am still considered an outsider. You tell me what to do,” said the lean, stubbled Gupta, as dozens of other young and older men huddled on beds during the lunch hour, nodding their heads in agreement.

Dozens of Raj’s party members raided the place last week, threatening and assaulting people and forcing them to shut down shops. Police urged the shopkeepers later to keep them open, in a show of unity.

“There is a lot of fear. Anything can happen. If one leader is doing this, what are the 40 other parties doing?” said Farrukh Musa Patel, whose family originated in Bharuch, Gujarat, but was born here and has similarly never gone home.

“Well said!” shouted a man soaping himself before a bucket bath under the shed some metres away. Children tittered. A young man said from the wooden bed: “If we slap anyone in this city, the fine is Rs. 1,200 — what about these politicians?’

Hindu and Muslim migrants live together under this shed, where eerie-looking bulbs hang from the high ceiling, boxes serve as beds, and clothes hang from electricity wires.

The street a few metres away was splattered with bodies during the 1992 religious riots. But Muslims placed the Ganpati statue at the temple recently and decorated the Durga statue during the Navratri festival. Hindus celebrate Eid.

“My father left my mother. He took another woman. So I never spoke to him again. My elder brother died of tuberculosis. I have no family. I just have these people and this city,” said Gupta.

In an apparent attempt to fit in, he has added his father’s name as his middle name, a very Gujarati tradition not practiced in Uttar Pradesh.

“Now you just asked me, ‘where is your village’. Tell me what do I tell you?” he said. “Even if they kill me, I am not going anywhere.”

Even at the worst days of anti-outsider campaigns by the Shiv Sena, headed by Raj’s uncle Balasaheb Thackeray, attacks against outsiders were never so brazen and violent.

“This is a kind of terrorism. Our country is progressing, America and Russia want to be friends with our country, we have just sent a missile (sic) to the moon, and we are showing this city’s shameful face,” said Patel.

“I will have to sell only two hens and I can go to Bharuch, you know,” he said. “But I don’t want to. Because this is home. There is no home out there.”

First Published: Oct 26, 2008 23:54 IST