People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 06

February 10, 2008



Chauvinism Bares Its Ugly Face

THE ugly face of regional chauvinism has once again reared its head in Maharashtra. Seeking to establish his independent identity after having separated from his uncle and Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray has launched an inflammatory campaign with its consequent violent attacks on the North Indians working in Mumbai. This is reminiscent of the Shiv Sena's initial claim to political space in the late 1960s when it raised its slogan of 'sons of the soil' and launched the vituperative campaign against South Indians under the slogan, 'bhagao loongi, bajao poongi' [expel the lungi (read: South Indian) and sound the bugle].

The Shiv Sena have since graduated beyond fomenting regional chauvinism to embrace a larger divisive issue in Indian polity and society, i.e., Hindutva. Mr Raj Thackeray, however, is now seeking to replace Shiv Sena's retrograde legacy. By fanning the flames of Marathi chauvinism, most vicious physical attacks were conducted on mainly those coming from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Taxis were damaged, leading to threats from taxi unions that they will go on strike, theatres showing Bhojpuri films were vandalised and the Union railway minister Laloo Prasad Yadav was singularly targeted under the charge that only Biharis were being employed by the railways. Even the superstar of Hindi film industry, Amitabh Bachchan, was not spared from being targeted by these incendiary elements.

In what can amount to a gross insult to the Bihar people, they were accused of elaborate and long celebrations around the festival chhat which falls on the sixth day after Diwali. In reality, this may also be an expression of frustration that Mumbai is deprived of cheap and efficient Bihari labour during chhat celebrations. Now, in a country like India with so rich social, cultural and linguistic diversity, various peoples naturally celebrate what in their traditional cultures is considered central to their festive spirit. Needless to add, no particular linguistic or cultural identity can impose its preferences on anybody else. The only way to maintain the unity of such socially, culturally and linguistically diverse entities is by strengthening the bonds of commonality that run through this diversity. Any attempt to impose uniformity upon this diversity can only lead to the unleashing of centripetal forces that would lead to the disintegration of our country. It is precisely the latter that both communalism and regional chauvinism seek to do. To that extent, these divisive forces need to be marginalised if the unity and integrity of our country is to be preserved.

The spirit of our constitution embodies this understanding and, hence, gives every Indian citizen the right to work and settle anywhere in the country. Thus, regional chauvinism of the nature displayed recently in Maharashtra is anti-constitutional in both letter and spirit.

Steeled through the ravages of the Shiv Sena's earlier chauvinist campaigns, Mumbaikars have come to accept the slogan of 'Mumbai for Mumbaikars' to mean all those who live in the cosmopolitan city of Mumbai --- irrespective of their distinct cultural, religious, linguistic or other identities. It is this cosmopolitan nature of India's commercial capital that is being threatened today. More importantly, this threatens the very conception of modern India that cannot be accepted or tolerated.

It is not merely unfortunate but downright destructive that cynical politicians and political parties are resorting to such shortcuts in order to gain electoral support. These must be rebuffed outright in the defence of modern India and for maintaining and strengthening a healthy democratic polity. This is all the more necessary at a time when the neo-liberal economic reforms lead to sharpened growth of regional economic inequalities. This forces the migration of people from the backward regions to seek gainful employment in the developed centres. In the long run, a strategy for balanced economic development is the surest guarantee against the growth of regional chauvinism and its disastrous consequences such as the current attacks in Mumbai or in the demands for the creation of separate states. However, such a strategy for balanced development can only be implemented with active state intervention. This course has unfortunately been foreclosed by the Indian ruling classes embracing the neo-liberal economic agenda whose centrality is the omnipotence of the market God and consequently the increased withdrawal of the state from economic activity.

While these are larger issues of the economic trajectory that the country must adopt, it must be underlined in the present context, given its specificities, that no amount of accentuation of regional economic imbalances can be either the excuse or the justification for rousing regional chauvinism. All responsible political parties must rise to the occasion to ensure that the flames of regional chauvinism are immediately contained in Mumbai and Maharashtra and not allowed to spread anywhere else.