Why Raj Thackeray is wrong-and right

There’s is something about the nomenclatural identity of India’s 28 states. All, except one, have names with either regional (Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Nagaland) or geographical (Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh) significance. Maharashtra, which means ‘Greater Nation’, is an exception; its self-identification is national.
It is, therefore, distressing that certain local political formations in Maharashtra succumb to the temptation of parochialism every once in a while by projecting non-existent antagonism between ‘natives’ and ‘outsiders’. Invariably, it is Mumbai, India’s first and still the most cosmopolitan city, which bears the brunt of their insularity. In the 1960s, their target was Dakshin Bharatiyas (South Indians). Now, resentment is sought to be whipped up against Uttar Bharatiyas (North Indians).
The notion that any city or part of India belongs only to its ‘natives’ is unconstitutional, repugnant and injurious to the ideal of national unity and integration. From time immemorial, our people have freely moved from one part of the country to another, believing all of India to be their own. As far as Mumbai is concerned, although it is the capital of Maharashtra, people from every corner of the country have migrated to this city of dreams and opportunities since its inception. Mumbai is what it is today because of the contribution of diverse communities inhabiting it. In particular, the two sources of its national and international profile — business and Bollywood — would be unthinkable without a grateful recognition of the role of non-Marathi speaking communities. It would be a great misfortune if Mumbai degenerated into a provincial capital.
Therefore, Raj Thackeray, whose Maharashtra Navanirman Sena has made impressive strides in a short time after breaking away from the Shiv Sena, has done no good either to Maharashtra’s proud reputation, or to himself, by making ill-advised remarks about North Indians in Mumbai or about a national icon like Amitabh Bachchan. He has a promising political future. He would, therefore, do well to win the support of the city’s considerable population of North Indians in his inclusive political strategy, without being apologetic about espousing legitimate Marathi pride.
While one must condemn anything that weakens our unifying Indian identity, it would be hypocritical to turn a blind eye to certain harsh social and political realities of Mumbai. With 1.9 crore residents in the Mumbai Metropolitan Area, which includes Navi Mumbai and Thane, its population has rapidly grown to become greater than the combined population of nine Indian states. Its once-famed infrastructure is highly overstretched, lowering the quality of life for rich and poor alike. It once had the best municipal governance in India; not any more. Fifty-four per cent of its residents live in slums, most of which are so unbelievably congested and squalid that it is criminal on the part of any government to let people live in such inhuman conditions. It is well known to authorities that tens of thousands of Bangladeshis, many with voting rights, are living in Mumbai. Some 20,000 houses in the older part of the city are in a dangerously dilapidated state, the reason why every monsoon one reads about people dying in incidents of house collapse.
Mumbai is decaying. But few politicians in the city, state or country are taking a serious and comprehensive view of its chronic condition, and fewer still are willing to take the tough decisions to set things right. By tough decisions, one does not mean banning ‘outsiders’ — north Indians or Indians from any other part of India — from settling in Mumbai. That certainly is wrong. But is it wrong to hold that encroachments should be stopped, that people must not be allowed to occupy pavements and places earmarked for public utilities, or that the cut-off years for regularisation of slums must be strictly adhered to?
Indeed, some political parties have developed a vested interest in allowing unauthorised settlements to proliferate for vote-bank considerations. When illegal settlements along the lethally polluted Mithi river were sought to be cleared after the July 2005 deluge in Mumbai, which claimed nearly 500 lives, it was stoutly resisted by local politicians who felt threatened that their voter-base would shrink. Mumbaikars know of hundreds of such examples of duplicity and political muscle-flexing.
The question that Raj Thackeray and many people in Mumbai are asking is: How can slum redevelopment and rehabilitation ever succeed if there is political patronage for the creation of new slums? How can Mumbai ever see orderly urban development, with world-class infrastructure and civic amenities for all its residents, if there is deliberate and corruption-induced disorder in the use of its most scarce resource — land? Indeed, which Indian city can grow well if short-term and partisan political interests undermine a long-term and integral vision of urban renewal?
Hence, some of Raj Thackeray’s concerns are right, but he has voiced them wrongly.

-Sudheendra Kulkarni


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