Maharashtra’s poisoned apple

The #Shiv Sena is trending. The problem, says Garga Chatterjee, is that's exactly what it wants

Maharashtra’s poisoned apple
Had ghazal maestro Ghulam Ali been able to perform in India, the performance would not have stirred much controversy in Maharashtra. It is likely that most people did not know he was in Mumbai or that he was slated to perform. In fact, a significant part of the population had not heard of Ghulam Ali, let alone his Pakistani citizenship. Now, thanks to the latest round of Shiv Sena antics, many people know all this.

Since its inception, the Shiv Sena’s tactics have served it well. Senior journalist Suvojit Bagchi notes: “It is a trend in today’s politics that every political party needs one event or the other to stay relevant... Shiv Sena is desperately dependent on such events as their only policy is to be in the news – and such things keep them in the news.” With this in mind, it is important to trace the Shiv Sena’s politics from its origin to the present.

After Partition in 1947, the Bombay province became a playground for various political interests. The linguistic reorganisation of states in the Union of India boosted the movement for a homeland for Marathi speakers, who formed the largest group in undivided Bombay province. This led to the creation of the separate states of Maharashtra (with a Marathi-speaking majority) and Gujarat (with a Gujarati-speaking majority).

The movement for Maharashtra was led by a coalition of various forces, in which the Leftists played a major role. The Congress, which has always subdued the rights and aspirations of major linguistic communities, was unsympathetic to the plan to divide Bombay, but was forced to do so under pressure from the popular movement Samyukta Maharashtra Andolan (United Maharashtra Movement) in Marathi-speaking areas and the Mahagujarat movement in Gujarati-speaking areas.

Ghulam Ali
Ghulam Ali

Keshav Sitaram Thackeray, father of the late Shiv Sena supremo Balasaheb Thackeray, was an important figure in the Samyukta Maharashtra Andolan. After Maharashtra had been achieved in principle, the movement sought to keep Mumbai (then Bombay) within Maharashtra as its capital. Bombay was retained as part of Maharashtra as its capital after massive demonstrations where police gunned down several protestors.

This was the backdrop of the newly formed Maharashtra state in 1960. At the time, Balasaheb Thackeray was evolving from a political cartoonist for the Free Press Journal to being an independent publisher of a Marathi political magazine called Marmik. This would go on to serve as his mouthpiece and created the grounds for him to launch the Shiv Sena in 1966.

The Congress initially encouraged the Shiv Sena to counter the Communist presence in the industrial belt around Mumbai. The Shiv Sena’s rhetoric involved the Marathi working class and service class as a core constituency. These groups were important support bases for the Communists (especially in their trade union wings) in the Mumbai industrial belt.

Having achieved their “own” state, the supposed advantages that were to arrive did not, and this formed an important part of the political discourse in Marathi society – around issues of “job opportunity, migration of non-Marathi people, non-use of Marathi language in the public sphere”, as Suhas Palsikar notes in his review of Sudha Gogate’s well-researched book The emergence of regionalism in Mumbai – History of the Shiv Sena. Among the working class, but particularly among service workers, the influx of people from the southern states of the Indian Union pushed Marathis to the margin in their own land.
The Shiv Sena employs street violence as a means to its politics because the politics of the Subcontinent allow it to do so

In some ways, the Shiv Sena directly addressed this anxiety, but did so by instigating an atmosphere of xenophobia, which often ended in random or planned acts of intimidation and violence. The Shiv Sena also came to be used by the ruling Congress party and corporate bosses to crush left-wing trade unions in the industrial belt of Mumbai. This, the Shiv Sena did with vigorous violence and, in the process, carved out a niche existence for itself as a power broker in these zones, after replacing the Communists.

It was during this time that the Shiv Sena positioned itself not simply as an agent of political violence, but also as a political power player in the industrial zone in and around Mumbai. With the collapse of the Communists, the Shiv Sena stepped in to fill the gap and developed an entrenched client-patronage system with a focus on service delivery to core Marathi areas. The Mumbai-Thane-Kalyan zone still forms the heart of what might be called Shiv Sena territory.

The industrial collapse of this zone and violent intimidation by the Shiv Sena eroded the Communist influence here. Formerly bustling labour colonies became ghettos of unemployed youths and the party drew strength from them by directing their frustration first against Dravidians from the south. In 1970, the conflict with the trade unions reached a crescendo with the murder of the Communist trade union leader Krishna Desai. The Shiv Sena was widely believed to have been instrumental in this act, with all the men convicted being members of the party. Bal Thackeray famously said: “We must not miss a single opportunity to massacre Communists wherever we find them.”

Since 1989, the Shiv Sena has been in more or less continuous alliance with the BJP – as part of which, it has enjoyed power at the state level in Maharashtra by installing its own chief minister. It has also been awarded cabinet posts at the union government level in Delhi. At present, it is part of the Maharashtra state government as junior partner to the BJP. In Pakistan, the anti-Pakistan, anti-Muslim face of the Shiv Sena gets highest currency, but in reality, various groups have been at the receiving end of its political venom – the Gujaratis, people from the southern states, the Communists, the North Indians. The list goes on.

In fact, the Shiv Sena was not always the overtly hard-line Hindu party it projects itself as today. Even within this “Hindu” fold, it takes the side of the Marathas (who are non-Brahmin) against the Sangh Parivar, which is far more Brahmin-dominated. Just when the BJP wants to polarize voters in a certain way by invoking issues surrounding cow slaughter and beef, the Shiv Sena’s tone couldn’t have been more discordant. “Stop peeping into their homes to see if people are eating beef,” declared the Shiv Sena chief, Uddhav Thackeray, during the Vijayadashami speech – the party’s most important annual mass-meeting.

Part of this rivalry within the Hindu fold is played out by acts such as digging up the pitch of the Wankhede stadium to stop the Pakistan Cricket Board team from playing there. By upping the ante in this gung-ho display of hard-line militant nationalism, the Shiv Sena aims to maintain its position as the Hindu party of the Marathis and Maharashtra – a title that has now been all but usurped by the BJP. Some of its acts have to be seen in the light of this political dynamic. Also, by publicly standing up against the meat ban, it wants to create a division between the largely non-vegetarian Marathis and vegetarian Gujaratis (including the Jains), who are a strong BJP constituency.

The politics of state rights vis-à-vis the power centralization in Delhi, the marginality of sons of the soil in the new economy, the question of linguistic identity – all these are genuine issues that affect Maharashtra and most other states of the Indian union. It is sad that such issues have been hijacked by the likes of the Shiv Sena.

What started as a power struggle within the Thackeray family over Bal Thackeray’s successor became a split in the Shiv Sena when the late supremo chose his lacklustre son Uddhav over Bal’s more charismatic nephew, Raj. Raj Thackeray went on to form the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and has initially shown much promise by steering clear of the usual Hindutva politics and making the question of son-of-the-soil deprivation its central plank. However, the strong-arm tactics it carries forward as a legacy of its parent party has limited its appeal. And Raj is not the energetic 24/7 leader his workers want him to be.

Maharashtra deserves nothing less than an inclusive pro-Maharashtra brand of politics, free of anti-Muslim, anti-Dravidian, labour-union-busting strains of goondaism. One must remember the old Marmik slogan – “Khicho na kaman, na talwar nikalo / Jab tope ho muqabil to akhbar nikalo”. Maharashtra’s future is best secured by its youth and not by those who attach themselves to a club of elite Indian baba log privately while dressing up as 17th century caricatures publicly.

The murderers of Krishna Desai have gone through various twists and turns in the name of being pro-Marathi manoos. The Shiv Sena continues to be a formidable force in Maharashtra and is certainly more complex a political phenomenon than its party-pooping, cricket-pitch-digging stereotype might imply. It employs street violence as a means to its politics because the politics of the Subcontinent allow it to do so.

As the party prepares to protect its core turf from the BJP surge, the politics of Maharashtra will become more interesting. In this game of one-upmanship, Pakistan-bashing from a distance may be the low-hanging fruit, but the fear is that, if this rivalry turns dirty and desperate, then one can expect a more poisonous political discourse and toxic public sphere of fear and intimidation. That is a scenario to which the Shiv Sena is not averse – as it has shown earlier in its despicable role in the Mumbai riots of 1992/93.

Garga Chatterjee is a Bengal-based commentator on South Asian politics and culture. He blogs at and tweets @gargac