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Why has Shiv Sena woken up to hate Modi? The answer is centuries old

Sujata Anandan
Sujata AnandanFeb 09, 2018 | 10:20

Why has Shiv Sena woken up to hate Modi? The answer is centuries old

The distrust is not limited to Gujaratis and Maharashtrians or vegetarians and non-vegetarians.

The city of Mumbai, where the Gateway of India is located, has always been the centre of conflict between the various communities in the country. This is the city that makes Maharashtra the leading state in the country, acting like the gateway to the rest of India for Maharashtrians from different regions of the state. But it is a city built not just by Maharashtrians. Large sections of people from across India have contributed to what it is today. Though some political parties may wish to lay exclusive claim to Mumbai today, their xenophobic campaigns, aimed at ridding the metropolis of all its non-Maharashtrian residents, are clearly not just short-sighted but also historically incorrect. That is because the city has had a chequered past in terms of ownership and its resident communities, and no singular ethnic group can claim exclusive rights over its land and its people.


The seven islands that were joined together by the British to create the city of Bombay — as the city was known then — were actually ruled by Muslim kings until the advent of the Western colonialists. As a result, the biggest landlords of Mumbai are still Muslim and Christian trusts and these communities continue to control large swathes of land within the domain of the seven islands. The original ruler of these seven islands was Sultan Mohammad Shah who ‘sold’ two islands to the Portuguese in the sixteenth century in return for their protection against the Mughals.

Emperor Aurangzeb had been camping in the Deccan for years in order to enforce the rule of his dynasty throughout India. The most troublesome of these Deccan powers were the Qutubshahi and the Adilshahi kingdoms. Although Aurangzeb had not yet cast his eye upon what then seemed like a ragtag group of islands, Sultan Mohammad Shah feared it could be just a matter of time before he was overpowered and subjugated by the Mughals. Eventually, however, the Portuguese took over all the islands from the local rulers, but seemed to have no idea what to make of the disparate pieces of land mostly occupied by indigenous fishing communities, such as the Kolis, who even today dominate the fishing industry and are considered the original inhabitants of Mumbai.


However, when Prince Charles II married Catherine of Braganza in 1662, the islands passed as her dowry into the possession of the British, who believed they had been cheated out of substantial sums and handed a dud by the Portuguese. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that the British recognised the strategic value of these islands and began the process of reclaiming land from the waters surrounding the disparate islands to join them into a single mass of land.

The British laid roads and railways and soon Bombay developed into a strategic naval defence installation as well as a viable commercial seaport, displacing Surat in Gujarat from its pre-eminent position in this regard. The Gateway of India is a monument that was meant to showcase the British Empire and was built to mark the visit of King George V and Queen Mary ahead of the Delhi Durbar in 1911. However, the Gateway could not be completed by 1911 and was finished much later.

Maharashtra Maximus by Sujata Anandan; Rupa Publications

Once the British began to give primacy to Bombay over Surat, much of Surat’s trading activities shifted to Bombay as did many of its resident entrepreneurs - Gujaratis, Bohra, Khoja Muslims and Parsis, who soon gave Bombay an uncharacteristically Gujarati flavour. Perhaps the migration of these communities from neighbouring Gujarat was essential because Maharashtra did not have its own traditional class/caste of traders. The Deshashtha Brahmins of the Konkan region came closest to the traditional trader class, but they were essentially moneylenders and did not perform the duties that the banias and other groups from Gujarat had done for centuries.


Bombay was under British administration long before the Third Anglo-Maratha War ceded other territories in Maharashtra, notably around Pune and western Maharashtra, to the colonial powers. Thus Bombay had a liberal and anglicised character, which influenced even native Maharashtrians who either frequently visited the island city or made it their home. The Bombay Presidency under the British later morphed into Bombay Province and then into a bilingual (Gujarati and Marathi) state after Independence. It became the capital of Maharashtra after a bitter contest between Maharashtrians and Gujaratis, prior to the states’ reorganisation in 1960.

However, the events that occurred in the years after the Portuguese gifted the territories they held to the British, until Bombay’s emergence as Maharashtra’s capital, had a huge bearing on the fortunes of the rest of the state. The fact that Bombay is still India’s financial and commercial capital, and that it continues to be cosmopolitan in nature and is more liberal and westernised than other districts or other leading cities of Maharashtra, and that there is no single monolithic culture that defines the Bombay or Mumbai of the twenty-first century, is all due to the British influence in the period stretching from the nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. That British influence is visible in the politics of the city even today.

Soon after the British had developed Bombay — a name they inherited from the Portuguese who thought it was a good (bom) port (bahia) and hence named it Bombay — as a major seaport in the mid-nineteenth century, they faced a huge industrial crisis back home. This crisis was caused by a major failure of the cotton crop in the United States of America, which was the chief source of raw cotton for the textile mills of Manchester. Britain used this raw cotton to produce rich fabrics, which were exported to foreign markets, including markets in Europe, Far East and India. Looking to augment their supply of raw cotton, the British began to encourage cotton farming in western India. As it turned out, most of their raw cotton came from the Central Provinces and Berar region, which is part of present-day Vidarbha. This region was also a major supplier of oilseeds and jowar.

The transport of raw cotton from the interiors to the ports of Bombay and onwards to Britain did not come without some risks. Much of the raw material tended to be destroyed by seepage and the vagaries of nature. Hence the British encouraged, in a limited fashion, the setting up of textile mills within the reclaimed city, which soon became a mini-Manchester of the east. Even today, vast tracts of land in the modern metropolis are mill lands established in those times. These mills, set up by the British and enterprising individuals from neighbouring Gujarat, have greatly contributed to the demographic composition of Mumbai, and continue to influence its politics today. For while the mill owners were almost all rich Gujaratis, their workers were local Maharashtrians, and since the city’s native settlers were largely fishermen, much of the workforce came from the hinterland of Maharashtra.

With the collapse of the Peshwai in the early nineteenth century and the gradual end to the balutedar system in the villages, these sections of society were in need of employment (balutedars were village servants, but not mere servitors. They performed functions essential to the survival of the village, such as carpentry, pottery, weaving, scavenging etc., in return for which they were looked after well by the village council and provided with food, housing and other essentials). Thus, as the village councils collapsed, the balutedars migrated to the attractive British-ruled port town of Bombay where industries, including those catering to the production of oilseeds and infrastructure building, were coming up rapidly.


But the British did not need only blue-collar workers. They had headquartered a huge province in Bombay and were greatly in need of white-collar workers for the middle and lower levels of their administration. To cater to this need, the British set up schools and colleges in Bombay, and the traditional classes, notably Brahmins who were privileged in terms of education, began to send their children to these institutions. Soon, educated young Indian men and women began populating the British administration as clerks, accountants, and even supervisors and managers, under an overall British management.

The educational institutions set up by the British meant that castes and communities that were traditionally barred from learning and acquiring superior knowledge did not need to remain in the dark ages any longer. Thus, people from all castes and communities, including the backward Dalits and the untouchables, began migrating to Bombay for better prospects. An English education became synonymous with liberalism, and Bombay contributed enormously to the reformist movement in Maharashtra.

Many of the state’s nineteenth century reformists had some association with the city, and the British administration supported them in ending practices like child marriage and sati, and encouraged widow remarriage by the enactment of laws. The fact that Bombay was governed by rulers who did not encourage discrimination or untouchability in their administration, and did not interfere in the people’s cultural peculiarities, contributed enormously to the liberal outlook of the whole of Maharashtra and the development of its socialist character by the mid-twentieth century. This liberalism influenced other parts of Maharashtra after independence, making it one of the most progressive states of modern-day India with a distinctive socialist ethos that marks the state as one of the most forward-looking of the times. 

This cosmopolitan nature of Bombay also helped to pioneer many progressive movements in the state. However, once the British left India and Bombay in the hands of the local citizenry, the skewed nature of the city’s socio-politics became apparent. The colonial rulers had set up the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) to govern the fast-growing metropolis, but the only people who were allowed to vote, until 1947, were those who paid income tax. The fact that these income taxpayers were mostly Gujarati, Muslim Bohras, Parsis and Sindhis underlined not just their economic status but their privileged positions of influence as compared to the local people who, even during independence, constituted 50 to 60 per cent of the city’s population. Therefore, local residents grumbled that Bombay was a city of the rich who needed the poor to service their needs.

Most of the corporators and mayors of Bombay hailed from the Gujarati, Muslim Bohra, Parsi and Sindhi communities. Later, South Indians also migrated to Bombay to take over the administration of the state. All these communities dominated the higher echelons of the bureaucracy and the middle level and clerical opportunities in the city. Local Maharashtrians found that they were mostly confined to the chawls and textile workforces of Bombay. Even Marathi politicians who had joined Gandhi and the Congress Party felt the discrimination between themselves and the Gujarati leaders of the erstwhile Bombay State.

Maharashtra Dharma, of course, had undergone a transformation under Mahatma Gandhi to include all sections of society, including the Muslim minorities. But now the bigger divide was between the Gujarati entrepreneurs who had made Bombay what it was over a century-and-a-half of their enterprise, and local Maharashtrians who wanted exclusive charge of their own state capital. This led to the dawn of the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement (SMM, formally launched in 1956), which brought together all streams of political thought and philosophy. It unnerved India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who was compelled to concede Bombay to Maharashtrians rather than to the Gujaratis who wanted the city for their own state capital in the event of a reorganisation of the states. This bitterness between the Maharashtrian and Gujarati communities is evident in the state’s politics even today.

Morarji Desai was the chief minister of Bombay State in the years when the SMM took root and his superior attitude towards Maharashtrians may have helped to cede Bombay to Maharashtra. The turning point in the agitation came when he ordered the police to fire on a protesting mob at Flora Fountain, which resulted in the martyring of 106 protesters, a fact that has not yet been forgotten by the local populace. Flora Fountain was subsequently renamed Hutatma Chowk and the Martyrs’ Memorial there stands as a permanent reminder of the sacrifice of human lives for a unified Maharashtra. Perhaps if Desai had refrained from firing at the protestors, Bombay may have continued as a bilingual state or even ended up as the capital of Gujarat, as the influencers were stronger on the Gujarati side than among the Maharashtrian leaders.

Maharashtrian leaders who were stalwarts of the SMM had coined the slogan: “Mumbai aahe aamchi, nahi konache baapachi” (Mumbai is ours and belongs to nobody else’s father). The slogan sounds rude, but the political language of Maharashtra has always had an element of rusticity; the leaders did not mean to offend, it was simply an assertion of their ownership of the city. But the slogan enraged Desai and he responded, “Mumbai tumchi, ataa bhaandi ghasaa aamchi” (Mumbai may be yours, but get back to scrubbing our utensils), thereby implying that Maharashtrians were inferior to Gujaratis. Desai’s response propagated old myths and underlined the fact that Gujaratis were the richer community while Maharashtrians were merely servants in their homes, fit only to scrub their utensils.

The bad blood between Gujaratis and Maharashtrians is centuries old. Closer to modern times, keeping up that bitterness, Maharashtra’s minor potentates did not permit the British to build dams that would help to irrigate Gujarat, as these would submerge many villages in Maharashtra. After independence, although BG Kher, a Maharashtrian, was made the first chief minister of a bilingual Bombay State, his Cabinet and subsequently the Cabinet under Morarji Desai, was over-represented by Gujaratis, making Maharashtrian leaders uncomfortable. There was a growing feeling among Maharashtrian leaders — who had less influence with the Centre owing to Desai and before him Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel — that most funds being allocated to Bombay State were being used for projects in Gujarat rather than in Maharashtra. Additionally, they were convinced that the hinterland would never get justice in a bilingual state dominated by Gujaratis.

The Congress party, during the freedom movement, had promised to reorganise the states on the basis of language, but after Independence, party leaders changed their minds for fear that linguistic states would lead to a balkanisation of India. However, pressure on the Congress was building from all sides, including from the Madras and Calcutta provinces. After the death of a Telangana activist who was fasting to demand a separate state for the Telugu-speaking areas from Madras State, Pandit Nehru gave in and set up a states’ reorganisation committee in 1953.

Now the battle for Bombay started in right earnest as the Gujaratis, led by the Mahagujarat Andolan and encouraged by Desai, were determined that, in the event of bifurcation, Bombay must go to Gujarat as the state capital. Maharashtrian leaders were equally determined that Bombay belonged to them. Socialist parties and communist leaders intensified the agitation for a unified Maharashtra while debate raged on the future of Bombay, with serious consideration being given to turning it into a city-state or Union territory.

This conflict between Gujaratis and Maharashtrians in Bombay was identical to of the trouble between Maharashtrians and Hindi-speaking people in the Central Provinces and Berar, and the Maha-Kaushal areas of Central India. Maharashtrians began to feel the pinch of the discrimination against them in terms of financial allocations and development of their areas, and wanted to separate from the Hindi-speaking majority of their state, that is, the Central Provinces and Berar. Hyderabad State had similar problems. The nizam, traditionally, had paid scant attention to the people living in his territories in Marathwada, who continued to remain backward even after the nizam’s territories were ceded to India after the police action of September 1948. The agitation was greatly intensified in all three regions by the Marathi-speaking people, and Yashwantrao Chavan, one of the tallest leaders of the time, who was being projected as a reincarnation of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, ultimately prevailed upon Nehru to cede Bombay to Maharashtra.

Much water has flowed under the bridge since then, but the bitterness between the Gujaratis and Maharashtrians in Mumbai has not quite gone away. In fact, it might have intensified and the fault lines have become more apparent after the ascension of Narendra Modi to power at the Centre. Once upon a time this bitterness was limited to the Gujaratis and Maharashtrians in the Congress leadership. Today it manifests itself in the everyday existence of these communities, not the least because the Congress Party no longer exclusively represents them. Both these communities are clearly divided between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), seen as the Gujaratis’ party, and the Shiv Sena, which projects itself as the only representative of everything Marathi and Maharashtrian, as was manifest in the elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation in February 2017 where the two parties ran neck and neck reflecting the narrow gap between Marathi and Gujarati residents of the city.

Some political commentators believe this could be a deliberate ploy by the two parties to carve up the votes of the two communities between themselves. For without this extreme polarisation, the Gujaratis and the Maharashtrians might have joined other parties, such as the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena of Raj Thackeray, which could have mopped up a large chunk of the Marathi vote.

The lack of a traditional trading/business community among Maharashtrians meant that even after the states’ reorganisation, the Gujaratis and other communities, including the Marwaris, Punjabis and Sindhis, continued to dominate the business of Maharashtra.  Even today, Maharashtrian entrepreneurs can be counted on the fingers of just one hand. This has led to a unique situation with barely any shift in the centuries’ old tradition of the Gujarati and Marwari business communities — at one time encouraged by Chhatrapati Shivaji to settle in his territory — dominating the lives of the Maharashtrian people in the villages and cities of Maharashtra.

Soon after the states’ reorganisation, Maharashtra’s Congress Party leaders discovered they still did not have a voice in New Delhi, and Bombay continued to be dominated by Gujaratis (in business), South Indians (in bureaucracy) and Communists (in politics). These Congress leaders subtly and covertly encouraged the establishment of a regional force that would take on these three groups and rid Bombay of their combined influence. Thus, Bal Thackeray and his Shiv Sena emerged from nowhere and burst upon the scene with a lasting vengeance.

Supported by the Congress, the Shiv Sena made short shrift of these three groups in less than a decade of its existence. While the South Indians and Communists were by and large vanquished, overpowering the Gujarati sense of entrepreneurship proved tougher than expected, though the Gujaratis wisely stayed out of the line of Bal Thackeray’s fire as far as possible. Over the course of time, the Shiv Sena went out of fashion, and it was the BJP that helped revive this sleeping tiger.

The BJP emerged from the ashes of the Jan Sangh in the late 1970s after a major controversy over its dual membership in the Janata Party government of Morarji Desai. (Desai became the prime minister after the Congress Party’s defeat in 1977.) For a long time, the BJP experimented with Gandhian socialism but got nowhere. Then, its late-leader Pramod Mahajan forged an alliance with Bal Thackeray in the mid-1980s, enabling the two parties to improve their electoral performance which, until then, had been dismal given that both had a similar voter base (just 13 per cent at the time) and won barely a seat or two in the State Assembly and Lok Sabha when they contested independent of each other. These were also the years when the BJP took up the Babri Masjid campaign in Ayodhya. After the demolition of the mosque in 1992 and the subsequent riots in Mumbai in December 1992 and January 1993, the Shiv Sena and the BJP together stormed to power in Maharashtra in 1995, albeit with a shortfall in numbers that was made up by 45 Congress rebels in a house of 288 legislators.

Mahajan had clearly recognised the distrust of Maharashtrians for Gujaratis and blunted Thackeray’s antipathy towards the community by leading the alliance in Maharashtra. The alliance trundled along happily until Mahajan’s death in 2006 and the emergence of Narendra Modi as the Hindu Hriday Samrat, a title that Thackeray, at one time even more extremist than the BJP, had appropriated for himself. But it was not just the fight for supremacy among Hindus that caused the Shiv Sena, even in Thackeray’s lifetime, to begin backtracking on the alliance. It would not support the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s bandh calls, it refused to endorse many of the BJP’s programmes, it dug in its heels over shares of the electoral pie in Maharashtra, it even supported two Congress candidates, Pratibha Patil and Pranab Mukherjee, for president.

The emergence of Modi among the tallest leaders of the BJP infuriated Bal Thackeray - he had not forgotten Morarji Desai’s insults to Maharashtrians, going so far as to refuse to erect a memorial to India’s former prime minister who passed away when the Shiv Sena was ruling Maharashtra. Thackeray did not want another Gujarati to dominate Maharashtra and Maharashtrians. That distrust was carried forward by Thackeray’s son and heir Uddhav Thackeray. Modi’s complete disregard of the Shiv Sena in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections in May 2014 strengthened Uddhav Thackeray’s resolve not to concede another inch to the BJP during the assembly elections that followed in October 2014. This led to the break-up of the precarious alliance between the two parties, which had lasted for a quarter of a century despite some very turbulent circumstances.

Its shortfall in numbers in the assembly elections compelled the BJP to ally with the Shiv Sena in government, but that has not helped in smoothing the ruffled feathers of the Shiv Sena leadership.

This led the two parties to fight against each other in the BMC polls and Uddhav to declare that never again will his party ally with the BJP in any election - a promise and a threat that has held true by and large, though they continue together in government as a withdrawal by the Sena would lead to a toppling of the government.

Apart from the political fault lines — the Shiv Sena is emerging as a bigger opposition to the BJP than either the Congress or the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) — the divide between the two parties is apparent within the socio-economic fabric of Mumbai as well. In June 2015, Gujaratis and Maharashtrians living in a housing society in Kandivli in North Mumbai nearly came to blows over something as basic as food — a Maharashtrian family, not caring about a Brahma puja being offered by the Gujaratis in the building, turned down their appeals and went ahead with their decision to cook fish for lunch. Tempers flared and the police had to intervene. This incident caused Shiv Sainiks to reassert their protectionism of  local Maharashtrians who, unlike Gujarati Hindus and Jains, are non-vegetarians — even sections of Maharashtrian Brahmins are meat and fish eaters, though they might eschew beef. The promotion and, in some cases, the imposition of vegetarianism by the BJP, now run by Gujaratis, does not sit well with the Shiv Sena. An uneasy calm prevails between the two communities at all levels of society in Mumbai.

The distrust is not limited to Gujaratis and Maharashtrians or vegetarians and non-vegetarians, but runs deep among the emergent communities of Mumbai, which continues to be a city of a poor majority that is dominated by the rich minority. But today, the poor are not Maharashtrians alone - they include North Indians from several states of India, Muslims as well as Hindus settled in slums and ghettos, who are all part of the vote banks for the BJP and the Shiv Sena as well as the Congress and the NCP.

The BJP believed that it would be able to contain and perhaps destroy the Shiv Sena by breaking their alliance and striking out on its own in 2014 and again in 2017. But it might have been too early to write the epitaph of Bal Thackeray’s party, which continues to dominate the city of its birth, even after a hard-fought civic poll when the BJP pulled out all the stops, and even after its original inhabitants — the Maharashtrians — have dwindled to 40 per cent or less of the total population. The Shiv Sena keeps the Maharashtrian spirit and ethos in the city alive and ensures that the community is not marginalised in its own city and state capital. With a mix of terror and defiance of opposing forces, it has made sure that no one dares to ask a Maharashtrian to scrub utensils again.

(Excerpted with permissions of Rupa Publications from Maharashtra Maximus by Sujata Anandan.)

Last updated: February 10, 2018 | 13:43
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