We have seen this picture in our text books. Happy Indians, of all shapes and colors, holding hands, extolling the ideal of unity in diversity.
Hum Sab Ek Hain. We are all one.
It is a comforting gajar ka halwa national narrative.
It is also, like Santa Claus, patently untrue.
In reality, there are deeply visceral schisms that split us Indians apart on multiple axes—money, language, religion, education, Salman-Shahrukh. If we could take a bullshit-filtering lens and put it on the collective national psyche, we would see a picture that resembles a fifth day Cuttack pitch with its deep fissures, serpentine fault-lines and no binding top-soil . Hell, we don’t even need to do that. Go to Rediff/TOI, pull up any random article, and run through the comment board. You will know exactly what I am talking about.
Before we get all self-flagellating Manu Joseph on ourselves, one should do well to remember that the fear of “the other” is not confined to just India . After Obama’s victory, Bill O’Reilly, conservative political talk-show host on the right-wing American TV channel Fox, droned on as to how “traditional white America” has been changed irrevocably by the changing demographics of America, how “they” (meaning Mexicans and Americans and other assorted immigrants), want “stuff” (as opposed to traditional white America which does not) from the government and people like Obama will keep on winning elections by promising them that stuff, no matter what the long term fiscal consequences. What O’Reilly was articulating, without any of the soft politically correct soap, is that “they” have the numbers and the motivation to come out and vote. And “we” don’t.
The underlying fear being expressed here is rather universal—“They” are going to swamp “us” and we are not doing enough to protect ourselves.
Assign the value “Muslim”, “Bhaiyyas”, “Dalits”, “OBCs”, “Hindus”, to the variable “they” and you will essentially get scraps of conversations from all parts of India, from Kashmir to Mumbai, from Kolkata to Chennai. What makes India different from the USA though, is the legal and political system we have here, one that penalizes dissent in the isolation, through draconian “must not hurt sentiment” laws that severely strait-jacket free speech, and incentivizes violence for the collective.
To understand this, consider the case of a girl who posts a message on Facebook, gets charged by the law for inciting violence and ill-will, while “provoked mobs” go and vandalize her uncle’s nursing home, smashing expensive equipment and inflicting grievous economic hurt, and they will, in all possibility, get away scot-free. (At the time of writing, nine arrests have been made, it though remains to be seen what comes of it)
In other words, exercising the right to dissent, when done by a individual, is deemed “inciting violence” and hence considered illegal.
Executing violence, when done in a group, is not. Well not in practice anyway. The ridiculous rates of prosecution for communal riots and mob violence in India tells us this.
The reason why this incongruous system persists is because an overwhelming number of Indians are perfectly comfortable with extra-constitutional measures, like mob violence, when it is done in the name of a cause that they agree with.
“Well violence isn’t supportable, but then, come on, people do get provoked. One must exercise caution while expressing opinions.”
“If we do not thrash this thief we caught, the police will just let him go. Hence let’s tie him to a lamppost and beat his head in with a brick”.
“Violence? Well what about the violence engaged in by <insert identity of other here>”
“When a big tree falls, the ground shakes”.
“Some isolated incidents may have happened. People do get out of hand sometimes. But the media, which is in the tank for <insert identity of other here> has greatly over-exaggerated the scale.”
Outrage at violence is thus always selective. Those who are frothing at the mouth over Hindu Shiv Sainiks trashing a nursing home will be found to be ominously silent when hordes of Muslim miscreants, united over a communal cause, run rampant at Azad Maidan. If not silence, there will be a mumbled “I do not endorse violence but…” bromide before the inevitable diatribe on how minorities are persecuted by both policy and police and how, given their historic marginalization, spontaneous conflagrations of violence are inevitable.
The outrage over the laws that inhibit free-speech is equally uneven. Those who are silent today because “the girl should have shown respect to a great man loved by millions” were Sunny Deol voluble when the same draconian IT act was used to send the cops to the door of someone who had said something against Karti Chidambaram.
Balasaheb Thackeray, like other consummate politicians, understood all this. The selective outrage. The double standards. The political capital of having well-identified bogeymen. Where he stood apart from his contemporaries, was the sheer number of bogeymen he militated against in the course of his stellar career—-South Indians, Muslims, Gujaratis, Bhaiyyas, trade-unionists and I am sure I have forgotten some group from this list. There was always someone trying to humiliate his core constituency of the Marathi sons-of-the-soil, always some group that needed to be taught a lesson. It was not an accident that the Shiv Sena mouthpiece is called Saamna. Confrontation. The core of his political message was always this.
The never-ending narrative of conflict was also necessary for another reason– the total control of Bombay/Mumbai, its “industry”, its real-estate and, of course, its “glamour”. This had always been Bal Thackeray’s opening as well as end game. It necessitated the subjugation or at the very least, an equality of forces, with every other group that was fighting for the same prize be they Lal-Bhais or Bhaiyyas or the predominantly Muslim gangs of Lala-Haji-Dawood. And for that he needed armies of angry young disaffected men, mobilized and indoctrinated.
If this strategy for power sounds straight out of the pages of William L. Shirer’s “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”, it was. In this case, the comparison with Hitler is not Goodwin’s Law overkill. Balasaheb himself approved of the analogy since he never made secret his admiration of Hitler’s methods of mass mobilization. Like his hero, he was a master demagogue, with that rare, oh-so-sought-after ability to rouse his audience to great passion through the force of words and the power of expression. Sarcasm, mimicry as well as humor were the tools of his trade. As well as undiluted vitriol.
Unlike other right-wing outfits who had to tone down their rhetoric keeping in mind their pan-Indian audience, Balasaheb felt no such compunctions. He could say the most provocative things imaginable, mirror the sentiment of the street, and not care for any negative political consequence.
For his fan base, which was considerable, this was perhaps the single most endearing thing about him—-his so-called plain-speaking and steadfastness of opinion. Unlike other politicians, they said, he never prevaricated. Nor did he ever back down from a stance. (According to legend, his only objection to the Tinnu Anand character that was obviously modeled on him in the film Bombay, was that unlike the character, he never repented his actions during the riots.)
Violence, in his world-view, was something more than a mechanism for getting rid of a pesky opponent, obtaining a signature on a deed or breaking a strike in a mill.
It was, effectively, a currency of respect.
When he was started out making his name busting unions, his political masters in the Congress pulled strings to keep him out of legal trouble. The more violence he got away with, the greater became his street-cred. The more his street-cred, the more people flocked to him.And given how in India, violence engaged in by a collective is always feared by the law and rationalized by society, the larger his numbers became, the more violence he could incite without fear of judicial retribution. His original political masters quickly became superfluous and were promptly dispatched to the dustbin of history, leaving Balasaheb standing alone in Mumbai, the remote-control, free to enjoy the pomp and pageantry of power with none of its consequences.
He was acceptedly not the only super-constitutional authority in town. Unlike his rivals though, or so the Thackeray-spun spin went, his power did not stem from a phone-call from Dubai or from the shadowy patronage of “outsiders”. No. His power, while as terrible and as destructive , stemmed from the local Marathi manoos and from the righteousness of his cause. Balasaheb was the tiger, benevolent when put in good mood, but capricious in his anger, something that could be set off by the slightest perceived transgression.
Which brings us to the final piece of the puzzle. Bollywood. Bollywood and the Balsaheb had a symbiotic relationship. He provided them security from the “Bhai ka phone-call” and from inconvenient labor trouble on the sets. They, in turn, fed into the Balasaheb projection of power by grovelling at his feet, or as they called it “taking advice and obtaining blessings”. And they made hagiographies like “Sarkar” where Balasaheb’s grand justification was immortalized in celluloid (it can be argued that anything else would not have been allowed to see the light of day): We live in a near-apocalyptic system where the laws have ceased to operate, extra-judicial violence is a fact of life and where super-men like Sarkar/ Balasaheb use violence and intimidation for the good of the “people” (i.e. the local population) against the bad (“them”).
More than the man, it’s this Thackeray hero narrative that I find ceaselessly fascinating; the way it was created, the way it was sold and what its acceptance tells us about ourselves—- our admiration for authoritarianism, our justification of extra-constitutional violence (so long as we are not targeted), our mistrust for each other and, the biggest enabler of them all, our legal and political system that runs scared of the fury of the mob while grinding into dust the basic rights of the individual.