South Asia

India: The politics of passion
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - Although a legal case has been registered against Shiv Sena supremo Balasaheb (Bal) Thackeray for his inflammatory speech calling on Hindus to form suicide squads against Muslims, it is unlikely that he will be prosecuted. Fear of his capacity for unleashing violence and the color of his brand of terrorism will in all likelihood protect the man from being jailed.

In a speech delivered on the Hindu festival Dussehra two weeks ago, Thackeray called on Hindus to form suicide squads "to take the Muslims head on". "Trouble-making Muslims should be wiped out from the country ... kick out the four crore [40 million] Bangladeshi Muslims and then the country will be secure," the Shiv Sena leader said. Urging Hindus to start calling India "Hindu rashtra" (Hindu nation), he maintained that only "our religion [Hinduism] is to be honored here" and then "we will look after other religions".

The speech prompted the Maharashtra government to lodge a case against Thackeray for "promoting communal disharmony". Under Section 153 (A) of the Indian penal code, it is a non-bailable offence. If convicted, the Sena leader could be sentenced to three years in prison.

Thackeray founded the Shiv Sena in 1966 as a "sons of the soil" movement to fight for the rights of native Maharashtrians who, he maintained, were under threat from other ethnic migrants. The first targets of his hate campaigns and violence were south Indians, who had migrated to Mumbai for employment. Then Gujaratis were targeted. Muslims now are in the line of the Sena’s fire.

The Shiv Sena, named after the army of the 17th century Maratha king Sivaji who fought the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, is a Hindu chauvinistic-militant organization. It sees itself as a guardian of Indian culture, which it equates with Hindu culture. Shiv Sainiks, as Sena activists are called, function as moral police and attack what is seen as a dilution or an aberration of "Indianness", as they define it.

Some years ago, Shiv Sena activists protested against the screening of the movie Fire, which had a lesbian theme, and attacked movie theaters that screened it. They are opposed to the celebration of the "Christian" Valentine's Day and attack shops selling cards and gifts for the occasion. The Sena is opposed to any interaction with Pakistan. They have vandalized cricket pitches to protest against tours by the Pakistan cricket team. Some years back, they targeted the legendary Bollywood star Dilip Kumar for accepting an award conferred by Pakistan.

In the name of "patriotism" and defense of Hindu culture, the Sena uses intimidation and violence. The truth is that the Sena’s pretensions to patriotism and the resort to vandalism and terror to justify it is really a strategy to fill its coffers. It is believed that under cover of the riots that it engineered in Mumbai in 1992-93, the Sena engaged in massive land grabbing and extortion.

The Sena has proved more than a match for Mumbai’s underworld dons in extorting money from film stars and business houses. During its five years in office (1995-2000) in Maharashtra, the Sena "almost succeeded in putting the traditional mafia organizations out of business", wrote Praveen Swamy in the news magazine Frontline.

In fact, the Sena is far more powerful than underworld gangs and mafia organizations for, despite its illegal activities, it has gained legitimacy by participating in elections. It has led the state government in Maharashtra and is in control of civic bodies. The Sena is part of the National Democratic Alliance government in New Delhi. Sena members of parliament are ministers in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. The Speaker of the House is a Sena MP.

It is among the Mumbai working class and the slums that Thackeray has his fiercest supporters. Some of that support has been secured by playing on the alienation of the workers, the economic and cultural insecurities of Maharashtrians of being swamped by "outsiders". Sena activists play the local "big brother" in Mumbai’s slums. They step in to settle disputes and solve water and electricity problems. Increasingly, the Sena’s claim that it is championing the "Hindutva" (a militant Hindu dominance ideology) cause and fighting the "Muslim-dominated underworld" has struck a chord.

The Sena has been seeking to broaden its appeal beyond the original Maharashtrian cause to include the "Hindutva" cause. But its support is still largely confined to Maharashtra. Thackeray has ambitions of expanding his power base throughout India - the Sena has spread its tentacles into the border areas of neighboring states, such as Gujarat and Karnataka, where Maharashtians live. Yet the Sena winning electoral power outside Maharashtra seems unlikely in the near future, for it will have to compete elsewhere with its ideological allies, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the leading party in the country's coalition government, and the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP). Nonetheless, the Sena has witnessed a dramatic expansion of its influence in India, as evidenced in its role in the central government in New Delhi.

Thackeray, called Tiger by Sena members, exercises complete control over the organization and Shiv Sainiks are fanatical in their devotion to him. The organization is a tightly controlled network of cells, which can be activated at his command. Thackeray has to only issue an order and his goon squads have in the past paralyzed Mumbai - India’s financial and commercial capital - by unleashing violence.

Thackeray is notorious for his crude and often incendiary speeches. This is not the first time that he has engaged in Muslim-bashing. He is known for his anti-Muslim diatribes and for inciting violence against various minorities, with Muslims being his latest target.

It was Thackeray who incited the December 1992-January 1993 Hindu-Muslim riots that rocked Mumbai. He wrote a series of inflammatory editorials in the Saamna (Confrontation), the Shiv Sena mouthpiece, urging Shiv Sainiks to declare war against India's Muslim minority in defense of Hinduism.

While riots exploded across the country, it was in Mumbai that they were the worst. Over 800 were killed in that city alone. In its final report, the Justice Srikrishna Commission that probed the riots found ample evidence of the direct involvement of Thackeray and the Sena. However, the Shiv Sena-BJP coalition government in Maharashtra at that time dismissed the report as "anti-Hindu" and refused to place it before the State Assembly.

In 2000, a Congress-led government in Maharashtra issued permission to the police to arrest Thackeray for inciting the riots. The Sena struck swiftly. Within hours of their leader’s arrest, Shiv Sainiks vandalized the State Assembly and spread terror across Mumbai, damaging buses and trains, and burning shops and houses.

The Bombay Court, without holding any hearings, released Thackeray on technical grounds. His release was an outcome really of the pressure applied by the Sena and the BJP on the judicial system.

Thackeray’s inflammatory remarks on Dussehra have been sharply criticized by the Congress Party, the Left and the English media, who have all called for his prosecution. Some are calling for his arrest under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). Manoj Mitta points out in the Indian Express that, unlike its predecessor, the Terrorism and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, under which a person, even if he had not committed a terrorist act, could be arrested if he wrote an inflammatory article or delivered an incendiary speech, POTA does not include prosecution for disruptive activity.

But, asks Mitta, would a Muslim or a Christian leader have gotten away with a speech "even half as incendiary as Thackeray’s? The very same POTA, which is so helpless against Thackeray, can very well be invoked by a state government against any minority leader accused of stoking communal passions. This gross inequity is a direct fallout of the manner in which the center has over the last year exercised a sweeping power it assumed under POTA: the power to ban an organization without a judicial review and detain all those who are suspected to be either its members or supporters."

The 30-odd organizations that have been banned under POTA are all related to either minorities or are leftist. Thus, a Muslim leader runs the risk of being arrested under POTA for being a supporter of a banned organization. None of the Hindu organizations, whether casteist or communal, have been included in the list of "terrorist organizations".

"So, a Ranvir Sena may massacre Dalits in Bihar, a Bajrang Dal may employ Ayodhya to terrorize Muslims, a Vishva Hindu Parishad may organize a retaliation to Godhra and a Shiv Sena may instigate Hindus to take to terrorism. All these organizations seem to be immune to POTA because of the way the law is drafted and enforced. POTA is not against terrorism per se. The hue of terrorism - saffron [representing Hinduism] or green [representing Islam] - will determine whether a certain activity comes under the ambit of POTA or not," writes Mitta. As part of the saffron brigade, Thackeray’s terrorism would escape prosecution under POTA.

Moreover, there is the government’s fear of his capacity to bring Mumbai to its knees. When the police lodged a case against Thackeray last week, he and his supplicants reacted in the customary manner. Warning the government of "serious consequences" if Thackeray were arrested, Narayan Rane, a senior Sena leader and former chief minister of Maharashtra, said, "Let’s see what they can do. The last time they tried to arrest Balasaheb, the whole city was quaking." And Sena MP Sanjay Nirupam said the party would fight the case legally and "if necessary ... come out on the streets".

Law-enforcing agencies and the judicial system have repeatedly held back from cracking down on Thackeray fearing the constant threat held out by Sena activists that "Mumbai will burn if Thackeray is jailed". Whether the Maharashtra government will summon the political will to arrest him now remains to be seen.

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Oct 31, 2002

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