History now and again offers moments of hope that seem small and fleeting but, placed in larger contexts and taken at the tide, promise reconstructions of far-reaching magnitude.
What happened in the city of Mumbai today was one such moment.
The fascist Shiv Sena had threatened not to allow the screening of the film My Name is Khan till such time as Shah Rukh Khan, the main actor in the movie and a Bollywood icon, had apologized for having expressed the view that Pakistani cricketers should have been participants in the forthcoming Indian Premier League. Shah Rukh, to his great credit, refused to do so—indeed the first Bollywood personality to have thus defied the Sena. With the exception, as I recall, of Mahesh Bhatt.
It needs to be remembered that Shah Rukh Khan’s father had not only been a freedom fighter during India’s anti-colonial movement, but uniquely a Muslim who chose after the partition of the country to leave the new nation of Pakistan and relocate his family in India.
The right wing Shiv Sena whose politics over the last two decades or more has been fuelled by hate campaigns against non-Marathis and Muslims, dubbed Shah Rukh as a Pakistani sympathizer. (See my “Constructing Shah Rukh Khan, Znet, feb.,03, 2010).
Over these two decades of Sena mayhem in Mumbai, the state, even when governed by the secular Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party, has had a record of repeatedly letting down the citizen by abdicating to the hooliganism of the Sena, not wishing to alienate the Marathi voter.
Until some weeks ago the young and no-nonsense, Rahul Gandhi, took it upon himself to call the Sena’s bluff.
Defying the Sena’s boast that he would not be allowed to enter Mumbai, he not only did so, but cocked a fatal snook at the fascists by actually traveling through the Sena strongholds in the local train, for which he bought his own ticket.
It was as though without uttering a word of bravado, Rahul Gandhi let his Gandhi-like deed of a modern-day satyagraha speak for himself, his party, the government and the ordinary citizen of India.
The effect of that has been electric. Most of all in giving the local Congress/NCP government the courage to stand upto the Sena’s lawless lumpenism.
On the 12th of February, the scheduled date for the release of the film, India was on tenterhooks, not knowing whether the Sena goons would again succeed in holding the citizen and the regime of law to ransom.
As it turned out, the government of the day in a veritable rite of passage, came upfront to assure both the Mumbaikar and the exhibitors that they would be accorded full protection.
And the government kept its nerve and its word.
Result: the people of Mumbai came out in the thousands to see the film, even as the sporadic attempts by the Sena fascios to prevent the release were purposefully thwarted by the state police—with not a single short fired or injury reported.
It was as though the battle that had been lost to the beer halls of Germany in the thirties of the last century had been won in the cinema halls of Mumbai.
And won in tandem by a state that asserted its lawful and constitutional authority and by the ordinary people of Mumbai who thus made explicit their rejection of the fascist politics of the Sena.
The suburban hordes of ordinary Ghatkopar Mumbaikars had made up for the historic defeat at Guernica.
After years of cowering and capitulation, a clear and consequential demarcation between the people of Mumbai and the Shiv Sena goons was visibly effected, and the Sena’s boast of representing all of Mumbai exposed for the fiction it has always been. A fiction strenuously propagated by the Sena despite losing all state elections bar one!
For the Congress Party this ought to be truly a moment of far-reaching recognition.
Recalling some pertinent histories, just as it was the Americans and the Pakistan state that had set up the Taliban in the eighties to fight the Russians and oust the communist Afghan government, it was largely the Congress party that had spawned what came to be called the Shiv Seniks in the sixties inorder to liquidate the hold of the unions in the mills of the then Bombay. This by displacing the hold of class perceptions and class politics by an emotive, identity politics.
An experiment that was replicated by Narendra Modi with great ruthlessness in Gujarat. As mill workers in Ahmedabad and other industrial cities came increasingly to be threatened with loss of jobs under the compulsions of the new market fundamentalism, Hindu workers were persuaded that their chief antagonist was not the mill owner but the Muslim worker. Under a relentless denominational onslaught spearheaded by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad among the labouring, including the Adivasis, class politics came thus to yield to communal politics as the Congress watched and dithered.
It must be remarkable, for instance, that the two Sena parties in Mumbai have never targeted the many non-Marathi tycoons who have over the years contributed to making Mumbai the financial capital of India. The Sena crusade remains restricted to the labouring classes, be they taxi drivers, local vendors, blue collar workers, slum dwellers, and other segments of the unorganized proletariat of south or north Indian extraction. Reason why a cosy relationship has always existed between the bigwigs of Mumbai and the Sena supremo, Bal Thackeray. And all rather ominously reminiscent of how the Krupps and other industrial families of the Germany of the thirties felt about Hitler and the Nazi party. Same with the movie industry as well, with honourable exceptions.
Same in Modi’s Gujarat, about which the industrialist, Rattan Tata, was to say “if you are not here, you are stupid.” And that despite what Modi had done to the social and inter-community fabric of Gujarat.
For the Congress in Mumbai, the wheel thus seems to have come full circle, as it has for the Americans and the Pakistanis in Afghanistan and the border areas of Paksitan.
Driven by the Rahul Gandhi impetus—one that seems increasingly to find resonance among India’s generation next—will the Congress party now learn to turn away from the periodic temptation to appease denominational players whose politics remains anathema to the secular, democratic and constitutional foundations and imperatives of the Republic?
Time will tell.
One thing is certain: that just a one-time stand against the fascists is not the answer, although 12th of February has set a precedent both for the party and the state.
We think that unless India’s political democracy extends meaningfully and on a sustained basis to an economic democracy as well, unless the Congress slogan of inclusiveness acquires the dimension of rethinking the state in drastic ways—which is to say, rethink the principles of the production and distribution of wealth—the ruling class impulsion to return to a praxis both of a divisive, identity politics and state violence to quell social upheavals, however deservingly grounded in livelihood imperatives, may continue to remain its recourse.
What this day in Mumbai ought to have conveyed to both state and non-state well-wishers of democracy (and I mean here to include the Left-Wing Extremists as well) is that the best way to bolster the politics of equity and the regime of law against the menace of the violence perpetrated by fringe fascios is always to persuade the people at large of the rightness of what you think and do on their behalf.
And that cannot happen unless those who represent the voice of the people (as distinct from those who merely get a majority of their vote, or succeed under the present first-past-the-post electoral system to cobble up majorities as coalitions) are made as much participants and stake-holders in the making of policy as the tycoons and their lobbyists.
Not incorporating that as a steady conviction, the happy assertion of sanity seen in Mumbai today may remain just a sporadic high point.
There is reason to think that under the current UPA dispensation, India’s work-in-progress democracy has seen some desirable accretions of accountability and transparency.
The question that must be confronted is the following: what use are “human rights” if these do not first and foremost include the universal needs of human beings—among them the right to livelihood, to clean water and shelter, to sanitation, to health care, to education, to fair and speedy justice, and the free expression of talent and opinion? Can it be said that there exists a single human being who hasn’t these needs, and thus hasn’t a right to their fulfillment?
Is it after all possible to contemplate the “right to life” in separation from those listed above?
On the subject of identity politics—along denominational, linguistic, ethnic, and other axes—I believe the Shah Rukh film (that I have not seen yet) has something telling to say. It involves a young man named Khan who seeks to meet the American President just so he can say one simple thing to the world’s most powerful man: "my name is Khan but I am not a terrorist."
The Sena and other chauvinists can be brought into a wholesome unity as Indians only when the rights of citizens are regarded, protected, and dispensed without a thought to denominations, and only in consonance with the dictates of the constitution and the majesty of the law, and only when the state at every point makes explicit the will to be seen to be so doing without regard to electoral calculations.
India’s political formations next need to learn the lesson that you may win some and lose some, but principles of equity and fairplay cannot be bargained. And that if and when you lose an election, there is much work you can continue to do among the people at large.
Only such a sustained dialectic between the people’s human needs/rights and the elements of political and state power can firm up a polity that may in the years to come become a better guarantor of democracy than its formal entrapments.
Let us hope, therefore, that the lessons of the day in Mumbai do not remain occasions merely of self-congratulation but pointers to how a more long-lasting future for the country may be reconstructed.
Should those lessons be followed up with resolve, democracy-to-come will spell all the annihilations due to those who disfigure it.
As to the beleaguered city of Mumbai where outstanding Indians of all hue live and work, its elites must teach themselves to think that all just causes must draw them out, as opposed to only those that affect their comforts the most. And just causes preeminently comprise those that bear on the lives of its relegated millions regardless of which part of India they come from.
Same indeed for the elites of all other parts of India. Do let us remember that Hollywood stars are known for standing firm on causes. Now that the state has come forward to push back the fascists, there is no reason why some of the most notable stars, be they actors or others, should prefer to make peace with the local high-priests of muscle and mayhem rather than aid the duly constituted authorities to run a lawful regime. After all, it is just that bit contemptible to be acting heroic roles in movies and cowering and compromising in real life. And then berating politicians for their perfidies.
Finally, our salute to the Mumbaikar for having said that resounding “No” to the goons.
Our salute also to those ordinary citizens of Bangalore who have today delivered comeuppance to that Pramod Muthalik who some years ago attacked and molested five young women in a pub on Valentine’s day. We do not approve of what they did on their own, but we welcome the symbolic assertion against self-appointed moral vigilantes who shelter under the protection of complicit governments.
Having done what they have done—blackened his face—they should be willing, Gandhi-like, to embrace whatever punishment the law prescribes for them.
Excelsior democracy. We have patience.