Posted on 1-March-2008
In the month that has just elapsed, a politician in the Indian state of Maharashtra, Raj Thakaray, expended a great deal of his energy and his considerable organisational talents on arousing local sentiments against people from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar who for decades or years have been working in factories in Maharashtra or on the entrails of Mumbai or been engaged in petty trade at various places in the state. Properties were sacked and burned and some people were frightened into leaving Maharashtra for the places they had come from. Politicians of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar spoke in defence of the interests of their 'citizens'. The speechification and street violence went on for many days before the police took preventive measures. It was more than likely that Raj Thakaray, who after splitting from his uncle, Bal Thakaray, had started a new political party, was trying to erect a platform from which to mobilise support among the electorate in Maharashtra. Several decades ago Bal Thakaray had created a political base for himself in Mumbai on the strength of a campaign against people from south India who had been working in Mumbai, engaged in occupations a little less dirty and a little more socially respectable than those in which the people from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have been.
The areas of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar from which most of these people had gone seeking their livelihood in Mumbai and other places in Maharashtra has been the recruiting ground for cheap labour for about 150 years. Many in the 19th and early 20th century went to work as plantation labourers in the Caribbean, Mauritius and Fiji. Others went to man the jute mills of Kolkata and its environs or became human beasts pulling human burdens on rickshaws in Kolkata. In the second half of the 20th century this area became the supplier of farm labour to the Punjab. In present day Delhi and its surrounding areas a very large proportion of construction workers, night watchmen and security guards, menial labourers, vegetable and fruit sellers, artisanal workers and even rickshaw pullers are from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. They have evidently been driven out of their homes by poverty. The politicians of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar who spoke up during Raj Thakaray's agitation were not suddenly overwhelmed with compassion for their compatriots in Maharashtra. Nor were they greatly concerned with removing the poverty that has driven people of their states out for the last 150 years to work in not the most dignified conditions. As the Thakarays do in Maharashtra, they too were creating and appealing to local chauvinism in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, hoping some day to win the votes of the stay-at-home kin of those whom Raj Thakaray and his followers in Maharashtra were trying to victimise.
In the eyes of the English knowing and anglophile political and other elites of Delhi, the Thakarays are minor, if a little gauche and inconvenient, politicians who create little ripples from time to time but whose influence is so localised that they merit no more than passing attention and Bihar and Uttar Pradesh politicians are in any case country bumpkins to be alternately indulged and scorned. Not for Delhi elites, so awake to India's past and present greatness and future destiny, so proud of India's democratic values, the narrow chauvinisms of provincial politicians. And yet about one year ago the Chief Minister of Delhi, herself a sikh woman married to the civil servant son of an Uttar Pradesh politician, the highest ranking elected official of Delhi state government, bemoaned the presence of too many Biharis in Delhi, making the management of Delhi's urban problems difficult. She went on to say that even Bihari bureaucrats made Delhi their home and stayed on after retirement. She retreated when there was an outcry of protest, probably mindful of the votes of three million or so of people from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar who now live in Delhi. About two months ago, the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, an appointee of Government of India whose main task is to keep the elected politicians in line, proposed that people driving into Delhi with driving licences issued by other state governments--in India driving licences issued by authorities in states are legal in all the country--would need to have their driving licences validated by Delhi administration. He also suggested that people, especially those coming from outside Delhi, would need to carry some identity document on their person--India has no system of a national identity card. The Lieutenant Governor also retreated in the face of an outcry. I suspect that the Chief Minister and the Lieutenant Governor were iterating views, not so uncommon in many Delhi salons, critical of the presence of so many outsiders, especially those uncouth Biharis, which is changing the character of the city. Needless to say, the politicians of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, went quickly on the attack when Delhi's head of state and head of government said what they did.
Delhi, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra politicians are not the only ones to pimp for region or group based chauvinism. When a film maker joined hands with an activist fasting in defence of the rights of those displaced by the construction of the Narmada dam over which Gujarat politicians show great patriotic zeal, his film was not allowed to be shown in much of Gujarat because, it was said, his action had hurt Gujarati sentiments. Very recently there were violent street protests in Bangalore because someone had hurt Kannada sentiments. In the 1996 general election, a prime minister of India was asking for votes in Andhra Pradesh for himself saying he was a Telugu son and Telugu pride. There have been even more frequent vociferous demonstrations of sectarian loyalties. It is safe to say that lurking behind the incitation to such loyalties--in political terms there is no difference between regional and sectarian loyalties--there is some politician's calculation about winning the vote of some section of the population or about denying that support to a rival.
Even though Maharashtra smouldered for days last month over the anti-Uttar Pradesh, anti-Bihar movement, three people who should have spoken against these agitations, kept quiet: the President of India, the Prime Minister of India and the leader of the largest political party in the ruling coalition governing India. I almost missed Jawaharlal Nehru's constant and repeated warnings against 'fissiparous tendencies'. The most notable voice critical of the movement in Maharashtra was that of India's 'shadow prime minister' who rightly called the movement unconstitutional: India's constitution gives to its citizens the freedom to live and work anywhere in the country. The three political personalities named above perhaps forget that the dividing lines between acquiescence, connivance and collaboration are very thin.
While indulging in the politics of division, India's politicians seem not to be aware of some other important realities. The most important of these is that nation, nationalism, national unity, state are not natural kinds but notional kinds. They exist in people's minds and can exist only as long as they are nurtured and sustained, most importantly with arguments about their being for the general welfare of all who constitute a nation or a state. There is only so much of battering any sense of a nation or national unity can withstand. Constant and regular encouragement to groups within a nation or a state to emphasise their particularism at the expense of the sense of unity is the wrong way to preserve the integrity of a nation or a state. Secondly, if the basic law of the nation, the Constitution, is not respected, the unity of the nation will become precarious. Thirdly, a sense of Indian unity cannot have a strong appeal to the diverse peoples in the frontier areas if at the heart of the state people of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Delhi and Assam for example live in antagonistic relations with each other. Fourthly, regular elections are not the only institutions that make a functioning democracy. Respect for the law, above all the basic law, by common people and people in power alike, public conduct within accepted norms of civilised behaviour, probity in public life and a modicum of idealism and conviction on the part of political leadership are equally important. Fifthly poisons of hostility between groups once introduced into the body politic linger and cause long term harm. Finally, another reality that politicians can ill afford to lose sight of is that the silly old common man does not take very long to see through the politicians' posturing and lies.
What happened last month in Maharashtra does not seriously endanger India's unity as a nation state. But that is no reason to test that unity again and again. On the other hand there are at least two good reasons why every effort must be made to preserve that unity. The first is that in the world as it is constituted today small states are at a comparative disadvantage. It would be folly to throw away the unity that the Indian state has. Secondly, the risks of violent eruptions if India were to break up are great. Last month the Thakaray cousins on their side and Uttar Pradesh and Bihar politicians on theirs busied themselves rousing the 'patriotic' feelings of their constituents. Imagine how much further they could go in speech and action if Maharashtra, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were sovereign, independent states. After all the Indian subcontinent has seen two break ups: in 1947 and in 1971. Both brought great bloodshed and both created long lasting hostility and suspicion, bloated military establishments and consequent economic backwardness. Since preservation of the unity of India offers clear advantages for all its citizens, the people of India should and must reject the political leaders who put that unity at risk.