By Sanjay Jha

( First published in Indian Express in October 2008)

( We condemn the British for their divide and rule policy. Yet we unwittingly practise the same in India’s most cosmopolitan city )

I met Raj Thackeray in his formidable fortress in Shivaji Park, Dadar a couple of years ago, accompanied by two Bollywood celebrities from the land of Pataliputra , Prakash Jha and Shekhar Suman, just when the initial hullabaloo over Railway recruitments had suddenly surfaced. There were several protestations, vitriolic statements were made with great panache, all of it deliberately incendiary, of course. The city of Mumbai seemed headed for a most unwarranted confrontation , and even then the UP bhaiyaas were the principal targets.

Years later, thanks to an essentially gullible electronic media and an impressionable public being swayed by malicious propaganda, it has assumed unnerving proportions. This time , unless intelligently addressed , the “outsider” conflict carries an implied threat of a permanent mental divide , simmering discontent that can on an impulsive reaction , provoked by political expediency, explode. The last thing a growing India needs right now is social unrest caused by regional parochialism. It will be akin to committing hara-kiri. Seriously, but the Dalal Street bull ( so far laughing all the way to the bank) might just become a ” laughing stock” instead.

Raj Thackeray was extremely warm, instinctively sharp, and came across as a terrific listener. He has all the necessary attributes that make for a charismatic leader, doubtlessly. Over some vegetable burgers and finger chips , I discovered that Raj seemed particularly perturbed about the bad driving habits of the cabbies, the casual impertinence with which they flouted traffic signals, parked in violation of defined norms, and were generally indisciplined . He seemed genuinely violated by these indiscretions, as if a sacrosanct territory was being usurped by foreign aliens, totally oblivious of his hurting sensitivities. To give Raj credit, one can empathise with his perceptible discomfiture on this subject. But does the solution lie in a violent purge? A systematic assault ? In political vendetta? Or does it need greater social assimilation. Therein lies Raj’s essential predicament. Should he allow electoral considerations to outweigh corrective measures more to do with better governance and improved economic sustenance for all?

In Mumbai’s chatterati class , overtly obsessed with ” Bihar must be segregated from the rest of India” syndrome, Laloo Prasad Yadav is perceived , despite his Rs 25000 crore contribution to the national exchequer , as a country bumpkin. And all Biharis are dubbed as glorified manual labour. Over the last 16 years that I have lived in Mumbai , I have been often subjected to this petty ridicule , usually uttered in sarcastic disdain by the slick city types who know as much about Bihar as the Icelanders know about Rakhi Sawant . For them, life begins with the opening price and ends with the closing value of a Reliance share. And their exposure to the real India comes from the sanctimonious pontifications of gossip columnists.

There is thus a new trend emerging —-it’s called Bihari-bashing. And thanks to the latest inflammatory tone set by the politically fractured Thackeray family , it has taken on a new dimension. After all, it is always easy to pick on the fall guy. Even BJP MP Shatrughan Sinha, who can raises a lion’s roar for the most innocuous reasons, chickened out , looking a pale shadow of the man who once starred as a righteous man in Rampur ka Laxman. Sad indeed!

But has anyone ever really asked as to how the desperate migrant, barely surviving mortal combat with abject poverty , has unwittingly found such vicious animosity emanating from his otherwise tranquil neighbors? That he is forced to flee homewards now, overnight destroying his years of livelihood? Let me give you an example of my UP bhaiyya driver and how he survives in this fast-collapsing metropolis, for you to get a clear perspective.

Radheshyam , who has an uncanny Omkara-like profile, wakes up at an unearthly 5 am to ensure he stores enough water before the taps dry up, cooks his morning breakfast, packs his lunch dabba , and around 7 am walks 20 minutes to his nearest suburban station . After letting some bone-crushers zip by, he boards a relatively less crowded local train, packed in like a suffocated sardine layer , where every false step is a near-death experience. After an hour of this asphyxiating ordeal, he extricates himself from the mass of sweaty bodies , and lands at another central terminus. He then waits for another train, which is by now even more densely populated. Another grueling 30 minutes later, he alights at Dadar station, perspiration being the unifying glue amongst the multi-regional commuters. At peak hours ar Dadar station, you see a frantic, gigantic unending wave of restless humanity in kinetic over-drive, struggling to meet deadlines, keep promises, attend interviews, make the office appointment on time. Just survive, maybe..

Radheshyam now changes tracks to the western line, and after about 15-20 minutes of further depreciation lands in his final abode. To save on bus fare, he then walks 20 minutes to start his official daily routine. The return journey, is understandably, the same drudge, accentuated by even heavier human traffic. This is his daily routine. He sleeps a maximum of 4-5 hours daily.

By conventional average pay-outs, Radheshyam earns a reasonable sum, but I am aware that a single drinks- dinner- dessert for four in an upmarket restaurant will be equal to his monthly salary. Besides living in squalid conditions, he saves half of that modest earning for his impoverished family back home, surviving himself on the residual balance. He barely sees them for a maximum of two months in a year. He will never see his children grow up. He will never know what family life is all about.

Let me ask you, is this man and several like him threatening the social fabric of Maharashtra? Does he harbour any ill-will towards his fellow neighbors? Is he the nasty grievous threat that he is made out to be?

Politically, the anti-Bihari tirade is a suicidal step, as it is not just alienating ” north Indians ” but has assumed pan-India proportions. It is a sons-of-the-soil versus ” outsider issue”. So even the South Indian population ( the early victims ) and the rest of the non-Maharashtrians will be equally insecure and threatened..Come election time, they will attempt to exercise their powerful rights. They will. In fact, it is a huge strategic blunder that will inevitably boomerang, and you don’t need to be an astute psephologist to make that prognostication. The repercussions of the Thackeray -tirade will be felt for sure, impacting even the essentially peace-loving average Maharashtrian who are remarkably simple people. I should know that.

I grew up in Pune of the early 1970s, when visiting MG Road by the local residents was a rare monthly outing, as it was seen as far too cosmopolitan and hip-hop an address, influenced by a cross-cultural liberal mix, owing to the ubiquitous members of our defense services. But Deccan Gymkhana, and its precincts in nearby proximity , was home. I understand Raj Thackeray’s anguish on the disintegrating Pune culture, because it embodied the true Mahrashtrian spirit. The old-fashioned wadas, the delicious thali joints, Balgandharva theatre, lavani dances on standstill trucks at street corners, the Chatursinghi annual mela, family picnics in Shivaji park, and Joshi’s inimitable batata vada. . The same is being fast replaced by a Café Barista, shopping malls, Punjabi cuisine serving Chinese variations, multiplex chains, and mindless real estate construction. Pune is undergoing a socio-cultural fragmentation for sure. But what has the rank outsider looking for gainful employment done to threaten the local man or politician? The two issues are as distinct and different as Andrew Symonds and Prakash Karat. These are natural ramifications of urban growth in a fast-growing economy. The daunting problem of migration. It is also an opportunity to actually harness productive energy, instead of allowing it to become a community nightmare.

The challenge is of the teeming hordes of young, rural, semi-urban people with both employment goals and big ambitions who will enter a dream factory called Mumbai. Like they do in New York. New York is a melting pot. Where a Vikram Pandit , a Maharshtrian boy goes on to become the CEO of Citibank. Where a Rajat Gupta made it as head of global consulting Mckinsey. And where the Mayor of the city celebrates Indian Independence Day in the heart of central Manhattan. And here, we are threatening dire consequences for a chhatt festival and UP’s annual day being held in Mumbai?

It is easy to criticize the charge-sheeted Bihari politicians, but tell me of one state that is the fountainhead of unimpeachable integrity? And by the way , the new poster boy of Indian cricket is a certain MS Dhoni who is considered a great leadership icon of India today , and whatever his ancestral origins, he is a product of erstwhile Bihar, let us not forget that.

I also think we just take ourselves too seriously. My daughters joke with me in sardonic humour, when I mishandle the fork in an uppity snooty restaurant, or cannot pronounce the nouvelle French cuisine in an ornate menu. They say, “Dad, stop behaving like a Bihari”.. I laugh. They laugh too. And naturally since the joke is on me, my wife laughs the loudest.

My wife is a quasi-Maharshtrian, and her grand-father is not just one of the founders of modern industrial India, but a symbol of regional pride. His home base was Maharashtra. My girls have a typical Bihari Brahmin surname but they speak fluent Marathi, and have yet to visit my birth-place Bhagalpur, or see Patna where their grand-father once taught economics. They are Indians, nothing else matters.

If a Barack Hussein Obama can capture the conservative American imagination, and seek political change and a historic mandate , it is symptomatic of rapidly altering political landscapes world-wide. The social structure is shifting, there is an imperceptible drift in thinking , a subtle but definitive reminder that people are not looking for token reforms. They are expecting a dramatic transformation.

The age of status quo is dead. In every sphere, people want more than gradual growth. They are looking for radical results. Risk-takers. They want an upheaval. A metamorphosis. They will experiment. Like US voters are showing us with Obama perhaps, they care a fig for even lack of political experience. Past statistics. They are creating a wave borne out of instinct. Of trust. Of a promise of a better tomorrow.

For the Thackeray family, paradoxically enough, the UP-Bihari migrants should have been the ultimate vote-bank ( just see how Hillary Clinton woos the NRI population) . Because contrary to their image of being armed dacoits, violent mercenaries, and inveterate rapscallions, Biharis are intrinsically the most humble, soft-spoken and down-to-earth people , conditioned so by years of servitude and social inferiority , economic deprivation, raging exploitation and total isolation. But they have prodigious respect for their hosts, for their benefactors. Always. Anyone who gives them a ray of hope. I think the Shiv Sena and MNS may have just blown away one of their core options for 2009.

I think we should quit this myopic fixation of making Mumbai a Shanghai. The story does not lie in hard infrastructure, shopping malls, software parks, night life and a financial business district alone.. It lies in it’s soul. It’s energy. It’s oneness. It’s inclusiveness. Perhaps Mumbai needs to be more like New York. Not just a city of India. But a city of the world.

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