Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Battle of the Bandh

I grew up in small-town North India. I was part of the people derisively called the cow-belt (because we were the most fervent cow-worshippers around), doodh walas (milkmen from U.P. delivered milk in what was then known as Bombay), bhaiyyas (brothers, but really used in the context of rural hicks.

To be fair we lived up to all the stereotypes. We were cow-worshipping, milk delivering hicks though I personally did none of these activities. But each time I come up against snobby Bombayites I wear my rural Allahabad mantle proudly. There is not much to be proud of. The most populous state of India (in which my hometown sits) is also the least educated, the most sectarian, stuck in place and sliding backward.

Yes, we are all of these but there is so much more. Those of us who grew up in the Allahabad of the 70's and even the 80's knew it as the home of poets, writers and nation-builders and the birthplace of the only Indian superstar who matters, the most recognized star in the world by sheer number: Amitabh Bachchan.

I remember hearing about Bal Thackeray of Bombay before it became Bombay. Bom=good, bahia = bay, two Portuguese words that came together to create Bombay, given in dowry to a British king. And then, sometime in the 70's the cosmopolitan nature of India's melting pot city began to curdle.

A little-known regional goddess Mumba devi was deigned the patron goddess of the city and so Bombay became Mumbai. And the ills of Marathi society, all its problems were laid at the door of the others. At first the others were all non-Maharashtrians, then South Indians.

Thackeray (once a mediocre cartoonist) re-imagined Marathis as proud and free. All well and good until you understand that the only thing keeping them from being so were others. So his Shiv Sena (army of Shiva) goons beat up Tamils and Malayalees and other assorted South Indian denizens of India's largest, most diverse and richest city.

In the 80's and 90's, the ire of the Marathai manooos (Marathi people) became focused on Muslims. At the height of the Ram Janambhoomi movement, poor Muslims became the target and India's most cosmopolitan city was victimized by waves upon waves of riots.

It was a cause to rally even past victims. South Indians and other newcomers could be relied upon to conjure up hatred for a common and reviled enemy: Muslims.

But not all Muslims. For there were the rich Muslims, the movie-star Muslims who danced attendance on the man now known as Balasaheb. The targets were poor, they lived in ghettoes and slums. Over the years Balasaheb became a kind of godfather figure for the film industry.

Growing up, especially in Allahabad, Amitabh Bachchan was ours. He was our shining star. We defeated Bahugana, a respected politician when Amitabh Bachchan stood against him in his one and only election. And when he left amid scandal just a few years later we were hurt. Young boys ran away from home to Bombay to become the next Amitabh Bachchan. He was god. And even, as Shiv Sainiks rained vitriol on the poor of U.P. who tried to make a living in Bombay, the most famous U.Pite of our times bowed in front of Balasaheb, who in turn put aside his animosity for U.P. to fawn over Mr. Bachchan. But was it truly respect or fear that made the glitterati of Bombay flock to Balasaheb.

His Shiv Sena infiltrated the ranks of the police so they could be relied upon during religious riots and Balasaheb held court at his home.

He held no elected office for politics corrupts but elections forces divisive figures to make some concessions to the center. He remained extra judicial, beyond the reach of the law.

Then, at 86, he died, two days ago. Mumbai (now firmly Mumbai, not Bombay) was equal parts grief and fear. Then the Shiv Sena 'decided' not to use violence to mourn their loss and, apart from forced closures of businesses and the emptying of streets...there was no violence. Closing down all functions in  a city (or nationally for that matter) is called a bandh, which essentially means 'closed,' exactly what it is.

And the next day, a 21-year old young woman from Mumbai tweeted that people like Bal Thackeray died every other day and there was no need for the forcible shut-down of an entire city. A friend of hers pressed like. They were both arrested for hurting the (religious) sentiments of others. Oh, by the way, India is a democracy with promises the freedom of speech. Except, of course if you hurt someone's sentiments.

The sentiments of true secularism, rationality and sanity don't count by the way, just religious ones do and sectarian and region-based sentiments do.

And then there is Markanday Katju, chair of the Press Council of India who wrote a letter to the Chief Minister of Maharastra protesting these arrests.

“To my mind it is absurd to say that protesting against a bandh hurts religious sentiments. Under Article 19(1) (a) of our Constitution, freedom of speech is a guaranteed fundamental right. We are living in a democracy, not a fascist dictatorship. In fact this arrest itself appears to be a criminal act, since under Sections 341 and 342 it is a crime to wrongfully arrest or wrongfully confine someone who has committed no crime,”

Here is the full story.

He is a bit of eccentric but an eccentric who believes in the idea of India, the breath of life that knit together a diverse group of states into one nation. He believes in the constitution and rationality and sanity. And yes, he too is an Allahabadi and he makes us proud for standing up to fascist ideas. He asks questions and takes power-holders to task.

Yes, we gave India two prime ministers (Nehru and Indira Gandhi), many literary figures (Nirala, Harivanshrai Bachchan, Mahadevi Varma and Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, etc.) and one mega-star (Amitabh Bachchan)...but today as an Allahabadi I am most proud of Markanday Katju. He gives me hope for my dying city and hope for India...that it might one day become the realized dream that so many disparate voices created together.


PKR said...

Thank you for this passionate explanation of a region and a man - retroactive deification of those who sought to sow discord during life is unfortunately all too common.

Jawahara said...

Note: Color me not surprised when the original Facebook poster turned out to be Muslim and her friend who pressed 'like,?' From South India. Some things never change.

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