Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Secular Riddle: Why Nandakumar Kamat Loved Bal Thackeray

For those who heaved a sigh of relief at the news of the death of Bal Thackeray, the response to his death was deeply agitating. Not merely politicians, but it appears the big names of Bollywood and sundry journalists seemed to be bend over backwards to pay compliments to a man who while doubtlessly a significant leader to members and partisans of the Shiv Sena, was responsible for much death and violence (not merely physical and material but discursive violence as well) in Bombay city and across those spaces in the country where his rhetoric had appeal. Of this violence, there has been not so much as a whisper in these accolades. It was pretty much in this vein that Nandakumar Kamat’s response in the Navhind Times to Thackeray’s death was crafted.

To a large extent, the writings of Nandakumar Kamat represent the perspective of the educated middle class segments of our society that imagine themselves to be secular. There are a number of interesting blindspots to their secularism however, that indicate the troubled nature of their commitment to, or understanding of, this virtue of contemporary democracy. It is for this reason that Kamat’s scripting of “Why Maharashtra Loved Bal Thackeray” needs to be reviewed.

Kamat’s eulogy to Thackeray, and let us make no mistake that his article is a eulogy, begins with an interesting insight into Kamat’s understanding of democracy. While a large number of Bomaicars were quite agitated by the decision to hold Thackeray’s cremation in Shivaji Park, Kamat justifies this decision by suggestion that the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Prithviraj Chavan “was just bowing to the wishes of the people.” Kamat is clearly indicating here, his understanding of democracy, not as the rule of law over all people, or of democracy as the system that ensures the protection of the minority, but of democracy as majoritarian rule. This fascistic edge to Kamat’s eulogy unfortunately only deepens when he then goes on to evaluate Thackeray’s success in terms of his apparent appeal to the “grass-roots.” Masses and majority, these are two critical elements of fascism and there is not so much as a whimper of disagreement in Kamat’s essay.

In his eulogy, Kamat makes but a coy reference to Thackeray’s politics of intimidation and violence. He suggests that these politics were “basically the fear of demographic and cultural dilution followed by economic and political marginalization which creates a regional backlash in any state.” Thus Kamat is suggesting that the violent actions of the Shiv Sena were the result of the Maharashtrian inhabitants, who have first dibs on the city, feeling marginalized. Indeed this sugar-coating of a deeply problematic man’s poisonous, and avoidable legacy is carried further when Kamat suggests that Thackeray was a hero because he was able to, speaking “from his heart” give space for the Marathi middle class “looking for some respect, identity and recognition” a sense of “Maharashtrian cultural pride”.

Kamat has gotten his facts grievously mixed up however. He forgets that the borders of contemporary Maharashtra were forged recently, in 1960, as a result of the reorganization of the Bombay state into the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat. Prior to this there were cultural boundaries to Marathi territory, and unlike other parts of contemporary Maharashtra that could possibly claim a unchallenged identification with just one language, the city of Bombay was never a part of this wholly Maharashtrian cultural community. The city of Bombay forged its own cultural space, being the home of the East Indians, Parsis, Gujaratis (who in 1960 even claimed Bombay for their own state), Goans, Italians, Arabs, Persians, Britishers and of course the Portuguese, to name just a few. If today Bombay can be unproblematicaly be seen as Maharashtrian territory, it is because Thackeray was able to, subsequent to the 1960 inclusion of Bombay city as a part of the State of Maharashtra, craft Bombay as an exclusively Maharashtrian city through his politics of violence. Indeed, the Maratha and Marathi, were and are, as much migrants to the city of Bombay as any of the other groups that Kamat so condescendingly dismisses as “non Marathi migrants in Mumbai who have made the megapolis their permanent home.”

I would argue that Kamat gets his facts mixed up because he looks at the issue from another fascistic perspective, which is to see the world as naturally composed of monolithic cultural communities born when language and territory overlap. In the present case it could be Maharashtra and Marathi, but it could just as well be Goa and Konkani. It is because Kamat is sympathetic to this parochial (mildly racist even) view of the world, that he is able to make sense of, and justify, Thackeray’s politics. It is for this reason that Kamat does not see the complex history of Bombay, and restricts himself only to Maharashtrian history from “original Marathi sources” when attempting to understand and put forth the case of Balasaheb Thackeray.

There is no doubt that Balasaheb Thackeray was able to capitalize on the angst of the Marathi Hindu middle-class and dominant caste groups. However we have to be able to see that these groups do not, nor did they necessarily ever, have any primary right to the city of Bombay, nor indeed in the rest of Maharashtra (in the latter case they would have to necessarily share space with non-dominant caste groups). In the case of Bombay city, the Marathi migrants were merely one more set of migrants that through a stroke of fate gained dubious claim to first dibs on the city in the state carved out on racist lines. Further, we have to recognize that Thackeray’s politics of violence, is not the only way to deal with the “fear of demographic and cultural dilution” and “economic and political marginalization” that Kamat refers to. Indeed, Kamat himself points to the fact that Thackeray was vociferously against the democratic strategies that seek to negotiate economic and cultural marginalization outlined in the Mandal Commission Report.

The last issue that needs to be addressed in Kamat’s eulogy is his muffling of the strident Hindu nationalism that lay at the core of Thackeray’s rhetoric.  It is perhaps in this realm that the problematic nature of Kamat’s secularism comes across. Rather than acknowledge that there is a profound problem with Hindu nationalism, he seems to join those “secular” nationalist who seek to justify all but the most violent of Hindutva’s manifestations. Thus, Veer Savarkar, the possible mastermind of the Gandhi assassination, and leader of the Hindu Right, is presented merely as a “great Hindu nationalist and reformer”. There is also something of a dismissal of those who aware of Thackeray and the Shiv Sena’s Hindu nationalist history saw in the huge turnout at the funeral a “Hindu backlash”. More sophisticated social science research points out that conscious action is not everything. Groups very often unconsciously follow patterns that have been established. Thus there need not have to be a conscious effort to demonstrate Hindu power, Thackeray and the Shiv Sena spent decades making sure their every action was justified in terms of the rightful assertion of Hindu power. Furthermore, the stories of the forcible shutting down of shops, of extra-legal curfews policed by youth carrying saffron flags speak volumes about the death of Thackeray being used as one more example of the assertion of Hindu power.  Kamat’s silence on this front and his muffling of the strident Hindu nationalist positions of the Shiv Sena are deeply disturbing. They are disturbing because of one, or a combination of three possible reasons; he does not see Hindu nationalism as problematic, he is unaware of that Hindu nationalist violence is possible because of the silence which routinely greets it, or because it is assumed to be the work of lumpen lower class Hindu elements that can easily be held in check by upper-caste leaders. All three are profoundly erroneous.

Kamat’s eulogy to Bal Thackeray is deeply troubling because it indicated an acceptance of political violence directed by authoritarian leaders directing mobs, where rights seem to belong first to the people of the land, and then to those persons labeled as migrants. These migrants could be randomly defined on the basis of religion, language, caste or territory. These are signs of merely a superficial commitment to democracy and secularism. Bal Thackeray may have passed on, but his legacy it appears, may still linger on.

Goans should read essays such as "Why Maharashtra Loved Bal Thackeray" only with the greatest of circumspection. This is because, in the light of the demands for 'Special Status' such essays are softening up the public opinion for the kind of horrendous changes that Bal Thackeray wrought on Bombay. A good many Goans may believe that they are being marginalized in their own land, but the Thackeray route is not solution, since it will not address the needs of the truly marginalized within Goa, and it will be built on a Hindu majoritarianism, cleverly disguised as was the result of the Konkani language movement. No, Bal Thackeray, and Special Status, despite what many fondly believe, are not the response to Goa's challenges.


PAES said...

While on the subject of Bombay and its early natives, let me quote a para out of my book: SIMPLY MY WAY (www.bennetpaes.com:

" The natives of what the British renamed as Bombay, were the Kolis who, later on came to be influenced by the East India Companies and were labeled as East Indians – a designation that distinguished them from the Goan emigrants of the same era. They all spoke Konkani with a sprinkling of foreign words borrowed from their English, Dutch and French masters. The Marathis, according to historians, were only the latter-day settlers in Bombay."

Bennet Paes
Assolna, Goa

baramasa said...

I don't know much about Nandakumar Kamat but I liked your gently polemical, and marvelously crafted, post on HHS Bal Thackeray.
Asad Zaidi

baramasa said...

I don't know much about Nandakumar Kamat, but I liked your gently polemical and marvelously crafted post on HHS Bal Thackeray.
Asad Zaidi

baramasa said...

I don't know much about Nandakumar Kamat, but I liked your gently polemical and marvelously crafted post on HHS Bal Thackeray.
Asad Zaidi

Venkatesh Athreya said...

Found your article educative. Wish you had also brought in the key role played by Thackeray and his Party in breaking trade union and working class resistance and struggle as well as the complicity of the major Parties -the Congress, the BJP and the NCP -in the rise of the SS.This would have strengthened your point about the fascism of BT and SS by bringing out its Corporate links and the complicity of the mainstream parties. Thanks for a good, instructive read.