The Shiv Sena has come a full circle. Infamous for its witch-hunt against “outsiders”, mostly migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, for “stealing” jobs of the Marathi Manoos (sons of the soil) it is now assuring safety and shelter to the very same migrants, stranded due to the corona lockdown.
In what was apparently a softening of its tough stance, Sena leader and Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray earlier this week floored his critics during a live webcast. He first switched to Hindi from Marathi and then reassured migrant workers that they were safe in Maharashtra. The lockdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak is not a “lock-up”, he said.
Earlier in the day on April 14, more than 1,000 migrant workers had gathered near the Bandra railway station asking to be sent home, after the Centre extended the lockdown till May 3.
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Thackeray’s assurance was humane and required of a chief minister, but was a deviation from the Sena’s tradition of pro-Marathi zealousness, bordering on hatred for “outsiders” and migrants.
Tradition of dislike for migrants
Years ago, Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray had successfully tapped into this populist strain of Maratha pride when he floated the party in 1966.
Vowing to return cosmopolitan Bombay to Maharashtrians, he launched a tirade against non-Marathis – from the Madrasi migrants to Muslims (not even sparing Shah Rukh Khan) and bhaiyyas from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
“Every great city has a grouse in its heart, and he knew what Mumbai’s was: the grouse of the native against the outsiders who were taking away his jobs, building great homes he could not afford, diminishing his language, changing the menu of his restaurants and replacing his cinema with another kind of cinema,” wrote eminent journalist Manu Joseph in his obituary on Bal Thackeray (New York Times, 2012).
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To reinforce his idea of Maratha culture, Thackeray changed the name of Bombay to Mumbai when Shiv Sena came to power in 1995. Sena activists, inspired by their leader, heckled people who came to Mumbai to work including migrant labourers, professionals and even railway board examinees.
At the turn of the millennium, the migrants were targeted both by Sena workers and that of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), a breakaway faction of Shiv Sena, founded by Thackeray’s estranged nephew Raj Thackeray.
In 2008, MNS workers launched an all-out attack against north Indians, mostly residents of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, across Maharashtra which witnessed massive bloodshed, shutdown of cities and cases of vandalism, lynching and arson. The aftermath, saw a mass exodus of north Indian migrants, especially from Pune and Nashik which in turn paralysed the local industries, mostly the construction sector.
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Adding insult to injury or rather what was dubbed as Bal Thackeray’s move to reclaim his party’s slogan of ‘Marathi sons of soil’ which Raj seemed to have co-opted for his political mileage, the Sena patriarch in an editorial published in party mouthpiece Saamna on March 6, 2008 said that Biharis were “an unwanted lot” in the country.
“The Biharis have antagonised local populations wherever they have settled. The UP-Bihari MPs have shown their ingratitude towards Mumbai and Maharashtra with anti-Marathi tirade in Parliament,” Thackeray was quoted as saying in the piece titled ‘Ek Bihari Sau Bimari’.
He warned leaders from Bihar that their attempts to “stir the fire of anti-north Indian feelings in Maharashtra” will only “put their brethren at the receiving end” in Maharashtra.
In 2012, Uddhav Thackeray, then the executive president of Shiv Sena’s ruffled many feathers, both in north Indian states and even in the central cabinet, when he joined his cousin Raj’s hate campaign against Biharis and demanded a permit system for Bihari migrants wanting to live in Mumbai. While Sena’s long-time ally, the BJP, distanced itself from the stance the Centre asked the Prithviraj Chavan-led government to ensure that the Sena or MNS stop targeting people on the basis of region.
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Turning over a new leaf
Uddhav Thackeray’s message on April 14 to migrants may, therefore, be in sharp contrast to the baggage of hate that his party carries, but analysts say the change had already begun with Bal Thackeray’s death in 2012.
Uddhav Thackeray “has been more of a reticent, soft-spoken drawing-room politician. He isn’t exactly a rabble-rouser like his father, nor a charismatic orator. Yet, he’s succeeded, eventually, because of the Shiv Sena cadre,” says an article in The Print.
The Sena’s mellowing of both its anti-migrant slogan and Hindutva agenda is also being ascribed to its recent alliance with the Congress as part of the Maha Vikas Agadhi, and its commitment towards the Common Minimum Programme.
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“The central government has been indifferent to the plight of migrant labourers across the country. However, some chief ministers including Thackeray have taken a humanitarian view of the situation. The Sena chief, in fact, surprised political observers by extending a helping hand to the migrants stranded in Maharashtra. Shiv Sena’s politics has centred around Marathi chauvinism and strident anti-north Indian rhetoric so far. So, at this juncture, Thackeray appears to be charting a new political course,” says political commentator Kay Benedict.
He says the pro-migrant sentiments are expected to help Sena expand its social base and gain electoral dividends in future elections. “That’s smart politics. The Sena is also trying hard to check BJP’s growth in Maharashtra. The saffron party has been usurping Sena’s electoral base over the years and that is one reason it jettisoned BJP and aligned with NCP and Congress last year. The pro-migrant stance will also help build Thackeray’s image among the left-liberal sections,” he adds.
Besides, Thackeray’s son Aaditya (representing the youth) and his wife Rashmi, who recently took over as the editor of Saamna, the party’s mouthpiece, have distanced themselves from hard Hindutva. This is having some sobering effect on the politician, he says. “Times have changed; parochialism and hate-mongering will not sell in the long run. Today’s aspirational generation won’t buy it. Aditya Thackeray represents the generational transition in Sena. Thackeray senior has to lay the ground for his son’s eventual succession as chief minister. A more inclusive politics will undoubtedly bolster Sena’s electoral graph,” Kay adds.