Shiv Sena returns to its roots with ‘Marathi signboard’ diktat

The party has been pushing aggressively for local language over the last few months with an eye on civic elections later this year, but the shopkeepers are resisting the order

With BMC elections due later this year, the Marathi push is aimed at consolidating the Sena’s Marathi voter base. Pic: iStock

Shiv Sena’s latest rant, demanding compulsory Marathi name boards on shops and establishments in Mumbai, seems like déjà vu…reminiscing the days of party founder late Balasaheb Thackeray, who had championed the cause of “Marathi Manoos” during the early days of the party.

Over the last few months, the Shiv Sena-controlled Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the biggest cash-cow among all of the country’s civic corporations, has been pushing aggressively in favor of the local language once again.

With BMC elections due later this year, the strategy is aimed at consolidating the Sena’s Marathi voter base as well as reassert the party’s dominance in the state — an important factor considering the relentless onslaught of barrages it (Sena) has been receiving from its breakaway faction, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), and friend-turned-foe, the BJP.

The BJP is likely to give a tough fight to the Sena in an attempt to wrest away the party’s 25-year-old ace-in-the-hole.

On April 6, the BMC issued an order stating all shops, restaurants, bars, liquor stores and other establishments — no matter how big or small — should put up commercial signboards in Marathi-Devanagari script. If the shopkeeper opts to put up a signboard in two languages, the Marathi font cannot be smaller than the other language font. All shops and establishments in the city were given a deadline of May 31 to implement the order.

To make sure that its voice (and message) was heard loud and clear, the BMC also put up notices of the same across shopping malls, markets and bazaar areas.

On May 31, the municipal corporation announced that it would be undertaking a survey of name boards in the city and would also begin penalising shop owners up to Rs 2,000 (under the Shops and Establishments Act) for not abiding by its rule.

Tough resistance

The ‘Marathi signboard’ diktat was met with tough resistance by shop owners and retailers associations in the city, who claimed that the deadline set by the corporation was too short. They (shops and establishments) further said that they needed time to gather funds to install new, amended signboards.

On June 2, BMC Commissioner Iqbal Singh Chahal took cognizance of the same and granted shopkeepers temporary relief by extending the May 31 deadline to June 30. Keeping in mind that there were more than five lakh shops in Mumbai (most of them being small-scale businesses), Chahal told a media house that “taking rampant probationary action against them will only increase the burden on court and civic body.”

The Sena’s renewed push in favor of Marathi language boards came well before the BMC issued an order to this effect.

Legal loophole

At a cabinet meeting held on January 12, senior Shiv Sena leader Subhash Desai, who holds the Marathi language portfolio in the Uddhav Thackeray-led state cabinet, said that the Maharashtra Shops and Establishments (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act would be amended (which it then was) so as to close a legal loophole that small shop owners often exploited to avoid putting up Marathi signboards. Displaying Marathi on signboards was already a prerequisite for large commercial shops and establishments.

A month later, in February, Desai met with Union Minister G Kishan Reddy and demanded that the Centre grant Marathi a “classical” language status. During the same month, chief minister Uddhav Thackeray dispatched a courier containing 4,000 postcards to President Ram Nath Kovind putting up the same demand.

The passing of two Bills by the state legislature further indicated the Sena’s return to its roots as far as Marathi language compulsion is concerned.

Two key Bills

The first one was passed in February 2020, making Marathi a compulsory language across all state-sponsored schools. The second Bill, passed in July 2021, amended the Maharashtra Official Language Act, 1964, so as to make Marathi the official working language across all government offices in the state.

However, despite throwing its might behind the local language, it seems like Shiv Sena has not yet managed to convince shopkeepers, retailers and establishment owners in the city.

On June 4, the Federation of Retail Traders’ Welfare Association (Maharashtra) wrote to Uddhav, requesting him to extend the already-extended June 30 deadline by another six months. It said over 5 lakh shops and establishments in the city currently have signboards with Marathi font smaller than the English one.

The shopkeepers would need “professional help for redesigning the name board so that the Marathi font looks big and neat” with a standard design, the Association members stated. They requested Uddhav “not to make it hard for the traders by charging penalties” at a time when inflation and the pandemic have broken their back.

‘Matter of pride’

Speaking with The Federal, Shiv Sena spokesperson Manisha Kayande said the people should have put up Marathi signboards voluntarily “as a matter of pride.”

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“You want to demean the language of the state where you earn money and give you all sorts of permissions to follow your profession?” Kayande said. “We (India) have adopted the trilingual formula under which the first language of importance is the local language, followed by either Hindi or English. One has to give importance to the local language because Marathi is the mother tongue of Maharashtra. Some people write their shop names in big, bold font, in English or Hindi, and the Marathi font is minuscule…this shows what they think of Marathi language.”

When asked about the shopkeepers and traders’ plea to extend the June 30 deadline by another six months, Kayande said the decision rested solely with the Chief Minister and related ministers, but “as a Shiv Sainik,” her opinion was that giving too much of an extension isn’t a good thing.

“They (shops) can spend lakhs of rupees on renovation, so one name card isn’t a big deal,” Kayande said, adding “It’s not like a small paan shop would have to spend much…and the profit margin of bigger shops and malls is much larger, they can afford to change their signboards. They are just giving excuses so that one or the other party might come to their rescue.” Kayande’s not-so-cryptic reference to “other party” was aimed at the BJP.

BJP’s dilemma: Hindi vs Marathi

The BJP has repeatedly said that Hindi should be declared the national language. However, in the context of Maharashtra, the BJP’s position on “Hindi versus Marathi” might be more nuanced than it initially anticipated.

On June 4, the BJP’s Maharashtra Vice-President Kripashankar Singh wrote to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister (in English) asking him to consider Marathi as an optional language for the students of Secondary and Higher Secondary in UP so that it “may help them get better jobs in Maharashtra.”

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Kripashankar Singh, who has been living in Mumbai for the past 50 years, wrote that during this tenure he had noticed “that when students come to Maharashtra, they face a number of problems due to little knowledge of the Marathi language”. “Besides, there are vacancies in state government departments or corporations that require knowledge of Marathi language,” Singh said.