The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Growth of a plebeian political culture

Urban Violence in India: Identity Politics, ‘Mumbai’ and the Postcolonial city By Thomas Blom Hansen, Permanent Black, Rs 550

Sometimes a simple date can acquire a symbolic value, as has been the case with the years 1789, 1917, and more recently, “9/11”. Events on these dates have changed the nature and history of an entire country. In 1996, the Shiv Sena changed the name of Bombay to Mumbai. Thomas Hansen finds this significant. Urban Violence in India is a startling account of how the city’s atmosphere, dominant public language, and power structures have changed since the Sixties. The change of name was the culmination of a long process that transformed India’s primary symbol of modernity and cultural diversity into a site of intense ethnic conflict and violent nationalism.

The book centres on the Shiv Sena, a militant Hindu movement that grew in the city, and advanced a new “plebeian” political culture that progressively undermined democratic rule in India’s financial capital. But Hansen argues that Hindu nationalism and the politics of xenophobia have roots in India’s unique experience of modernity and democracy. He examines medieval Maratha history, the Peshwa period, which saw a collaboration between the dominant Brahmin-Maratha groups. He then traces these trends of a composite identity formation down to the foundation of the liberal Samyukta Maratha Sabha in 1939. One of the its founders was K.S. Thackeray. It was his son, Balasaheb, who founded the Shiv Sena in 1966.

The book’s major thrust is to analyse the changing agendas, growth, style and functioning of the Shiv Sena in Mumbai and Thane. The Sena managed to brilliantly exploit a blend of narrow patriotism, almost parochialism, and insecurity to attract two different generations of Maharashtrians — the older middle class, bemoaning the loss of morality, and an aggressive, paranoiac younger generation. Its initial violent campaigns were launched against the non-Marathi population, particularly Gujarati entrepreneurs and South Indian white collar employees. Slowly, the Sena expanded its base among the working class.

The Bhiwandi communal riots in 1970 formed a turning point, when the Sena joined hands with the Hindu Mahasabha in forming a Hindu Maha Sangh and launched an anti-Muslim campaign. But this initial parochial aspect caused its decline in the Eighties. It then reinvented itself, came back as a Hindutva party that hated Muslims. The anti-Muslim agenda was revived during the 1984 riots. In 1992-93, Shiv Sainiks ran riot throughout Bombay, the Sainiks were given free rein in the 1992-93 anti-Muslim carnage — a fact that is now common knowledge and well-documented by the Srikrishna commission. Thackeray spewed anti-Muslim venom in the pages of Saamna. All Muslims were repeatedly branded as aggressors, traitors, Pakistanis. Historical facts were conveniently twisted to blame Muslim rulers for destroying Indian culture and civilization. Systematic propaganda added inflammatory fuel to the fire, leading to riots. These riots further exacerbated the sense of marginalization and isolation among Muslims.

Once in power though, the Sena embraced wholeheartedly the concepts of modernity and development. One of its pet projects was the slum redevelopment project — an attempt to beautify and modernize the city. The slums were an eyesore, the poor were once again rendered invisible, marginal. They sanctioned flyovers, construction projects and continued with the same investment policies as the erstwhile Congress government. There was little difference in such aspects of governance.

Hansen documents the Shiv Sena’s extremely well-knit organization that extends to shakas at the neighbourhood level, its rhetoric, and mobilizational techniques and political strategy the organization employs. He successfully evokes all the paradoxical elements that have made the Sena a success — a mix of swagger, bravado and opportunism, local entrepreneurship and community service, violent gestures and social service. At the same time, the Sena’s organizational structure is highly centralized and authoritarian with Thackeray a clear law unto himself. During the last three decades, violence has become an integral part of Sena politics and public culture. It has propagated, practised and legitimized violence as a political instrument to grab power and eliminate dissent.

According to Hansen, the Shiv Sena’s success is due to its ability to blend modern city life and technological progress, providing the youth especially with an ideal of an assertive, often violent, mode of being modern. Its success was also due in part to the decline of an older political culture that believed in “paternalistic” democracy when an unequal system of political “clientelism” existed. Hansen’s analysis is interesting and could throw light on other cities caught in similar contradictions. But there is little probing of the changes in the global economy that also played a part in the sea-changes Bombay went through in the Eighties — the decline of cotton-mills, the in-migration to the city, the rising unemployment and casualization of labour.

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