Friday, February 8, 2008

Who own's Mumbai??

Is Mumbai exclusive to Maharashtrians? This should be a no-brainer, but since Raj Thackeray reignited the debate, it's an issue worth exploring, if only to see what turns up.

The timing first. What pressed the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena founder to drum up the issue now? That it was the Bachchans laying the foundation stone for a girls' school in U.P. is too convenient an answer and the theory doesn't hold up anyway. He could have turned the pages of any Mumbai daily and picked up a 'reason'. Elections are a year away, so there's a danger of his campaign peaking too early. Perhaps it is simply that he saw an opportunity to settle one issue once and for all - that of succession. Uddhav, Bal Thackeray's son was of course chosen to head the Shiv Sena in 2004, eventually leading to a parting of ways between Raj and the Shiv Sena. But Raj perhaps wants to show to Maharashtrians that he is a more natural or spiritual successor to Bal Thackeray.

Let's now deal with the concept of entitlement, the justification for which reads like this - Mumbai should belong to me because it's the capital of Maharashtra and I'm a Maharashtrian. But even this is not a fully accurate picture. As Ramachandra Guha points out in India after Gandhi, Bombay as it was known prior to 1995, was a bilingual province of both Marathi and Gujarati speakers. It had been settled by people from different linguistic communities - Marathis, Parsis, Gujaratis and Europeans. It was only in 1960 that Bombay was declared the capital of Maharashtra. So, are all those who built Bombay and their descendants to be kicked out then? Or will they be declared honourary citizens? So on and so forth in this vein will only lead to bizarre conclusions. Of course, Raj Thackeray is not asking for this, he only wishes that migrants would stop pouring in - something I'm sure every Mumbaikar has thought of at least once. What marks him out is that he's the head of a political party and is interested in reaping the dividends of raking up what's a hugely emotional issue.

Now, to the future. Should all those 'Bhaiyyas', Bengalis and South Indians who're, even as we speak, stuffing all their belongings into trains be stopped at the gates of Mumbai? Raj Thackeray blames this non-stop influx of immigrants for the creaking infrastructure of Mumbai. But neither he, nor the Shiv Sena or the Congress and the NCP have turned the mirror onto themselves for apportioning blame. One glance at the much-trumpeted Bandra-Worli Sea link should tell you the story - it was to be completed in 2004, but more than four years later the project is yet to be finished. Ditto for the Mumbai metro and other projects planned to ease congestion in the city. The Worli-Nariman Point sea link and the Nava Sheva-Sewri link are both still at the blueprint and tender stage.

Onto to Amitabh Bachchan. It was suggested that Mumbai's most famous resident had done nothing for Maharashtra. If Bachchan had settled in Delhi, would the state have suffered? Clearly, the answer is no. No state is dependent on one individual. But Mumbaikars in that case wouldn't have benefited from his spending - remember his income runs into crores and crores. I'm willing to bet Bachchan has made a difference to hundreds of people, Maharashtrians included, in the last thirty-odd years in the city, without even knowing it. And this is not counting the number of people his films employed. The more the number of hits he churned out, the more people in the film industry benefited by the incomes they derived from those films. Include all those wide-eyed tourists paying auto & taxi drivers for a glimpse of his twin homes Jalsa and Prateeksha, and you begin to see Bachchan for an industry that he is.

Let's tackle the last and most difficult question. If I lived in Mumbai, should I be forced to speak Marathi? A furious discussion on IBN7 on Tuesday yielded a few interesting answers. There were those who said it is compulsory for all migrants to learn Marathi, a few said it is okay if they show that they're trying and just one who said learning the language wasn't necessary. Curiously enough, I thought the best answer came from the anchor himself. He asked a what-if question. If he were to be posted to Tamil Nadu for a year, then to Karnataka and Maharashtra, should he then have to learn Tamil, Kannada and Marathi? My personal opinion is that nobody should be forced to learn anything. People who choose not to learn a local language are missing something special. It's their loss.

The issue really gets tangled when 'outsiders' expect localites to speak in their tongue. This has happened in Mumbai and more recently in Bangalore as well. Local residents are then justified in their anger. But I would still desist from forcing anybody to learn my language, simply on the grounds that doing so, would destroy the very edifice of liberty and democracy that India is built on.

Perhaps the last word would in this debate should go to a Sardarjee, Jaspal Bhatti, a unique and special man in that he turns to satire in order to get his point across. He got it right when he 'formed' a Divide India film festival, where movies of all languages would be screened, but with one rider. Maharashtrians could only watch Marathi films. Punjabis only Punjabi films and so on. People entering theatres would be asked for an ID card with domicile status. And what would happen if, say a Bengali slipped in to watch a Kannada film? Bhatti's recommendation is simple - we shall beat him up before we administer first aid!

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