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Whose India is it anyway?

Friday, February 12, 2010 08:08:59 AM, Aijaz Zaka Syed

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JUST when you think outfits like Shiv Sena couldn’t get any more disingenuous and meaner, they come up with more of the same. After all, for nearly five decades Sena has done nothing but spewed sweetness and light and you would think it had squeezed the last drops of political mileage out of spreading all round cheer and goodness.


This time around though, it seems Sena and its rabble-rousing chief Bal Thackeray have finally swallowed more than they could chew.


All these years, Sena has fed and grown on divisive and subversive politics.

From targeting poor south Indians or the Madrasis as they are contemptuously called to attacking Muslims as “traitors and Pakistani agents”, Shiv Sena has swelled and expanded its ranks the way all such outfits do — by preying and playing on people’s deepest insecurities and complexes.


Of late, north Indian “bhayyas” or people from the Hindi heartland of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have been the target of Sena’s campaign. From bashing up the north Indian youths appearing for job interviews and tests in Mumbai to attacking poor cabbies from small towns and villages working the city’s crowded streets, Shiv Sena has not just terrorized the city but has held the whole of India hostage to its brute power.


A great deal has been said about Mumbai’s infamous underworld and its stranglehold over the nation’s financial and cultural capital. But indeed it is Shiv Sena — and now its other franchise headed by Bal Thackeray’s nephew Raj Thackeray — that rules Mumbai’s streets. For years, from Bollywood’s most popular Khans to the powerful industrialists and billionaires, just about everybody who’s somebody has been cowering in their pants and paying obeisance to the deity at Matoshri from time to time.


No one could survive in Mumbai by getting on the wrong side of the Sena. Ramgopal Verma captured it rather well in his dark and brooding blockbuster, “Sarkar”, even though one couldn’t quite accept the redoubtable Amitabh Bachchan in Thackeray’s avatar. Big B succeeds in conveying the quiet menace of his character in his measure style, even glamorizing the legend of Thackeray in the process.


Lately, there have been increasing signs that Mumbai, one of the greatest and most vibrant cities, wants to move on. It is showing signs of revolt against the kind of venomous politics the Sena and its allies have been playing all these years. This week, Mumbai and India sent a loud and clear message to the Thackerays, and everyone else who cared to pay attention, that they aren’t prepared to take any more baloney in the name of Marathi people and the so-called son of the soil.


Shiv Sena’s tyranny is being challenged by Mumbai wallahs and ordinary Indians on two fronts: Its campaign against the so-called outsiders and its endless bashing of Muslims and Pakistan.


IT was this changing mood that may have emboldened and encouraged Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi to defy the Sena toughies. It was curiously uplifting to see Shah Rukh stiffen his spine and stand up to the terror tactics of the Thackerays.


By refusing to eat his words criticizing the exclusion of Pakistani cricketers in the Indian Premier League matches, Shah Rukh may have made up for the moral spinelessness of the world’s biggest film industry all these years. The actor refused to give in and go down on his knees, as many before him repeatedly have, even when the Sena threatened to prevent the screening of his much-awaited movie, “My Name is Khan”. (As I write this, there are reports of Sena vandalizing cinemas across the state.)


For his part, Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the nation’s most celebrated political dynasty and probably future leader of the world’s largest democracy, showed rare political and moral courage that has been lacking in the governing Congress for some time. Rahul not just took on the Sena for its campaign against north Indians by declaring that every inch of India belongs to all Indians but he traveled to Mumbai to take the local train to Dadar, right into the heart of Sena territory.


LIKE a simple, ordinary guy confronting neighborhood bully in a Bollywood production, Rahul defied and vanquished the Sena in a manner not seen in years. Am I being sentimental here? Maybe. Perhaps, it was a routine populist gesture — the kind that comes naturally to our politicians. But there was something quintessentially Gandhian about Rahul taking that trip in the face of threats and dire warnings and peacefully but resolutely confronting the folks who only speak and understand the language of violence and force.


This is the way to go. If India has to attain the heights of greatness that it aspires to and deserves to achieve, it can do so only by following in the footsteps of Gandhi and other visionaries of modern India. If India is respected and admired around the world, it’s because of emulating that vision, not because of the hate-fueled politics as practiced by outfits like Shiv Sena, a party that has been repeatedly snubbed by the voters.


India wants to move on. In fact, it has already moved on from the poisoned temple-mosque politics of the 1980s and 1990s. It is evident in the decline of parties like Shiv Sena, BJP and others. This may be why even BJP and its ideological parent RSS have criticized Thackeray, their ally and fellow traveler for years. This may be bad news for the Hindutva alliance but it augurs well for India and its rich, diverse and pluralist society.


With the progressive decline of the United States, China and India are being seen around the world as the next superpower. While China’s pace of growth is far more consistent, I believe it’s India that is more qualified and deserves to be the next world leader. With its stable democratic institutions, genuinely independent judiciary and media and a healthy civil society, India is best prepared to take over the mantle of global leadership from America.


The US has come this far and enjoys the eminence of global leadership not because of its military or economic might but because of its democratic institutions and welcoming nature of its multicultural society. If America is where it finds itself today, it is because it has constantly welcomed dreamers and go-getters and enterprising, talented and hard working people from around the world.

It’s a nation of immigrants and its doors have always remained open for everyone who wants a slice of American pie. It matters not where you come from or who you are. What matters is what you can bring to the table and how you can contribute. This is the secret of American dream. If India has to be a world leader like America, it can do so only by preserving and promoting its all-welcoming, all-embracing culture and attitude, an India where everyone gets his or her due with dignity.


When Indians find themselves unwelcome in their own country in cities like Mumbai, how can this amazing country ever hope to touch the heights of greatness that it seeks to touch? Future belongs to the India of Rahul Gandhi, Shah Rukh Khan and Sachin Tendulkar, and not to the banana republic that parties like Sena want to make out of India.


Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Dubai-based commentator.

Write to him at

(Courtesy: Arab News)





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