Marathi vs Gujarati tussle

The bad blood between Marathis and Gujaratis is centuries old. In this extract from <b>Maharashtra Maximus</b>, Sujata Anandan narrates how the Gujaratis stayed away from Bal Thackeray’s line of fire

Getty Images
Getty Images

Sujata Anandan

The bitterness between the Gujaratis and Maharashtrians in Mumbai has not quite gone away. In fact, it might have intensified and the fault lines have become more apparent after the ascension of Narendra Modi to power at the Centre. Once upon a time this bitterness was limited to the Gujaratis and Maharashtrians in the Congress leadership. Today it manifests itself in the everyday existence of these communities, not the least because the Congress Party no longer exclusively represents them. Both these communities are clearly divided between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), seen as the Gujaratis’ party, and the Shiv Sena, which projects itself as the only representative of everything Marathi and Maharashtrian, as was manifest in the elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation in February 2017, where the two parties ran neck and neck, reflecting the narrow gap between Marathi and Gujarati residents of the city.

Some political commentators believe this could be a deliberate ploy by the two parties to carve up the votes of the two communities between themselves. For without this extreme polarisation, the Gujaratis and the Maharashtrians might have joined other parties, such as the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena of Raj Thackeray, which could have mopped up a large chunk of the Marathi vote.

The lack of a traditional trading/business community among Maharashtrians meant that even after the states’ reorganisation, the Gujaratis and other communities, including the Marwaris, Punjabis and Sindhis, continued to dominate the business of Maharashtra. Even today, Maharashtrian entrepreneurs can be counted on the fingers of just one hand. This has led to a unique situation with barely any shift in the centuries’ old tradition of the Gujarati and Marwari business communities—at one time encouraged by Chhatrapati Shivaji to settle in his territory—dominating the lives of the Maharashtrian people in the villages and cities of Maharashtra.

Soon after the states’ reorganisation, Maharashtra’s Congress Party leaders discovered they still did not have a voice in New Delhi, and Bombay continued to be dominated by Gujaratis (in business), South Indians (in bureaucracy) and Communists (in politics). These Congress leaders subtly and covertly encouraged the establishment of a regional force that would take on these three groups and rid Bombay of their combined influence. Thus, Bal Thackeray and his Shiv Sena emerged from nowhere and burst upon the scene with a lasting vengeance.

Supported by the Congress, the Shiv Sena made short shrift of these three groups in less than a decade of its existence. While the South Indians and Communists were by and large vanquished, overpowering the Gujarati sense of entrepreneurship proved tougher than expected, though the Gujaratis wisely stayed out of the line of Bal Thackeray’s fire as far as possible. Over the course of time, the Shiv Sena went out of fashion, and it was the BJP that helped revive this sleeping tiger.

The BJP emerged from the ashes of the Jan Sangh in the late 1970s after a major controversy over its dual membership in the Janata Party government of Morarji Desai. (Desai became the prime minister after the Congress Party’s defeat in 1977.) For a long time, the BJP experimented with Gandhian socialism but got nowhere. Then, its late-leader Pramod Mahajan forged an alliance with Bal Thackeray in the mid-1980s, enabling the two parties to improve their electoral performance which, until then, had been dismal given that both had a similar voter base (just 13 per cent at the time) and won barely a seat or two in the State Assembly and Lok Sabha when they contested independent of each other. These were also the years when the BJP took up the Babri Masjid campaign in Ayodhya. After the demolition of the mosque in 1992 and the subsequent riots in Mumbai in December 1992 and January 1993, the Shiv Sena and the BJP together stormed to power in Maharashtra in 1995, albeit with a shortfall in numbers that was made up by 45 Congress rebels in a house of 288 legislators.

Mahajan had clearly recognised the distrust of Maharashtrians for Gujaratis and blunted Thackeray’s antipathy towards the community by leading the alliance in Maharashtra. The alliance trundled along happily until Mahajan’s death in 2006 and the emergence of Narendra Modi as the Hindu Hriday Samrat, a title that Thackeray, at one time even more extremist than the BJP, had appropriated for himself. But it was not just the fight for supremacy among Hindus that caused the Shiv Sena, even in Thackeray’s lifetime, to begin backtracking on the alliance. It would not support the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s bandh calls, it refused to endorse many of the BJP’s programmes, it dug in its heels over shares of the electoral pie in Maharashtra, it even supported two Congress candidates, Pratibha Patil and Pranab Mukherjee, for president.

The emergence of Modi among the tallest leaders of the BJP infuriated Bal Thackeray—he had not forgotten Morarji Desai’s insults to Maharashtrians, going so far as to refuse to erect a memorial to India’s former prime minister, who passed away when the Shiv Sena was ruling Maharashtra. Thackeray did not want another Gujarati to dominate Maharashtra and Maharashtrians.

That distrust was carried forward by Thackeray’s son and heir Uddhav Thackeray. Modi’s complete disregard of the Shiv Sena in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections in May 2014 strengthened Uddhav Thackeray’s resolve not to concede another inch to the BJP during the assembly elections that followed in October 2014.This led to the break-up of the precarious alliance between the two parties, which had lasted for a quarter of a century despite some very turbulent circumstances.

Its shortfall in numbers in the assembly elections compelled the BJP to ally with the Shiv Sena in government, but that has not helped in smoothing the ruffled feathers of the Shiv Sena leadership. This led the two parties to fight against each other in the BMC polls and Uddhav to declare that never again will his party ally with the BJP in any election—a promise and a threat that has held true by and large, though they continue together in government as a withdrawal by the Sena would lead to a toppling of the government.

Apart from the political fault lines—the Shiv Sena is emerging as a bigger opposition to the BJP than either the Congress or the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP)—the divide between the two parties is apparent within the socio-economic fabric of Mumbai as well. In June 2015, Gujaratis and Maharashtrians living in a housing society in Kandivli in North Mumbai nearly came to blows over something as basic as food—a Maharashtrian family, not caring about a Brahma puja being offered by the Gujaratis in the building, turned down their appeals and went ahead with their decision to cook fish for lunch. Tempers flared and the police had to intervene. This incident caused Shiv Sainiks to reassert their protectionism of local Maharashtrians who, unlike Gujarati Hindus and Jains, are non-vegetarians—even sections of Maharashtrian Brahmins are meat and fish eaters, though they might eschew beef. The promotion and, in some cases, the imposition of vegetarianism by the BJP, now run by Gujaratis, does not sit well with the Shiv Sena. An uneasy calm prevails between the two communities at all levels of society in Mumbai.

The distrust is not limited to Gujaratis and Maharashtrians or vegetarians and non-vegetarians, but runs deep among the emergent communities of Mumbai, which continues to be a city of a poor majority that is dominated by the rich minority. But today, the poor are not Maharashtrians alone—they include North Indians from several states of India, Muslims as well as Hindus settled in slums and ghettos, who are all part of the vote banks for the BJP and the Shiv Sena as well as the Congress and the NCP.

The BJP believed that it would be able to contain and perhaps destroy the Shiv Sena by breaking their alliance and striking out on its own in 2014 and again in 2017. But it might have been too early to write the epitaph of Bal Thackeray’s party, which continues to dominate the city of its birth, even after a hard-fought civic poll when the BJP pulled out all the stops, and even after its original inhabitants—the Maharashtrians—have dwindled to 40 per cent or less of the total population. The Shiv Sena keeps the Maharashtrian spirit and ethos in the city alive and ensures that the community is not marginalised in its own city and state capital. With a mix of terror and defiance of opposing forces, it has made sure that no one dares to ask a Maharashtrian to scrub utensils again.

Excerpts taken with permission from Rupa; Pages 244; ₹395

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines