The Shiv Sena are at it again. This band of troglodytes and common thugs cannot rest for more than a few months without causing a huge stir. Many things animate their passions, many are their grievances and the imagined humiliations that arouse their hostility. They have some steady targets against which they fire away at will, but there is also an equally steady stream of moving targets. In recent years, their most sustained agitations have been against those deemed foreigners, by which the Shiv Sena means non-Maharashtrians. Indeed, one suspects that non-Indians (barring, of course, Pakistanis and all Muslims, whatever their country of origin) pose no problems as such for the Shiv Sena, since the Sena reserves its animus for those, such as Punjabis, Biharis, and others from the great Gangetic plains who are suspected of having ‘stolen’ jobs from Maharashtrians. Some months ago, India’s supreme cricketing icon, Sachin Tendulkar, himself a Mumbaikar, received a stinging rebuke from the Sena for daring to suggest that Mumbai belonged to all of India rather than to Maharashtrians alone. One can say, then, that the Sena is democratic in at least one respect, resolutely upholding the law of equal opportunity. The mighty and the low, the famous and the obscure – none are spared if they do not meet the exacting standards of xenophobia, prejudice, and outright hooliganism established by the Sena.
Shahrukh Khan, often described as the reigning star of Bollywood, is the most recent enemy of the nation identified by Bal Thackeray, the aging and agitated but still agile leader of the Shiv Sena. The sin with which Shahrukh is charged is none other than the suggestion, aired by some others as well, that the cricket teams which comprise the Indian Premier League (IPL) may have done an injustice to the Pakistani players by failing to make a bid for a single Pakistani player. Why the IPL teams did not make any such bid is an interesting question in itself, and what it says about the sentiments which predominate among the truly moneyed classes in India, is a matter that I shall have to leave aside for the moment. Shahrukh is alleged to have betrayed the nation by his remarks, but of course the matter is more complex. As a Muslim, he has always been suspect; and one of the canards to which the Sena subscribes is the view that the first loyalty of Indian Muslims is to Islam [the ummah] rather than to the Indian nation. Shahrukh and the other Khans of Bollywood, Salman and Aamir, and now Saif Ali, have long been resented for their domination of the Hindi film world.
Many people in Mumbai are anguished that the threats to Shahrukh reflect poorly on the city often imagined as India’s greatest metropolis. There are many considerations that are germane to this discussion. It is less important whether the reputation of Mumbai is diminished in the eyes of outsiders, or whether Mumbai will fail to make the grade of a ‘world-class city’. Mumbai has survived many indignities and assaults, and, much as New York did in the aftermath of the September 11 bombings, it attempted to respond in one voice and assert ‘the spirit of Mumbai’. These appear to be laudable sentiments, though they disguise the indignities to which millions in a city such as Mumbai are subjected every day. Of perhaps more lasting significance is the fact that the Indian state appears to be powerless and certainly unwilling to reign in lawless elements and subject Shiv Sena cadres and their leaders, not least of them Thackeray and much of his thuggish clan, to the rule of law. The public sphere cannot be held hostage to those who perceive themselves as beyond the reach of law, and the fact that must be faced squarely is that the Shiv Sena represents the most fundamental repudiation of the very idea of democracy.
Only a few months ago, on a visit to the US to promote his film ‘My Name Is Khan’, Shahrukh was detained at Newark airport and held for questioning. That created uproar in India, though one wishes that there would be similar umbrage when lesser-known people are harassed or deprived of their liberties. As Shahrukh’s film is released in India, the Sena has promised to disrupt screenings of ‘My Name Is Khan’. That would be a fitting tribute to Shahrukh, and surely an unintended endorsement of the film which is an exploration of the travails of being a Muslim in the post-9/11 world. The recent incidents, however, suggest that the Shiv Sena, which has competed in elections but is most in its element when its members and hired guns are out in the streets terrorizing common people and creating disorder, is in its death throes. Its electoral support has diminished over the last few years and, as is well known, Thackeray’s family is exceedingly dysfunctional. Like bullies elsewhere, the Shiv Sena’s cadres have no appetite for a real fight, and the most ample sign of their cowardice is the indisputable fact that in the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai they quickly went into hiding. It is much too late for Thackeray to return to cartooning, an art in which he excelled and where, had he persisted, he might well have made a name for himself as India’s most imaginative cartoonist. Now he should be happy if, in a few years from now, he it at least remembered as a character somewhat out of cartoons.