Nobody expects professional cricketers to be heroic outside the playing field. They have too much of a job coping with the demands and stresses of the game, including the ever-present risk of injury, to be asked to handle the challenges and complications of politics. Thirty-six-year-old Sachin Tendulkar, who is widely regarded as cricket’s greatest batsman after Don Bradman and has had to handle greater pressure than any other player under the sun, must be commended for making a stand against linguistic and ethnic chauvinism, and for the idea of India, in volatile Mumbai. The occasion was an interaction with the media to mark his 20 years in international cricket, and Tendulkar had this to say in response to a question: “Mumbai belongs to India, that’s how I look at it. And I am a Maharashtrian and I am extremely proud of that. But I am an Indian.” A motherhood-and-apple-pie kind of statement, you would think. But this is Mumbai, where Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena, and now its offshoot, nephew Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, have been menacing anyone dissenting from their brand of linguistic chauvinism. So in an open letter published in the Sena’s mouthpiece, Saamna, the ageing, cricket-loving founder of the Sena rebuked the cricket icon for taking “a cheeky single” and getting “run-out” on “the pitch of the Marathi psyche.” Anyone mistaking this for banter needs to be reminded of the vicious track record of the Sena and the MNS, of their anti-constitutional intolerance, of their toughs unleashing violence against all manner of targets.
At one level, the Sena supremo’s response spotlights his party’s undiminished linguistic parochialism, which manifests itself in assailing the very idea of India. But there is also a more calculating side to Mr. Thackeray’s broadside. Having performed poorly in the recent Maharashtra Assembly elections (so poorly, in fact, that he felt moved to criticise his Marathi manoos for betraying his party), he has been in search of opportunities to go on the offensive. The MNS’s cannibalisation of the Sena’s electoral base has only made matters worse. With Mr. Raj Thackeray’s political agenda modelled closely on the Shiv Sena’s anti-‘outsider’ campaign of the 1960s, the two regional parties are locked in chauvinist competition to stoke the economic and socio-cultural anxieties of the Marathi electorate, especially in Mumbai. The MNS recently stole the show for the most outrageous behaviour by physically attacking, in the Assembly chamber, a Samajwadi Party MLA for taking his oath in Hindi rather than Marathi. Sachin Tendulkar, by making his stand, unwittingly offered himself as a target in this battle for political space. The bright side of this affair is the manner in which public opinion everywhere has come out batting for India.