In the three years it has been in existence, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena led by Raj Thackeray has demonstrated that it is in no way inferior to the parent party, the Shiv Sena, in mainstreaming ‘rada’ or the streetfighting culture in the name of Maratha pride. On Monday, the MNS raised the stakes by taking its trademark violence inside the Maharashtra Assembly. The assault on Samajwadi Party MLA Abu Azmi for taking his oath in Hindi in defiance of Raj Thackeray’s diktat to all members to take their oath only in Marathi was by no means the most violent in the long list of outrageous acts perpetrated by the MNS since its formation. But the choice of venue and actors this time was significant. The occasion was a solemn constitutional ceremony, the swearing in of newly elected legislators, not a selection test for recruitment to the railways or public sector enterprises. And the assailants were MLAs, not hooded hooligans wielding hockey sticks and clubs. Clearly, the MNS sees political advantage in escalating its challenge to the Constitution and the rule of law and winning massive publicity for it. The great pity is that this provocative act of linguistic chauvinism seems to have won the approval of significant sections of the Marathi-speaking population, especially young people, across the State.

The assault on Mr. Azmi was the result not of any wounded Maratha pride but of the MNS’s single-minded determination to cannibalise the base of the Shiv Sena. Rediscovering the Sena’s original raison d’etre is, after all, its own raison d’etre. At a time when the parent party is pursuing hardcore Hindutva in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party and apparently diluting its ‘sons-of-the-soil’ policy, the MNS sees socio-political space opening up for it to muscle into. Unfortunately, instead of seeing the long-term danger in this, the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance seems to have adopted a benevolent attitude towards the enemy’s enemy. If the MNS has felt emboldened by every act of thuggishness and defiance of the law, it is essentially because the State administration has handled it with kid gloves. That Raj Thackeray’s cadres are capable of going ballistic the moment he or other senior leaders are arrested is well-known. But this cannot be a justification for tolerating their methods. The real danger from such opportunistic short-sightedness is that this experiment in mainstreaming linguistic chauvinism may succeed. The four-year suspension from the Assembly imposed on the four MNS MLAs who attacked Mr. Azmi is fully merited. But the government must go further and initiate criminal proceedings against them, and against the leader who put them up to it.

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