There is no doubt that Marathi must be respected, but no one can enforce a blatant disrespect for other languages or people.

In a state riddled with farm suicides, child malnutrition, poverty, price rise, rural indebtedness and other grave issues, what grabs the headlines? The podium being snatched away from an MLA as he takes his oath in Hindi in the august confines of the Assembly hall. Nothing is sacred or serious anymore in Maharashtra except Marathi. Or so Mr. Raj Thackeray, president of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) would have us think. The only qualification to be an MLA is brute strength and the ability to remove solid wooden podiums with one hand.

The MNS won 13 seats in the Assembly elections and helped the Congress and its ally the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) come to power by decimating the saffron Opposition. The ruling alliance has been benevolent towards the MNS, hoping it will finish off the Shiv Sena. Before the first Assembly session, Mr. Raj Thackeray had already warned all newly elected legislators to take the oath in Marathi or face action. Samajwadi Party MLA Abu Asim Azmi, by no means a heroic figure, decided to take up the challenge. He could barely utter one word in Hindi before all hell broke loose. The rest is sordid history.

Television channels had a field day. Reactions poured in from all over the State and surprise, surprise, everyone was full of praise for Mr. Raj Thackeray. In fact many of the people interviewed, mostly youngsters, advocated stronger action against Mr. Azmi. Marathi was the State language and people who have lived here should also take their oath in that language. That was the firm conviction of most of those interviewed. Few condemned the MNS for its violence, which included papers being thrown at the intrepid Meenakshi Patil, the only woman MLA who dared to intervene in the scuffle. Television footage of Mr. Azmi being shoved around and slapped by Ram Kadam of the MNS was played throughout the day. But the aam admi was unhappy, it wanted more, it wanted Azmi to be beaten soundly, going by some of the bytes.

Disastrous state of affairs

This is a disastrous state of affairs to say the least. Maharashtra is known for its progressive qualities, its great leaders like Shivaji Maharaj, and social reformists like Babasaheb Ambedkar, Jyotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, Shahu Maharaj and others who advocated freedom, tolerance and social equality. Left leaders like S.A. Dange, B.T. Ranadive and socialists like S.M. Joshi shaped the future of the State with their commitment to an egalitarian society. Maharashtra will be celebrating the 50th year of its formation as a state in 2010. The blood of its martyrs must not go in vain.

The MNS and the Raj Thackeray phenomenon are not new to the state. The Shiv Sena pioneered the way in playing up Marathi as the central issue to the progress of the State and its people. The Sena’s anger was against South Indians, which it felt was taking away jobs from the Marathi people. Today Raj Thackeray opposes Hindi and North Indians. The Sena has learnt a lesson from its political focus on the “Marathi manoos.” Over the years, it has become more inclusive and has retreated from its earlier aggressive stand, while keeping Hindutva as its mainstay. The space for violence, which somehow seems integral to politics in Maharashtra, has been grabbed with great glee by the MNS.

What endeared the common person to the Shiv Sena was its politics of aggression, its ability to shoot first and ask questions later. That was its popular culture of streetfighting or “ rada” (fight in colloquial Marathi). Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray minced no words against “outsiders” or Muslims and spoke in a language that people understood. Now that unflattering mantle has been donned by Raj, who thinks nothing of violence even in the Assembly. Raj takes the rada or streetfighting culture seriously. His speeches are open threats and his actions mostly follow his words. Going by his popularity, this is what his followers love in him. Raj Thackeray’s violence has put the Shiv Sena on the backfoot. Sena leader Subhash Desai while upholding the Marathi cause, said he deplored the violence. It is quite new for the Sena to take this constitutional stand but it has done so creditably, even if it is to dampen its chief rival, the MNS.

Even sections of the media are questioning the Shiv Sena’s love for the Marathi manoos, tacitly siding with Raj Thackeray. What needs to be understood is that nothing can be above the rule of law in this country. The Congress instead of indulging the MNS must take the mandate it has got for the third time, to advocate the rule of law and tolerance. There is no doubt that Marathi must be respected, but no one can enforce a blatant disrespect for other languages or people and that too with such an open display of defiance and remorselessness.

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