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The battle for Bombay


HUMAN beings are set apart from the rest of creation by their use of language. We are defined by the tongue we speak, more so even than by the country we live in or the faith we subscribe to. If, as I am certain you will agree, language is indeed the most important cultural attribute of humans, and if Indian democracy is — as you must agree too — the most ambitious (some would say reckless) adventure in modern political history, surely you will allow me another essay on the tumultuous clash between the cause of language and the interests of the nation. So read this column, and I promise never again to return to the subject.

Last fortnight I spoke of the movement that led to the creation, in 1953, of the state of Andhra Pradesh. This act was consistent with Gandhi's wishes and with established Congress policy, yet it grated with the Prime Minister of the day. He could see that the formation of Andhra would lead to similar demands by other linguistic groups. "You will observe," wrote Jawaharlal Nehru archly to a Cabinet colleague, "that we have disturbed the hornet's nest and I believe most of us are likely to be badly stung."

The success of the Andhras did embolden other communities to come out stinging. There was now a major campaign for Samyukta or Greater Karnataka, aiming to unite Kannada speakers spread across the states of Madras, Mysore and Hyderabad. The Malayalis wanted a province of their own, bringing together the erstwhile princely states of Cochin and Travancore with Malabar. There was also a Mahagujarat movement. But, in terms of mass base and popular appeal, the most significant of the post-Andhra linguistic struggles was that which spoke for Samyukta Maharashtra.

After Andhra, the Government of India set up a States Reorganisation Committee (SRC). Its report, submitted in 1955, pretty much conceded that India would be reorganised according to linguistic provinces. But some ticklish questions remained. The most serious was the future of India's most prosperous city, Bombay. Would it go to Maharashtra, since it had more Marathi speakers than speakers of other languages, and since the areas contiguous to it would anyway form part of the state? Or would it go to Gujarat, since the Gujaratis had invested so heavily in its development? Or, since there were many other linguistic groups in Bombay, would it be constituted as some kind of autonomous, multicultural city-state?

The question of Bombay's future came up for discussion in the Lok Sabha on November 15, 1955. Strongly pushing the city-state alternative was the Marathi-speaking M.P. from Bombay, S.K. Patil. His city, said Patil, had a "cosmopolitan population in every respect"; it had been built upon the labour of everybody". It was, he continued, cosmopolitan in theory as well as in practice: here "everybody thinks in terms of common citizenship".

This is what Patil said in Parliament, and he later expanded on the theme in a newspaper interview. The prospective city-state of Bombay, he told the paper, would "be a miniature India run on international standards ... (A) melting pot which will evolve a glorious new civilisation ... And it is an extraordinary coincidence that the population of the city should be exactly one per cent of the population of the whole country. This one per cent drawn from all parts of the country will set the pace for other states in the practice of secularism and mutual understanding".

Patil asked the Maharashtrians to give up their claim on Bombay in the spirit of compromise. The plea was rejected in ringing tones by the M.P. from Pune, N.V. Gadgil. Speaking immediately after Patil in the Lok Sabha, Gadgil insisted that while he was in favour of compromise, "there is a limit. That limit is, nobody can compromise one's self-respect, no woman can compromise her chastity and no country its freedom". The reports of protest meetings should make it clear "that anything short of Samyukta Maharashtra with the city of Bombay as capital will not be acceptable". If these sentiments went unheeded, warned Gadgil, then the future of Bombay would be decided on the streets of Bombay.

The Maharashtrians were being urged to accept the loss of Bombay in the name of national unity. Gadgil protested against this unsubtle attempt at blackmail. The last 150 years, he said, had seen Maharashtrians contributing selflessly to the growth of national feeling. Marathi speakers founded the first schools and universities, and helped found the Indian National Congress. The Mahrattas were "the pioneers of violent action" against the British. Later, in the early 20th Century, when the Congress party languished, "who was it that brought in new life? Who propounded the new tenets and new philosophy? It was Lokmanya Tilak. In the Home Rule movement he led and in the 1920 movement we were behind none and ahead of many provinces ... I will merely quote the certificate given to us by no less a person than Mahatma Gandhi that Maharashtra is the beehieve of (national) workers". Even now, in independent India, it was a Maharashtrian, Vinoba Bhave, who was "carrying the flag of Gandhian philosophy and spreading his message from place to place".

In the case of Bombay, the Maharashtrians were being lectured on the need to "work for the unity and safety and good of the country". But, said the Pune M.P. bitterly, all these years "we have done nothing else". His Lok Sabha was altogether a wonderful and moving peroration — and the last line was the best: "To ask us to serve the nation is to ask chandan (sandalwood) to be fragrant."

Note that both S.K. Patil and V.N. Gadgil belonged to the same party, the Congress. The party's High Command finally decided to recommend to the Government of India that Bombay be made a city-state. Regional sentiments were disregarded, sparking widespread protests. In the 1957 elections the Congress was routed by an opposition front uniting under the banner of Samyukta Maharashtra. The anger spilled over into the streets. In 1960, the Government of India conceded the right of the Maharashtrians over Bombay.

To recall the debate between Patil and Gadgil is to remember a time when Indian parliamentarians were both independent-minded and intelligent. Patil's case, for retaining Bombay's cosmopolitan character, was made with logic and eloquence. But Gadgil's case, for the centrality of the city to Maharashtrian identity, was compelling as well. Here were politicians from Maharashtra who could argue on the basis of principle, and believe in what they said, too. Can one say the same for their latter-day epigones, for the likes of Pramod Mahajan and Sanjay Nirupam?

In some ways one can still hear the echoes of that old Lok Sabha debate. For, tragically, what was to N.V. Gadgil a matter or legitimate cultural pride has degenerated, under a different kind of Maharashtrian leadership, into an insular parochialism. The battle for Bombay continues. On the one side are those who see it as a truly cosmopolitan city, which can still "set the pace for other states in the practice of secularism and mutual understanding". On the other side are the visceral chauvinists of Bal Thackeray's Shiv Sena.

Ramachandra Guha's books include Savaging the Civilised and Environmentalism: A Global History.

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