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Daily Archives: March 7, 2008

Everybody Hates Biharis

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It’s a frantic contest in the Thackeray household! Who hates the North Indians, especially Biharis, the most? Is it Tiger-in-chief, Bal Thackeray; Tiger-in-waiting Uddhav Thackeray; or Tiger-in-the-cold Raj Thackeray?

Raj hates the Biharis so much, he gave up his right to hold political rallies just for the pleasure of saying it once or twice and inciting a riot in the process. Uddhav hates the Biharis so much, he sacrificed the Sena strategy of courting the North Indian vote for it. And Bal hates the Biharis so much, he got into a screaming match with Laloo Prasad Yadav. Now there’s a family that’s committed – or ready for commitment, depending on your POV.

This is one of those fucked up stories that really catch my attention because it pulls on so many strings at once – urban immigration, poverty, lack of governance, the law, citizenship, parochialism, politics, history… it’s a lovely little package waiting to explode.

It’s a little hard to see a logical starting point here, so let’s start with the event that kicked this little story off: Raj Thackeray’s public mooning of North Indians, including the biggest Northie of them all, Amitabh Bachchan. There are three things to note about what he said –

One: these so-called filthy little Northies running around mucking up Mumbai that the Thackerays are talking about aren’t people of the stature of Amitabh Bachchan. I don’t care how silver tongued the Thackerays are or how many people tried to trash Bachchan’s office, nobody is going to run up to Bachchan and treat him the way they beat up those taxi drivers. Couldn’t, in fact, coz I bet the man walks about in a security bubble. You can talk big all you like, but at the end of the day he’s Amitabh Bachchan and the day that man lands up in the hospital because of some political stunt, the politician who orchestrated the same may as well pack his bags and volunteer for a mission to Antarctica because he will be done. No, the people that the Thackerays are talking about are not just Biharis or Uttar Pradeshis or Madhya Pradeshis – they’re poor. They have no money and their only power lies in the vote they can hand someone every few years before lapsing back into obscurity. If you’re upper middle class or upper class, from North India and you want to live and work in Mumbai, go right ahead. It’s highly unlikely anybody’s going to come burn your building down.

Two: filth and crime are not the defining characteristics of any people. There is no special comfort in leading a life of crime or living in dirt. Even if you argue that crime pays, dirt definitely does not. But it is true that Indians in general have a hygiene problem. Not personal hygiene, mind you – I think the majority of us are extremely conscious about keeping ourselves clean even if deodorant needs to be a more commonly used product (sorry, couldn’t resist because it’s true!). But we are lax about public cleanliness. And it’s an attitude that’s seeped into the government. The Health Minister can find all the time in the world to obsess about Shahrukh Khan’s smoking habit and who gets to be head honcho at AIIMS – but he can’t find a minute to order some old-style PSAs about keeping your streets clean? When you hold the portfolio for health in a country with problems as big as India’s, life isn’t all about AIDS and smoking – it’s little things like preventing disease by boiling water and disposing of garbage. I remember reading somewhere that the Health ministry is seen as a bit infra-dig, a little consolation prize that allows you to claim Cabinet rank. If true, then that’s the most horrible as well as the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. It might not allow you access to oodles of money making opportunities but it’s probably the most important portfolio there is. Anyway, to get back to the point, if Biharis have this reputation then it’s a sad testament to the kind of government they have labored under for the past couple of decades rather than any natural inclination. And the fact that they’re moving outside the state in record numbers doesn’t mean they’re looking for new areas to infect; they’re in search of the same things that the rest of us are: a bit of peace, opportunities for their children and a chance to make good.

Three: big cities attract crowds. And these people will continue to come even if you put up chains around the city and set mean, hungry lions to prowl the perimeter. Like it or not, humanity is moving into the cities by the truckload. This is true of the global population in general and India in particular. And the lack of urban planning – indeed, the stiff resistance to it in many places for various reasons – means we are all going to suffer in some way or the other. Indian cities, and not just Mumbai, are creaking at the seams as hundreds of thousands pour in every year. There is a shortage in water and electricity, over crowding of streets, spiraling rents, garbage piling up… and a bureaucratic set up that moves at the glacial pace of an introspective tortoise. It’s all very well and good to say Mumbai is for Marathis only but they’d all be singing a different tune if all the business houses and Bollywood production houses decided to take them at their word and shifted base.

But the greater point out of all this is a matter of law and history. In his remarkable letter to the BJP’s Sudheendra Kulkarni, Raj observed:

Forget the country, even in Maharashtra every political party has indulged in political violence and murder at some time or the other. The levels and layers may be different. Some parties have supported such incidents on moral grounds. Such allegations have been made against many people in the present cabinet.

Although he went on to absolve himself of any wrongdoing, this to me strikes at the heart of the problems facing Indian politics: respect for the law. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – the Constitution needs a thorough overhaul. The chances of this happening are slim to none but I can always hope that the day will dawn when the Parliament will actually do something for the country they represent and close up the loopholes that currently exist and make the law anybody’s bitch as long as they have some money in their pocket and are willing to spend it freely. And maybe they’ll increase the salaries of prosecutors and teachers and policemen while they’re at it and actually give us a decent shot at making it all work.

[Hey, you! Stop laughing! My optimistic delusions are not funny!]

Raj also makes another excellent point in the same letter:

In recent times, the rulers and opposition parties indulged in movements of political compromise, in which morchas are taken out, the share of benefits of the government and opposition parties are decided. Then the protesters and their companions go home and sleep peacefully! This is called todbazi (compromise). The word political movement is an equivalent word for breaking the law!

Tell me, Sudheendraji, was Bihari MP Rajiv Pratap Rudy not aware of Advaniji’s Rath Yatra when he chose to criticise me on the grounds that my agitation was unconstitutional, destabilising for the nation, sectarian? How many people died then? How much was the violence?

But didn’t Advani pursue his campaign to make his point? The Bihari babu in Rudy seems to have woken up. I don’t remember Rudy mustering courage to register his protest during the Rath Yatra or with Narendrabhai Modiji when our Gujarati brethren were outraged after the Godhra incident.

Oh, it is to laugh! To see the chickens come home to roost! So politics of caste and religion, are now giving way to politics of region. Doesn’t feel so good when the shoe is on the other foot, does it? Bring on the shock and awe!

PS – Kalpana Sharma: Facade of Cosmopolitanism

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Posted by on March 7, 2008 in Life, Newsmakers, Politics