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Legacy of Balasaheb continues

Marathi manoos and Malalas

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As the arrest and harassment of two girls for a simple Facebook post shows, Balasaheb Thackeray may have passed on but his legacy still holds sway, writes C P Surendran.

Last week, Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray died in Mumbai. But his spirit lives on. The arrest of Shaheen Dhada and her friend Renu Srinivasan soon after, following a comment and a "like" respectively on Facebook, offers substantive proof that Balasaheb is gone from our midst only in terms of the gross body.

Shaheen had posted a note on her Facebook page that was critical of the complete shut down of Mumbai city following the Sena leader's death. She thought it, ironically in hindsight, an excessive reaction. Her friend Renu gave it a thumbs up, which, as it turns out, is the new digitus impudicus to this rather mild expression of an essentially protestant work ethic.

The local Sena leadership was offended, possibly because the protestant in question here is a Muslim, although no one appears to have said that is the real reason why. The police immediately arrested the two girls, quoting, among other things, a dodgy section of the IT Act and sections of the Penal Code that deal with inciting communal hatred and "enmity, ill-will between classes". All of that basically said that senders of such apparently 'offensive' messages could be put in jail for a few years, with worse to follow if other laws were brought into play.

By late Monday evening the two frightened girls were out on bail. And Shaeen later said she respects Thackeray very much and that her comment was not meant to hurt anyone. This rather unconvincing change of heart came too late: her uncle's medical clinic was vandalised -allegedly by Sainiks.

The Sena leadership is perhaps too quick to assume the role of a victim, as it has done for much of its history. There are any number of instances when Thackeray's speeches and editorials have hurt and offended, take your pick, south Indians, Biharis, Pakistanis and Muslims. The Sena itself is a party built on violence, extortion and blackmail. There are well recorded instances of their great weakness - and conversely, their strength-for rioting.

So when the party says they are offended because a young woman said the Mumbai shut down was a bit of an inconvenience, it can be viewed only as a joke, unless you're the Maharashtra government, which with alarming alacrity had swung into action to arrest the offenders and soothe the tender heart that beats inside every Sena tiger who walks the city streets on two legs.

It's typical of the political machinery of this country that two unwitting citizens are seen as the real source of disturbance to civil society, rather than organised hooliganism and crime and corruption syndicates that work at the heart of most political parties. Indeed we have come to accept it as quite the thing to do. How else would you explain the state funeral for Balasaheb who for most part of his career was a threat to the state's integrity?

A great legacy of Balasaheb, in addition to the Marathi manoos concept and a whole new politics of blackmail, is the constant invention of the Other. In the early sixties, when the trade union movement of Bombay was crucially controlled by the Left parties, and the nascent Shiv Sena was trying to find its way into big establishments, the enemy was the communist.

When the Left's hold was broken by the Sena's trademark politics of violence, it had to define itself against another enemy: the dark and oily South Indian, whose industry was making him visible everywhere in corporate Bombay. For a while back there, the wily Dravidian was the equivalent of the Jew in Nazi Germany. Then the cloud settled, with a relative sense of permanence, on Muslims, with the 1993 riots as a sort of watershed event.

Of late, as Balasaheb aged, his descendents, especially the chief of the breakaway Sena party, MNS, Raj Thackeray, who might at any time now come back to the fold and head the Shiv Sena, has done his bit to increase the spread of the cake of hate to Biharis and UPites.

This is not surprising, simply because there is no other way apart from hate that identity politics can be defined. If you take hate out of it, parties like the Sena will crumble. An expedient political establishment has done its best to abet parties like the Sena and has helped perpetuate their existence. Balasaheb represented a certain section of disgruntled (and mostly lower) middle class Maharashtrians. But that representation was not very different from mass blackmail: if you mess with us, we will riot and bring the city to its knees. Yet the real antidote to such activities are free individual voices. It's when such voices acquire critical mass that two crucial things happen in a liberal democracy: politics at large turns accountable, and it acquires some manner of ethical legitimacy.

Balasaheb is gone, but not his brand of politics. We have no problem celebrating Malala Day, for the Pakistani schoolgirl shot by the Taliban. But our own political and social space is increasingly Talibanised too. Only we're are so close to it that we can't see it. Shaheen and Renu are milder variations of Malala, fighting the mutant Indian Taliban. If the authorities quail at the prospect of celebrating their natural courage, if only because they live not in distant Swat and so, safely adorable, but in Palghar, a Mumbai suburb, maybe they could, hand on heart, face covered, tender an anonymous apology?

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