It all began with Gandhi scion and Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi making a veiled attack on the extreme right wing parties the MNS and the Shiv Sena. Referring to the sacrifices of NSG commandos during the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai he said it was in fact North Indians who saved Mumbaikars during the siege. The MNS, whose very existence is based on a divisive anti-North Indian ideology, is a relatively new dissident political group that time and again carries out attacks against North Indian workers in Mumbai. It is an off-shoot of the Shiv Sena infamous for its anti-Muslim tirades and the role it played in the aftermath of the 1993 blasts in the city. If you had to draw a parallel, these groups are a more violent version of the BNP, but a lot more powerful in state politics and ironically at loggerheads with each other despite pursuing pretty much the same ideology.
But getting back to the story, Gandhi’s remarks obviously infuriated the Shiv Sena and to add salt to their wounds, his successful visit to Mumbai, where he boarded the packed local train visiting Sena bastions like Dadar and Vile Parle, sent out a pointed ‘We are all united’ message. On the sidelines of this political drama, another equally high profile row broke out between the country’s top film star Shah Rukh Khan and the Shiv Sena which threatened to stall the release of SRK’s latest magnum opus My Name is Khan, ransacking theatres and tearing up posters. This, after he supported the inclusion of Pakistani players in the Indian Premier League (IPL) who were unanimously dumped by all teams during the auctions last month. Despite threats from the Sena, SRK refused to dole out an apology and garnered huge support from his film colleagues as well as politicians including Gandhi’s Congress and, more surprisingly, the BJP, who are in fact allies of the Shiv Sena at the centre. The Congress, usually a silent spectator to such antics went a step further and detained 1200 Sena activists, deploying heavy security at the theatres screening My Name is Khan.
So as two completely separate issues got mixed up and looked like one big hotchpotch to the public and the media at large, the Thackerays looked increasingly marginalized, and promptly retracted their threat to SRK. Now it looks like My Name is Khan will release on time and Mumbai for the time being will not be restricted to the occupancy of just Maharashtrians. But does that mean all is well? And can this be seen as a victory for tolerance and secularism?
Yes and no. Yes, because whimpers have turned to open rebellion and more and more people are now speaking out against the MNS and the Shiv Sena’s bullying tactics. Apart from SRK many other high profile Indians, including cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar and leading industrialist Mukesh Ambani, who have been targets of the Sena’s wrath, have fervently defended their stance and spoken out against their politics. And Indians in Australia have asked Shiv Sainks to shut up after their threat to Australian players taking part in IPL season-3.
But on the other hand there seems to be a growing number of educated, middle class youth enamored by the rhetoric of people like Raj Thackeray, especially in the state of Maharashtra. If the Shiv Sena is losing steam because of the lack of good leadership, the MNS is more than making up for that loss by broadening its influence and winning elections in key constituencies. I know of at least 10 people on my Facebook friends list (and going by the kind of company I keep, that is a lot!) who’ve turned ardent nationalists (in this case defenders of their state from migrant proliferation) because they believe the Congress has failed to represent their interests for the past 60 years. What’s more, political pundits are now predicting that the recent backlash against both the MNS and the Shiv Sena might just prompt them to join hands and fight the war together. In Indian politics nothing is impossible and if that happens, it would be a force to reckon with!
Like with any Bollywood film, this drama too will chug along for quite some time. And unlike any Bollywood film, it will be interesting to watch what happens next. In fact keep your eyes open for then 14th of February, Valentine’s Day, when the Shiv Sena beats up couples and threatens them because of the anti-Indian nature of what they are doing.
The big questions is would we, as Indians, dare to speak up and march in protest like the film star we so fanatically idolize, or would we be sitting on the fence and watching like we always do?