Protests against the Narendra Modi government’s Citizenship Amendment Act have claimed more than 25 lives in India. But in Mumbai and the rest of Maharashtra, the protests have been peaceful, without internet shutdowns or bans on public gatherings.
Maharashtra is led by Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, who heads the Shiv Sena, a former ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that had demanded the replication of Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Mumbai as well — to identify and oust ‘illegal’ Bangladeshis. It had also applauded Home Minister Amit Shah, who often refers to these refugees as “termites” and “infiltrators”, for his bold stand.
But the party that has always endorsed the ‘Hindustan for Hindus’ brand of politics, is now forced to revisit its earlier position and subscribe to the idea of composite nationalism that its new alliance partners — the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) — follow.
“Uddhav Thackeray held two urgent interactions with nearly a hundred religious, social and political leaders from the Muslim community last week and assured them that no one would be allowed to snatch away their rights. He urged them to wait for the Supreme Court’s verdict on the constitutional validity of the Act,” Abdul Sattar, Shiv Sena MLA from Sillod in Aurangabad district who attended one of the meetings, told ThePrint.
“For now, we are buying his assurance, but that does not mean the (Muslim) community can lower its guard even for a second,” added Sattar, who joined the Shiv Sena before the Maharashtra assembly election in October 2019, after spending more than two decades in the Congress.
It’s the confusion of the Shiv Sena that keeps the community on guard. The party first accused the Modi government of planning an “invisible partition” of Hindus and Muslims ahead of the tabling of the Citizen (Amendment) Bill in the Lok Sabha where, curiously, it voted in favour, only to do another U-turn two days later by abstaining from voting on the bill in the Rajya Sabha. Media reports linked the party’s flip-flops to threats from the Congress, a strident critic of the BJP’s immigration policy, to pull the plug on the newly formed Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi. (Ironically, the maximum number of deportations of ‘illegal’ Bangladeshi and Pakistani Muslims from Mumbai, police data reveals, happened during 1988-1991, when present NCP chief Sharad Pawar was the chief minister and a member of the Congress).
In the end, the Shiv Sena announced that it would support the bill — only if the new citizens are barred from voting for a 25-year period. “For decades, the Congress has been accused of indulging in Muslim vote bank politics; the BJP will be similarly accused of shoring up its Hindu vote bank through this bill if it doesn’t heed our suggestion,” warned Shiv Sena MP in the Rajya Sabha, Sanjay Raut, who doubles up as the editor of the party’s mouthpiece, Saamana.
But the Shiv Sena’s climbdown has cut little ice with Ajit Joshi, an engineering student protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Mumbai. Joshi has his reasons. After becoming CM, he points out, Uddhav Thackeray put two contentious infrastructure projects launched by the previous BJP government under Devendra Fadnavis — the Metro Car Shed at Aarey Colony and the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train — on hold. “But no official announcement has come on the upcoming detention centre for illegal immigrants in Navi Mumbai.” Joshi says. Sanjay Raut insists the detention centre is meant to house “hundreds of Nigerian drug traffickers lodged in Maharashtra jails once they are released and awaiting deportation.”
Zeeshan Mohammed, 35, who migrated to Mumbai more than 20 years ago from Gorakhpur in eastern Uttar Pradesh and works in a bakery in Bhendi Bazaar in South Mumbai, feels that the media is being too hard on the Shiv Sena. “Back home, Muslims are living in fear since the day the BJP government led by Yogi Adityanath came to power in 2017. Mothers are afraid to pack meat in tiffin boxes, boys and girls of different communities are scared to talk to each other as vigilante groups roam unchecked attacking minorities on the basis of false rumours and with full support of the ruling political class. In contrast, Mumbai feels like jannat (heaven),” Mohammed says.
A majority of Mumbai’s 20.65 per cent Muslims live in its sprawling slums. Most agree that since Uddhav Thackeray took control of the Shiv Sena in 2012 after the death of his father Bal Thackeray, the party has toned down its communal rhetoric, and tried to reinvent itself as a more inclusive organisation.
But there have been some worrying lapses.
Earlier this year, an editorial in the Saamana demanded a ban on the burqa in public places across the country, similar to the one imposed in Sri Lanka following the Easter Sunday serial blasts that killed over 250 people; the editorial claimed that the face-covering veil posed a threat to national security.
“The Shiv Sena’s top leadership continued to take an anti-Islam position to show their core constituency that they were more ‘Hindu’ than the BJP, while on the ground, the party’s corporators were becoming more accessible. They helped us with school admissions for our children, protected us against extortion by cops, arranged bank loans and even participated in our festivals,” says a teacher in a government school in Byculla, one of Mumbai’s oldest neighbourhoods and home to a mix of communities. “But we all know that this change of heart is driven by only one factor: political survival,” he added, requesting anonymity.
In every assembly election between 1990 and 2004, the BJP in Maharashtra won less seats than the Shiv Sena, before catching up with it in 2009. In 2014, the Modi ‘wave’ ensured the BJP’s position as the single largest party with the Shiv Sena a distant second. To reclaim lost ground, the Shiv Sena showed its willingness to admit to past mistakes, and make new friends.
Ahead of the 2017 municipal elections in Mumbai, which the two parties fought separately, the Shiv Sena targeted property builders in India’s financial capital for creating “new islands of apartments” only for vegetarians — an unwritten code which bars sale or rent agreements with non-vegetarians, particularly Muslims.
It began printing the party’s propaganda material in Urdu and gave tickets to five Muslims in the elections to India’s richest municipal body; out of them two won, including Haji Mohammed Halim Khan from Behrampada. Located in the suburb of Bandra East, not far from “Matoshree”, the residence of the Thackeray clan, Behrampada is a warren of 10×12 feet houses — some even smaller — inhabited by lower middle class and poor Muslims. In the communal violence that engulfed Mumbai following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992, about 900 people were killed, 31 of them in Behrampada.
“Until the Shiv Sena put up a Hindu candidate from here, the seat was won by the Congress or the Samajwadi Party. But by fielding a Muslim from Behrampada for the first time, we felt that the party was asking us to let go of the past,” says a social activist who has lived in the neighbourhood for over four decades and voted for Khan. “It was a gesture of reconciliation.”
In the lead-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the Shiv Sena started the ‘Me Marathi Musalman’ (I am a Marathi Muslim) campaign to counter the Muslim-Dalit alliance forged by their leaders, Prakash Ambedkar and Asaduddin Owaisi, and to spread the message that the party had never been against ‘patriotic Muslims’. It also demanded the implementation of a Muslim quota in Maharashtra, arguing that reservation in government jobs and education would lead to the advancement of the community.
“Building bridges with the community paid off for the Shiv Sena when a delegation of prominent Muslims from the state met Sonia Gandhi and urged her to support the party’s bid to form the government last month,” reveals Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha from Maharashtra, Kumar Ketkar. (In the election, the BJP won 105 seats in the 288-member assembly, and was expected to form a government with the Shiv Sena, which had bagged 56 seats. But the two parted ways when the Shiv Sena accused the BJP of retracting on a pre-election promise to share the chief minister’s post.)
“At first, she (Sonia Gandhi) was sceptical about the Sena’s commitment to secularism, but leaders were able to convince her that Uddhav Thackeray had no interest in pursuing a divisive agenda,” Ketkar adds.
Shiv Sena’s ‘character’
But several hardcore Shiv Sainiks feel that the Shiv Sena’s Muslim outreach and its tie-up with the Congress and the NCP, which are fundamentally opposed to Hindutva, have robbed the party of its natural character.
“The Sena has always played the politics of hate and believed in the ideology of ‘thokshahi’,” former Maharashtra chief minister Narayan Rane — a Shiv Sainik all his life but who is now a Rajya Sabha MP from the BJP — argues in his autobiography, No Holds Barred: My years in Politics.
Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray first incited the ‘Marathi manoos’ (sons of the soil) against South Indian migrants in the late 1960s. When the plank of Marathi identity found no takers outside the urban Mumbai-Konkan-Thane belt and the Shiv Sena failed to become a regional party with a pan-Maharashtra base, he shifted to the ‘rowdy Right’ and embraced Hindutva: pitting Hindus against Muslims by propagating the idea of a Hindu Nation from the mid-1980s onwards. (The report of the Srikrishna Commission, which investigated the Mumbai riots of 1992-93, blamed Bal Thackeray and several other leaders of the Shiv sena for inciting violent Hindu mobs to attack Muslims.)
‘’But the same Bal Thackeray facilitated the construction of the Haj House in Mumbai, raised the FSI (floor space index) for mosques when the BJP-Shiv Sena came to power in 1995, so that the faithful did not have to offer namaz on the streets, believed A.R Antulay of the Congress was the best chief minister Maharashtra ever had, and counted actor Dilip Kumar as a close friend,” counters Sanjay Raut, who also insists that the Mumbai riots were an “aberration”.
More than 30 per cent of Maharashtra’s population was born after the Mumbai riots. They offer no resonance to 25-year-old Safia Ashraf, who works in a pharmaceutical company in Navi Mumbai and has political aspirations. That’s why she is more willing to give the Shiv Sena a chance than her older relatives who lived through those dark times.
“Unlike the BJP, the Shiv Sena is not controlled by the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), which has always pushed for a Hindu Rashtra. It has the freedom to focus on development now that Uddhav Thackeray is the CM. This is an opportunity for the party to emerge as a strong regional player, like Biju Janata Dal in Odisha. But if the Shiv Sena reverts to its old ways and starts marginalising Muslims, the party will lose not just our community’s hard-earned support, but of every voter who wants the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi to complete its full term,” Ashraf says.
Uddhav Thackeray’s comment in the assembly last week, that mixing religion and politics was a mistake, suggests that the Shiv Sena’s course correction may not just be for temporary political benefit but marks a shift in ideological orientation, even though the party maintains it will never abandon Hindutva. Maharashtra’s Muslims can only hope that the Shiv Sena has truly turned a corner.
The author is an independent journalist. Views are personal.