Confused over the identity of the Marathi Manoos, the Shiv Sena is taking away a part of its past and risking a new future, says Vijay Simha
WITH PRACTICED nonchalance, Jitendra Jhanvale took his 30th call in about an hour. “All right. How many? Where did he go?” He cut the call in a hurry to attend to a group of men who bowed to touch his feet. They brought bad news. There were about 30 men around Jhanvale, a sort of a melee. Many wore gold chains around their necks and several rings on their fingers. It was the sort of gathering from where Jhanvale, a Shiv Sena functionary who operates between Bandra and Andheri in Mumbai, tends to radiate menace. Now, he simply sat.
Jhanvale and his friends were in the Bandra police station, surrounded by policemen whose only job that day was to keep his group immobile. On the loose, Jhanvale might have found ways to embarrass Rahul Gandhi, a general secretary of the Congress and prime target of the Shiv Sena, who was in Mumbai that day. Jhanvale was apparently good at his job, so good that the Bandra police took him off the streets soon. They wanted to keep him as far away from Gandhi as possible.
The Shiv Sena, for whom Jhanvale works, is a rightwing political party based in Mumbai that was formed in June 1966 by Bal Thackeray. For a long while, the Sena was known by its violent attacks on anyone who it thought was anti-Sena. It is now being forced to rework its politics. The issue of Marathi identity is not delivering as it may have done, and the Sena is in the midst of a major debate on the way forward.
Part of the discussion is on how to curb its aggressive tendencies and move into fresh areas. This is reflected in the Sena’s approach to the Shah Rukh Khan controversy and its recent use of IT. Though the Sena seemed to be belligerent on the outside with Khan, it worked furiously for peace with the actor on the inside. People in the know in the Sena, the Maharashtra Congress and the state administration say a meeting was almost fixed between Bal Thackeray and Shah Rukh Khan for a Sunday. Apparently, more than 20 telephone calls were exchanged between Matoshree, the Thackeray residence, and Mannat, Khan’s residence, for the meeting where a truce was to be worked out.
Just when things seemed to be falling in place, say Sena seniors, Khan pulled out. Sources in the Congress say the party high command in New Delhi was upset that a Khan-Thackeray meet would undo the damage done to the Sena by Rahul Gandhi’s Mumbai train ride in the face of Sena opposition. It is understood that the Congress did not want credit to go to the Thackerays, however subtly. The message was delivered to Khan to stay off the Thackerays and he flew out of India. It was later made out that Khan was attending to the premiere of his new movie My Name Is Khan outside India.
That the Sena went almost all the way on peace with Khan is indicative of a possible pathway to the future for the party. Even when it didn’t work out with Khan, after the Congress stepped in, the Sena barely made a fuss in Mumbai. There was an incident in Andheri where a couple of Sena activists picked a few stones from an adjacent construction site and hurled them at a cinema house. That was it.
A SECOND STRAND is the Sena’s look at information technology (IT). In the past, the Sena has preferred the streets to make their point: that the natives don’t get the jobs they should. Now, the Sena is forming an IT wing that will work on getting more Marathis into the IT sector, train Sena cadre on how to use IT, and use the Net to expand. Sena seniors are being encouraged to have their own websites and become a little savvy for future battles. Though some of the MLAs and corporators tend to have loud websites at the moment, at least they are getting there. The Sena is also hoping that it might attract the younger Marathis with its IT push and stop them from heading to Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS).
Some of the change is also in how the Sena looks. In the past, the party headquarters, the Shiv Sena Bhavan in Dadar, Mumbai was not a place for those who preferred the gentler option of debate. Now, though, the Sena Bhavan has been redone. It is nothing like the political party headquarters in New Delhi with crowds milling in the vast open spaces. The Sena Bhavan is abrupt and only those with specific tasks and appointments are allowed entry. Inside, the office is spanking clean. They have a call centre. The women are dressed in a uniform of black T-shirts with the bow and arrow, the Shiv Sena symbol, in orange on the top left.
We look for ways to make sense to the younger generation,’ says Corporator Ravindra Waikar
THE RECEPTIONIST takes two minutes to take a visitor’s card, enter the details on a database, and send a welcome text message in Marathi. The Shiv Sena tune is playing: “Shiv Senaaa, Shiv Senaaa, Shiv Senaaaa…” There are flat screen television sets on each floor with the cadre allowed to watch with discretion. Mostly, they say they watch live broadcast of cricket matches. About 30 people are on the fourth floor lobby on a weekday. Some of them watch the Test match between India and South Africa. Sachin Tendulkar, who Bal Thackeray derided for his stance that all Indians are welcome in Mumbai, gets out soon. The Shiv Sainiks switch the television off.
Miles away, in Jogeshwari, a packed suburb of Mumbai, first-time Sena MLA Ravindra Waikar is at work in the new culture. Jogeshwari is where some huts of Hindu families were set ablaze in January 1993, a month after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Five women and a man died, and the murders set off an orgy of violence in what was then Bombay. For two weeks, the Sainiks targeted Muslims across Mumbai in the infamous Bombay riots. Jogeshwari was a hub of the unemployed and a catchment area for angry Sena cadre. It used to be a dirty, miserable part of Mumbai.
Now, a new Jogeshwari is coming up. Waikar has been a municipal corporator four times and won the last election to the Assembly from Jogeshwari East. “Look at this. Can you believe it is the same Jogeshwari,” he says. There are three huge and neatly trimmed parks named after the then Anti-Terrorism Squad chief Hemant Karkare, the then Additional Commissioner of Police Ashok Kamte, and top cop Vijay Salaskar — all of whom were killed in the 26/11 attack on Mumbai.
Just at the entrance of Jogeshwari, by road, is a shining Ganpati temple, Waikar’s hub. It is a Tuesday night and the place is packed. There are about 500 people for the evening prayers, and astonishingly most of them are girls and boys. “We look for ways to make sense to the younger generation. Things get focussed for us when we are in power because we know we have to deliver on projects. When we are out of power, we don’t know what we will do. This causes restlessness among the cadre. We can still raise 10,000 people if we want to, but we are now focusing on immediate issues that make a difference to people,” he says.
Waikar seems to do the Manoos thing smartly. An open air class is being conducted on the terrace of the Ganpati temple. There are about 150 students. A teacher is giving them tips on how to get better marks in Marathi during the board exams. The teacher speaks into a handheld microphone. A speaker carries his voice to each student. “No one has ever scored 100 per cent marks in Marathi. You must be the first,” the teacher says. There is a bust of Shivaji on one side, a garlanded portrait of Meenatai, Bal Thackeray’s wife who died years ago, and a large poster of Waikar.
This is the new Sena. Waikar’s men trawl the chawls of Jogeshwari and have near-perfect knowledge of every human need there. His office knows how many widows live in Jogeshwari, how many children are orphans, and how many couples have no children. Old women are offered free food at the temple everyday. Adjacent to the temple is a jogging trail and a small manmade lake. People swarm there at night, making it a social hub. Inside, Jogeshwari is still too packed. Too many people live here. The chawls may never go. The issue of the Manoos may always lead to fights. But, from the outside, it is changing.
All this causes confusion about the identity of the Marathi Manoos, the Sena’s central theme. Dinkar Gangal, 70, a Marathi litterateur, is wondering just who the Marathi Manoos is. Gangal lives near Chembur and has spent much time trying to get Maharashtrians to read more. In 1982, he held a yatra to promote reading. Two weeks ago, he launched a new website www.thinkmaharashtra. com. “Right now, I am not able to define a Marathi Manoos. I only have the popular notion that such a person is born and raised in Maharashtra and speaks fluent Marathi,” says Gangal.
To get a better hang of it, Gangal has proposed a survey of 2,000 people during the March Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Sammelan in Pune. “There will be 10,000 people gathered there. It is the biggest Marathi literary gathering. We will ask 2,000 people to describe their idea of the Marathi Manoos.”
Older Maharashtrians and the youth appear to be attracted to Raj Thackeray,’ says a Marathi Manoos
Gangal says Raj Thackeray, Uddhav’s estranged cousin and head of the rival political outfit, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, is more of a “darling boy” than the Shiv Sena with some Marathis. “Older Maharashtrians and the youth appear to be attracted to Raj. They find a bit of the old Indira Gandhi in Raj. Like with Indira, Raj’s eyes are full of pride. They say more with their eyes than their tongues. They have similar body language as well.”
The MNS and the Shiv Sena are feeding off the same base at the moment. Most of Raj Thackeray’s plans ands activities have been in former Sena bases like the Konkan area. When he does something, it is mostly to undercut the Sena, or get aggressive just as the Sena cadre used to in the past. For instance, currently Raj is in the Konkan on a tour to galvanise support for the MNS while his party is weak in vast areas in Vidarbha, for instance.
SO THEN, the Shiv Sena has a situation on its hands. The Marathi Manoos appears to have a mind of his own and may not be carried away. One indication is the response to Mahesh Manjrekar’s 2009 movie Mee Shivajiraje Bhosale Boltoy. The film has been described as the seminal movie on Marathi identity and is the biggest Marathi hit, grossing Rs 25 crore so far.
The story deals with an ordinary Marathi family whose head is frustrated at work and by the career setbacks to his children. He curses his Marathi identity and blames his forefathers for his birth as a Marathi. This riles Shivaji, the legendary Maratha king, played by Manjrekar, who wakes up when blamed. Shivaji then has a conversation with the central character of the movie and asks him to look at his flaws before blaming the world for the way the Marathi Manoos suffers. In the movie, the central character changes his attitude. Maharashtra hopes the Sena will too.