Is Marathi vs Gu­jarati nar­ra­tive rel­e­vant to the bul­let train project?



op­pos­ing the Mum­bai-ahmed­abad bul­let train project, Ma­ha­rash­tra’s na­tivist par­ties Shiv Sena and Ma­ha­rash­tra Navnir­man Sena (MNS) have sought to play on the age-old Mum­bai-gu­jarat fault line. But does the fault line still ex­ist? And does the is­sue of Marathi iden­tity have the po­lit­i­cal res­o­nance it did more than five decades back?

One of Shiv Sena’s emo­tional ral­ly­ing points since its found­ing in 1966 has been the in­vo­ca­tion of the Marathi iden­tity for po­lit­i­cal mo­bi­liza­tion. Shiv Sena founder Balasa­heb Thack­eray’s fa­ther Ke­shav Thack­eray, pop­u­larly known as Pra­bod­hankar Thack­eray, was a leader of the move­ment to claim Mum­bai (then Bom­bay) as the cap­i­tal of Ma­ha­rash­tra in the late 50s af­ter a vi­o­lent ag­i­ta­tion in which 105 peo­ple died.

The Sena and its off­shoot MNS have po­lit­i­cally kept alive the mem­ory of th­ese “mar­tyrs”. The ri­val Thack­eray cousins—ud­dhav and Raj— have been ques­tion­ing the bul­let train project ever since it was an­nounced in Fe­bru­ary 2016 by then rail­way min­is­ter Suresh Prabhu.

Af­ter the 29 Septem­ber stam­pede at El­phin­stone sta­tion which killed 23 com­muters, they have sharp­ened their at­tack and linked it to the Marathi vs Gu­jarati nar­ra­tive. An im­por­tant fact both seem to be ex­ploit­ing is that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is con­trolled by two Gu­jaratis—prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi and BJP pres­i­dent Amit Shah.

“In the six­ties, the is­sue did strike a chord in the back­drop of the move­ment for Samyukta Ma­ha­rash­tra (United Ma­ha­rash­tra) which was es­sen­tially a call to cre­ate a state of Marathi-speak­ing peo­ple with Mum­bai as its cap­i­tal,” said a se­nior Shiv Sena leader who was in his twen­ties when the Sena was formed and who did not want to be named. He said the is­sue of Marathi iden­tity then was fos­tered by eco­nomic, emo­tional and cul­tural fac­tors. “We (the Marathi youth) did not have white-col­lar jobs, there was this lin­gual and cul­tural angst against the Tamils and Gu­jaratis which partly stemmed from the eco­nomic griev­ance,” he said, ex­plain­ing the po­lit­i­cal engine that pro­pelled the Shiv Sena into promi­nence.

Five decades on, does Marathi iden­tity have the same emo­tional and po­lit­i­cal ap­peal? “The eco­nomic griev­ance of not get­ting white-col­lar jobs is al­most en­tirely gone. In­deed, much of the white-col­lar Marathi crowd has moved away from Shiv Sena. But the cul­tural and emo­tional angst is still as fer­vent, though from the eight­ies on­wards, its tar­get has been the North In­dian mi­grant in ad­di­tion to Gu­jaratis,” the Sena vet­eran said. He said this angst was the rea­son Sena pres­i­dent Ud­dhav Thack­eray and MNS chief Raj Thack­eray had linked the bul­let train project to “the Marathi-gu­jarati fault line”.

Po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor and long-time Shiv Sena ob­server and se­nior jour­nal­ist Bhau Torsekar said Marathi iden­tity is as rel­e­vant as it was five decades back.

“It has its own vi­tal­ity even with­out the anti-north In­dian or anti-gu­jarati over­tones. There def­i­nitely ex­ists a feel­ing of anger against the Gu­jaratis among the Marathis. The ques­tion is who rep­re­sents this angst at the po­lit­i­cal level and I don’t think Shiv Sena has been able to do that un­der Ud­dhav Thack­eray,” Torsekar said. He said Raj Thack­eray had stolen a march over Ud­dhav by hit­ting the streets over the El­phin­stone tragedy. “The emo­tional anger was there and it only needed some­one who gave that call to rise. Raj pro­vided that while the Shiv Sena con­tin­ues to run it­self from the of­fice of Saamna,” Torsekar said, re­fer­ring to the Sena mouth­piece.

Vaib­havi Pal­sule, vice-prin­ci­pal and head of the depart­ment of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at Mum­bai’s Ram­narain Ruia Col­lege, how­ever, feels the re­gional or lin­gual iden­tity and po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion to a na­tional party like the BJP are two dif­fer­ent is­sues.

“The pol­i­tics of re­gional lan­guage is in­de­pen­dent of po­si­tions against a na­tional party. To op­pose BJP’S na­tional pol­i­tics, both Shiv Sena and MNS need to have wider is­sues and in­formed nar­ra­tives. For in­stance, link­ing the pol­i­tics of lan­guage to the bul­let train project is to­tally ir­rel­e­vant and flawed,” Pal­sule said.


Strik­ing a chord: MNS party work­ers at a protest rally against the bul­let train project, in Mum­bai last week.

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