Sunday, February 17, 2008

Free for All

Byline By M J Akbar: Free for All

Chief minister Parkash Singh Badal should immediately stop all supplies of Punjab wheat to Raj Thackeray and all members of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, who believe they can milk votes for a dead cause by victimising Biharis in Mumbai. The point is not too difficult to appreciate. India is not a one-way street. India survives as a single nation of free people or it does not survive at all.

Freedom is non-negotiable: of faith, equality, democracy, travel, speech, employment and opportunity. Freedom has its attendant responsibilities. Speech cannot degenerate into libel. Democracy cannot be rigged, or exploited by extremist passions. The right to practise faith does not mean the right to denigrate someone else’s. But there is no question that unity must have an economic content for the poor. India is not a single nation only for those who command capital, and can invest it where they will; it has to be equally free for labour to find jobs where they can.

The world is moving towards shared values, not just because they are good in themselves, but because they are good for the common weal. Independence is not the antithesis of interdependence. The two feed off, and strengthen, each other. If President George W. Bush were to place a visa ban on Maharashtrians, New Delhi would protest such discrimination, and rightly so. If discrimination is poor policy in international relations, then it is taboo in national affairs.

Raj Thackeray is not protecting Maharashtrians with street hysteria. He is only trying to protect his political future, and doing a miserable job of it. He thought that he could inherit his uncle Balasaheb Thackeray’s mantle by aping the latter’s look and style. That rather transparent ploy flopped. He is now trying to put life into his politics with some medicine from the Sixties, when Balasaheb created political space by demanding the expulsion of Malayalis from Mumbai. It is pertinent to note that four decades later both Balasaheb and Malayalis remain in Mumbai. If this did not work in the 20th century, it is highly unlikely to work in the 21st.

There are objective reasons for such an assessment. Conditions were far more fertile for sectarianism in the Sixties. The national economy was trapped in a cycle of low growth. The internal dynamic of India was still subject to seismic regional pressures. Maharashtra itself was born in 1960 because Maharashtrians wanted an identity different from Gujarat. The birth of Maharashtra encouraged high aspirations, which could hardly be met in an era of low growth. The Malayalis had jobs in both the private and the public sector, and became easy targets. The outsider can so quickly be recast as an alien, and the alien reinvented as the enemy.

Time is a good judge of depth. The movement against Malayalis petered out because it was too thin to challenge a parallel rise in the emerging Indian consciousness: the growing power of nationalism.

The Sixties were the worst decade in modern Indian history. Language became as divisive a sentiment as jobs before it was subsumed and integrated into the idea of a free, federal democratic India. Pakistan broke because of dictatorial inflexibility towards language. India grew stronger when it let Tamil Nadu live by its mother tongue. Job insecurity was accompanied by border insecurity, perhaps inevitably, for perceptions of weakness encourage a neighbour into becoming an enemy. China tested India in 1962, and we were humiliated. The symbol of modern India, Jawaharlal Nehru, died in 1964. Pakistan launched its war for Kashmir in 1965; it was a close call. By 1966, the Indian National Congress, anchor of the nation, had begun to wither and was defeated in most of the states in 1967. That was the year when the prairie fire set off by Naxalites, a movement fuelled by hopelessness among the young, threatened to leave the country in ashes.

But India rediscovered herself in the darkness of such turmoil. Whether consciously or subconsciously, Indians realised that unity was the ultimate, and perhaps the only, weapon against instability and the collapse of an unprecedented exercise in nation-building. The exciting military victory of 1971 was the first manifestation of a new mood and a new strength. A nation that seemed to have lost its confidence proved that it could control the treacherous tides of war. It also proved that it could negotiate the even more difficult tides of peace. Only a supremely confident nation could have walked away from Bangladesh within just three months of victory, and left the infant nation to its own devices.

A common purpose had saved the skin, but a bigger question had to be answered: could it feed the stomach? The Indian farmer and peasant answered with the Green Revolution. The Sixties were the last decade in which we saw famine, in Bihar. A nation troubled by famine cannot find the energy for growth. The Green Revolution was the base, the foundation, on which the future could be built. When the Indian businessman was given his chance in the 1990s, he proved that he had the soaring imagination of the meteor.

Raj Thackeray’s naive politics is contrary to the spirit of economic growth, irrelevant to the culture which can breed national prosperity. He would not merit even the negative attention he has received if the Maharashtra government had acted to preserve the law. But the Congress-led alliance, with familiar hypocrisy, has been unable to resist the temptation of hunting with the hound while pretending to run with the hare. The arrest of Raj Thackeray was flaccid tokenism; and he was right to laugh it off. This was compounded by illogical equivalence. Abu Azmi of the Samajwadi Party may not be a paragon of democratic or social virtues, but he was not the source of the current tension in Mumbai. He was arrested along with Raj Thackeray in order to appease "Maharashtrian sentiment". Such thinking is particularly dangerous because it implicitly accepts that Raj Thackeray represents the prevailing local sentiment when such is not the case. The majority of Maharashtrians accept that Mumbai’s strength lies in its multicultural cosmopolitanism.

Speaking in Italy recently I argued that the European Union, a concept launched in the mid-Fifties, was analogous to the model established by the Indian Union through its inspiring Constitution, accepted as the bedrock of the Republic in 1950. I suggested that this would be the model for regions and groups of nations across the world, for these principles had not only held India together but had brought it to the verge of potential prosperity: democracy, federalism, equality of individual and faith, unrestricted internal travel, the right to labour migration, free flow of capital and goods, the unqualified assimilation of multiple languages. America, Europe and India today share these principles, and they will be the leaders of the world as long as they do not deviate from these principles. The principal deviations are military adventurism abroad and erosion of human rights at home.

The one thing that Raj Thackeray has proved is that we have to continually rescue our India from some of our politicians.

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