Friday, October 15, 2004

India: Beyond Bal Thackeray’s beard

[ For those who came in late, Thackeray hit the headlines once again some time ago by appearing unshaven before the media and announcing that he would not shave off his beard until and unless the SS-BJP alliance won the elections and returned to power in the state. He did not say he was emulating the example of his avowed idol, Chhatrapati Shivaji, the anti-Mughal Maratha warrior, with hi-flowing beard. The ‘Supremo’ himself broke the silence for the far right, and how. Addressing a public rally in Mumbai, he reverted to his favourite subject of the peril of Muslim population growth and the diabolically-plotted demographic invasion from Bangladesh. ]

Beyond Bal Thackeray’s beard
J Sri Raman

Thackeray broke the silence of the far right. Addressing a public rally in Mumbai, he reverted to his favourite subject of the peril of Muslim population growth and the diabolically-plotted demographic invasion from Bangladesh. Thence he proceeded to a castigation —not for the first time — of Congress leaders as eunuchs (hijre) for following ‘a woman and, that too, a foreign one’

“Had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter”, said Blaise Pascal, “the whole face of the world would have been different.” Will the beard of Shiv Sena (SS) leader Bal Thackeray change the face of India?

Or at least Maharashtra, the State where he is the ‘Supremo’, according to his flock that adores Italy’s Commando Supremo Benito Mussolini as much as it abhors Sonia Gandhi of Italian origin?

As you read these lines, the voters in India’s most industrialised state would have answered these questions. To judge by much of the campaigning for the Maharashtra Assembly elections of October 13, and of its media coverage, the fate of this fuehrer’s facial hair had made issues of ideology and politics almost irrelevant.

For those who came in late, Thackeray hit the headlines once again some time ago by appearing unshaven before the media and announcing that he would not shave off his beard until and unless the SS-BJP alliance won the elections and returned to power in the state. He did not say he was emulating the example of his avowed idol, Chhatrapati Shivaji, the anti-Mughal Maratha warrior, with hi-flowing beard.

The ‘Supremo’, however, laughed off apprehensions of the opposite kind. “No, no, I am not changing my religion”, he was reported to have assured some alarmed followers. He did once joke that he had actually nicked himself while shaving and had put away the razor for some days. Political considerations, however, prevailed, and the beard was soon back, campaigning for the far-right.

Frivolous and trivial as all this may seem, the subject helped everyone involved in the elections. The irrelevance of issues helped the opposing alliance of the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which was not exactly dying to air its ideological differences with the SS-BJP camp, though it waxes eloquent about them at a safe distance from elections. It helped much of the mainstream media, which was happier projecting ideology as irrelevant to all political conflicts. It also helped the SS-BJP alliance.

Thackeray and the SS were eager not to unduly embarrass the Election Commission (EC). He even promised to comply with its directive not to raise religious issues, though he taunted it with the query: “Is not Ayodhya a religious issue?” The BJP preferred to go back to its policy and practice of keeping such issues “on the back burner” whenever it went for an alliance. As an all-India party, it had differences even with the SS that combines religious and regional chauvinisms – with Thackeray for throwing not only Bangladeshi immigrants out of India but also ‘outsiders’ out of metropolitan Mumbai.

The effort by the contending alliances – through almost the entire campaign – has been to appear almost the same. The manifestos made the same promises, mainly free power to farmers and a Shivaji memorial. Both avoided taking a stand on the demand for a Vidarbha state to be carved out of Maharashtra. And both were silent on Hindutva issues, as controversies of communal-fascist creation are called in an outrageous affront to the peace-loving majority of the Indian people.

Both the camps were silent on these issues, however, for different reasons. The SS-BJP silence was tactical. The Congress-NCP silence was just timid.

Both broke the silence on October 11, the last day of public campaigning. Congress president Sonia Gandhi broke it for her camp during her ‘road show’ through Mumbai, when she called upon the voters to defeat “the communal forces” that “talked of Indian traditions but destroyed our culture”. None else from her party or alliance, however, took on the SS-BJP combine in similar terms. None, not even Gandhi, told Thackeray that Ayodhya was not indeed a religious issue but only a pseudo-religious one of cynically political motivation.

The ‘Supremo’ himself broke the silence for the far right, and how. Addressing a public rally in Mumbai, he reverted to his favourite subject of the peril of Muslim population growth and the diabolically-plotted demographic invasion from Bangladesh. Thence he proceeded to a castigation – not for the first time – of Congress leaders as eunuchs (hijre) for following “a woman and, that too, a foreign one”.

I have been looking for a reaction of disapproval to these remarks from the Congress, the NCP, any other party (even of the Left), the EC, the media, or any organisation of women. I have found none. Transvestites, of course, don’t talk back to Thackerays.

The way fascist exhibitionism of such crudity and cruelty has come to be accepted as part of political discourse is truly frightening. So is the fact that, regardless of manifestos and such other statements that no party really means, the SS-BJP combine continued its communal agitprop as its unofficial campaign, run by other members of the parivar (the far right ‘family’). This took several forms ranging from an agitation by the Bajarang Dal against cow slaughter to distribution of tridents (trishul) and literature calling on Hindus to make a Babri Masjid of Afzal Khan’s tomb in the state.

After the last general election lost by he BJP-led alliance, Thackeray had attributed the loss to what he saw as insufficient use of the Hindutva plank. This should sound a warning.

We don’t know what the Maharashtra elections will do to his beard. Whatever the result, however, it can only bode ill for the state and the country. Unless, of course, forces opposed to Thackeray-type fascism take it on frontally and with ideological frankness.

The writer is a journalist and peace activist based in Chennai, India

Daily Times 14/10/2004