Thackerays Strike Again and Tolerant India Bends a Little More

It went from being Bombay to Mumbai, from being a vaunted melting pot of cultures to a place where non-Maharashtrians, even its biggest icons, are being forced to reassess their lives and loyalties after decades in a much loved city. With Amitabh Bachchan apologizing profusely for wife Jaya's "anti-Marathi" comments, and Delhi born Shah Rukh Khan being targeted because he says he is a "Dilliwala", alarm bells toll again.

The rise of the Shiv Sena and its hold on India's financial capital is, of course, known. But, in a double whammy, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray's nephew Raj Thackeray, who broke away to form his own party Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) in 2006, walks the same path of intolerance towards power. And horrifyingly seems to be getting there too.

Both uncle and nephew struck this week.

"Shah Rukh says he is a Dilliwala. If you are from Delhi, then why have you come to Maharashtra," Bal Thackeray wrote in his party paper Saamna about the Delhi born and educated Shah Rukh.

And actor-MP Jaya Bachchan's involuntary comment during the music launch of son Abhishek's film "Drona" that she would speak in Hindi because she was from Uttar Pradesh - adding in a humorous aside that Maharashtrians should forgive her - unleashed the ire of the entire MNS.

MNS activists burnt Jaya's effigy, husband Amitabh's latest film "The Last Lear" could not be premiered in Mumbai and hoardings were defaced. The English language film targeted at a multiplex audience faced a dismal prospect with theatre owners scared to put up posters.

And the most powerful star of the Indian film industry bent over backwards to say sorry, his wife didn't really mean to hurt anybody. Jaya had been educated at the film institute in Pune and spoke fluent Marathi, their domestic helps were Maharashtrians and she spoke to them in Marathi, his own makeup man was Maharashtrian and had been with him for 35 years, he had given money to promote the Marathi film "Shwaas" at the Oscars, he had even given money to help a Marathi writer who was ill. 

The list was long and exhaustive.

The Big B was groveling. And he did so not just on his blog but also when he spoke to reporters to avert the crisis.

Calling Raj Thackeray his brother, he told journalists: "The remark that Jaya made at the music release function of 'Drona' last week was not meant to malign or hurt anybody or any group of people. Having said that, I would still make it clear that if even a single person is hurt by Jaya's remark, we would apologize, rather, we should apologize."

The abject apology had its effect.

"I accept his apology," 'Raj Thackeray stated grandiosely at a press conference Thursday. 'Brother' Thackeray added that he would have preferred Jaya to have done so but since Amitabh was the head of the family the sorry was acceptable. 

The Bachchans are powerful, perhaps one of the most powerful families in not just filmdom but in the country, with many millions riding on the quartet - Amitabh, Jaya, son Abhishek and daughter-in-law Aishwarya.

The pressure on them, at one level, is understandable.

But then this is not a one off incident.

Only in April this year, Bachchan had repeated the act when Raj Thackeray questioned his commitment to Maharashtra.

Then too he had expressed his gratitude to Maharashtra, saying the state had "given me so much in the last 40 years - my wife, my children and so much love.....Jai Maharashtra".

Yes, the Bachchans have their compulsions as do other Bollywood stars to stay on the right side of the Thackerays - even Mani Ratnam's "Bombay" on the 1993 Hindu-Muslim riots was first shown to Bal Thackeray for fear that protests from the Shiv Sena might damage its box office chances.

In this most recent controversy, Shah Rukh Khan has so far not spoken. But others have on his behalf. If he doesn't qualify to be a Dilliwalla then who does? And does he not have the right to stay in Mumbai where his films give employment to many thousands?

If the most powerful like the Bachchans acquiesce so easily, what happens to the Bihari taxi driver who has made Mumbai his home, the migrant from Uttar Pradesh who has labored on the glittering high rises and built up a tenuous existence for himself. Where do they go, who do they apologize to?

To some, Hitler might be a far-fetched, inapt comparison. But every time an Amitabh Bachchan is forced to genuflect to intolerance, that is the name that comes to mind - an eerie recall to the single-minded pursuit of racial purity, that concept of lebensraum or living space.

I am not a Bombay-ite, sorry Mumbaikar. But I also have a sense of belonging like many others - Mumbai is upcoming India's financial capital, its film capital and the destination of millions of aspirational Indians. It is a city we are proud of. The Thackerays should not be allowed to take away that sense of Indian-ness that is there in all of us.

(Minu Jain is editor news at IANS. The views expressed in the article are her own. She can be contacted at minu.jain@ians.in)


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