State of unreason
Rajeshwari Deshpande , IE
Whoever may have actually killed him, social activist Narendra Dabholkar’s murder in Pune is an outcome of the deep-rooted pathologies of cultural politics in Maharashtra. The progressive Phule-Ambedkarite ideological legacies of Maharashtra politics are often quoted by the ruling Congress-NCP alliance in fond recollection of their effective appropriation of these legacies post-Independence. However, this also nurtured an aggressive sense of cultural pride and prejudices. Over the years, the assertions of cultural pride have culminated in identity politics of various kinds, often leading to violence.
The history of the politics of violence in Maharashtra goes back a long way, to when the Brahmins of the state faced mob wrath after Gandhi’s assassination. This was followed by the trade union rivalries in Mumbai, where Krishna Desai was brutally murdered in 1970. The issue of the renaming of Marathwada University after Ambedkar saw several atrocities against Dalit families in the late 1970s. The Ramesh Kini murder in Mumbai over real estate issues terrorised middle-class neighbourhoods in the city. More recently, whistleblower RTI activists like Satish Shetty faced the same fate when they protested against corruption in the public-private partnerships of bureaucrats, politicians and the business mafia.
Over the past few years, this politics of intolerance has become more widespread. The James Laine-Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute controversy over a book on Shivaji in 2004 was perhaps the first major instance of this kind. It was followed by several other instances where sections of people resorted to violent outbursts over issues of little significance. Narendra Maharaj, an influential “godman”, was not allowed to carry his dhwajadanda on board. His followers organised violent protests in different cities in Maharashtra in December 2005. A Marathi play was attacked and forced to change its title for its alleged disrespect of a Hindu deity. The splintered Shiv Sena protested violently when a TV channel presented a satire commenting on the rift in the party. The Bombay Art Society withdrew an award it had extended to M.F. Husain when there was a controversy over one of his paintings. A neo-Hindu organisation ransacked the offices of a Marathi daily for not celebrating the birth anniversary of Shivaji in (what they deemed) the proper way. Chhava Sanghatana, a militant Maratha organisation, threatened to demolish Shaniwar Wada (the seat of Peshwas), because it symbolises unjust Brahmin rule. The list is unending and only punctured by more gruesome acts of mob violence against Dalits (in Khairlanji) or migrants (the MNS agitations against outsiders).
These versions of identity politics no doubt represent a curious mix of material anxieties and political frustrations of various sections of Maharashtra society. This is a story of the crisis in the dominant Maratha community as it lost power due to a decline in the agrarian and cooperative sectors, coupled with a lack of the skills required to capture urban resources and the emergence of a more competitive party politics. If the recent Maratha demands for economic and political reservation along with the OBCs symbolise one thread of this crisis, the other takes the form of violent outbursts in the cultural realm. The caste pride of the Marathas, along with that of other small communities that have become politically visible in the post-Mandal phase, fits well with the new, commercial and celebratory forms of religiosity that arrived on the scene around the same time.
The new religiosity is more about changing culturescapes in the wake of globalisation and reflects the anxieties of the middle class. This phenomenon is not confined to Marathi society. However, it played a distinctive role in Maharashtra’s cultural politics as new and commercial centres of pilgrimage came up at every small place, religious tourism became the buzzword and every community reinvented its cultural history to glorify its own spiritual/religious leaders and practices.
This had several implications for the ideological framework of the politics of the state. First, religious and caste communities have frozen along exclusionary lines, where interventions in the “internal” matters of the community are severely challenged. Second, there is now a complete erosion of the progressive legacies of thought. The historically significant anti-caste message of the Bhakti tradition has been captured by a militant Varkari sect. The Maratha leadership is no longer dominant and is itself facing an identity crisis. The democratic space available for progressive social movements is constrained as parallel, non-democratic religious and caste centres of power gained legitimacy.
Third, one of the most destructive consequences is that the politics of abusive violence in Maharashtra is now surrounded by a politics of silence. It is not a silence that emerges only from fear. Rather, it comes from an extreme polarisation of social forces that forbids discussion and negotiation. The lack of space for negotiation and discussion has led to a complete disconnect between political parties and social movements, and progressive social movements are facing a kind of deadlock. Mainstream political parties, on the other hand, often chose to manipulate the exclusionary symbols of cultural pride. This is true not only of the Senas or the BJP. The ruling Congress-NCP alliance has often acted in a partisan manner in most aforementioned incidents. The state showed a serious lack of concern for maintaining law and order, and instead chose to become a party to social contestations, rather than resolve them.
At all these levels, the exclusionary and intolerant politics of culture in Maharashtra has altered the battlelines of politics. It has not only severely constrained the democratic space for negotiation, but firmly established abuse and violence as a norm of politics. Dabholkar’s murder only signifies the norm in a cruel manner.
The writer teaches political science at the University of Pune.