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Urbanising ‘difference’

November 20, 2012

WHILE it is often said one should never speak ill of the dead, a restriction of this nature is particularly troublesome in Bal Thackeray’s case.

The Marathi leader, who passed away last Saturday, founded and led a party responsible for many terrible things, not least of which was the death of hundreds of non-Marathis in carefully orchestrated riots throughout the 1990s.

He and other office-bearers from the Shiv Sena were found guilty of fuelling the 1992 post-Babri mosque pogroms in Mumbai, yet predictably no action was taken against him or any of his Shiv Sainiks.

He died at the age of 86, leaving the command of his party in true South Asian tradition to his son, Uddhav Thackeray.

Thackeray’s brand of fascistic politics, largely ethno-nationalist in content, was characteristic of several realities found in many other rapidly urbanising countries, including Pakistan. While the movement to form a ‘Maharashtra for Marathis’ predates the formation of the Shiv Sena by around 25 years, Thackeray’s politics gave linguistic sentiment an instrumental edge, primarily by using the time-tested formula of combining questions of identity with questions of resource distribution.

It bears mentioning that Mumbai, a city with a Rs210 billion budget and the erstwhile headquarter of the Bombay presidency, was and is the de facto economic capital of India, and like many other metropolitan centres, plays host to a constant, often violent scramble for jobs, commercial capital and land.

The idealisation of cities as engines and outcomes of socioeconomic development, and as the future of human civilisation, fails to take into account this scramble-esque politics engendered by rapid urbanisation and neo-liberal growth.

The important oversight in all of this is that economic and political contestation remains highly charged in regions with strong identity-based ascriptions, be they communal, sectarian, ethnic or racial.

These identities, real or imagined (depending on how the reader wishes to see it), serve as pre-formed social collectives, which in turn can formulate economic and political claims based on their group characteristics.

So a Sindhi, for example, makes a resource-based claim on behalf of his ethnicity and his province on an issue like water distribution. An Urdu-speaker in Karachi can do the same with regard to jobs and university admissions.

With urbanisation, the stakes become higher, the process of growth becomes more rapid, and hence the contestation more frantic and, in some cases, more violent.

Related to this, and specifically in Mumbai’s case, a common marker of differentiation between multiple ethnic groups was their respective control over commercial and manufacturing resources.

Before and immediately after partition, the city’s Gujarati population controlled much of its economy, with some major families eventually graduating into their roles as part of India’s post-independence national elite.

The cosmopolitan nature of the city, along with the economic and social opportunities it offered made it a natural destination of skilled and semi-skilled workers from neighbouring regions — a fact that was to have long-standing consequences for the nature of politics in the Indian province.

What the Shiv Sena was able to do, and quite successfully at that, was to politicise pre-existing notions of identity, and match them with the cleavages induced by economic inequality.

So large amounts of the party’s political effort was spent reconstructing and re-imagining what it means to be Marathi, and linking it with how resources of the city and of the wealthiest Indian state — which contributes around 15 per cent to the national GDP — were being controlled by different ethnic and religious groups, with Marathis getting a raw deal out of it.

Some of the overt political strategies used in the last three decades included the campaign to rename Bombay, a closer association with the Hindutva agenda, specifically to mobilise anti-Muslim, anti-Christian sentiment amongst the Marathi population and political alliances with other middle-caste/middle-class parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Accompanying all of this was a focus on revisionist history, which traced the roots of a modern, urban Marathi identity to the original Maratha kingdom of Shivaji in the late 17th century.

While the whys and hows of Mumbai’s predicaments have been dealt with at length elsewhere, the important thing to note is that modernisation as we commonly understand it — growth of cities, creation of jobs, creation of a middle class — is perhaps never neutral in character, and will always instigate politics that is premised on the principle of difference (ethnic, communal, racial).

Societies where difference is channelled through a non-violent, rules-based political process tackle resource scrambles in a particular way. Whereas in places like India and Pakistan, we see the usage of violence as an instrument of fear and coercion, and a source of social cohesion within different groups.

The strategy of using violence as a form of claim-making was employed to great effect by the Shiv Sena through the 1990s, and in part, it helped them develop an iron-clad grip on the district government of Mumbai.

The relationship between violence, urban economic growth and the rise of ethnic and/or religious identity poses a number of questions about the nature of progress and development in the Third World.

Mumbai and Karachi — both large, prosperous and endemically violent cities, perfectly capture the complexity of these phenomena, and most of all, the general inadequacy of states in South Asia to deal with the fallouts.

As India and Pakistan continue to experience rapid urbanisation, complemented with sustained growth in sub-national ethnic, linguistic, and religious sentiment, the problems of ‘differentiating’ economic growth will only become more apparent and stark.

The writer is a political economy researcher based in Lahore.