BY KARAN TYAGI
On November 9th, Indian democracy plunged to its nadir. Elected legislators of the Maharashtra Nav Nirman Sena Party (MNS) rushed to the floor of Maharashtra state’s Legislative Assembly to stop the elected member of the Samajwadi Party, Abu Asim Azmi, from taking oath in Hindi, the country’s official and most widely-spoken language. They demanded that he take the oath in Marathi, the language of the Marathi people of Maharashtra, whose cause the MNS seeks to espouse. This was followed by MNS legislator Ravi Kadam slapping Azmi in full view of the public gathering – and it follows a similar incident that took place just a few weeks ago, when the same party threatened noted film producer Karan Johar for using the word “Bombay” instead of the Marathi “Mumbai” in his new movie, Wake up Sid.
This linguistic and regional chauvinism is not a new phenomenon. The MNS and its chief, Raj Thackeray, have been making inflammatory and divisive comments since the party’s formation. Last year, members of the MNS resorted to arson and violence in different parts of Maharashtra in protest against outsiders entering and working in the state.
But in assaulting an elected member of the House in the Assembly, the MNS has sunk to its lowest depths. Apart from taking immediate action against the members of the MNS involved in this ruckus, the fact that there is no place for ethnic and linguistic chauvinism in a city like “Bombay” should be driven home once and for all.
At the outset, I would like to point out that the Indian Constitution that allows legislators the freedom to take oath in any official language was written by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, a low-caste native Maharashtrian himself. Further, as was rightly pointed out by Abhinav Chandrachud LL.M. ’09 in the Indian Express, the oath prescribed for members of state legislative assemblies was amended by the Constitution Act of 1963 to include a promise to “uphold the sovereignty and integrity of India”. By stopping Azmi from taking the oath in Hindi, the members of the MNS have not only subverted the Indian Constitution but have also flouted all forms of parliamentary functioning.
The MNS fails to realize that “Bombay” has always had a multicultural character. It was built by the contribution of Parsi and Gujarati entrepreneurs, Konkan mill laborers, Telugu and Tamil industrialists, Koli and Marathi fishermen, and the North Indian-dominated film industry. “Bombay” is the financial capital of India because of the contribution of people from different parts of the country. The city epitomizes the “unity in diversity” characteristic of India. Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the founder of the Maratha empire and the hero of the people of Maharashtra, was known for favoring inclusivity and tolerance of other religions. Thus, the attack on Azmi is not only an attack on Bombay’s famed pluralism, but also on the virtues and teachings of the Marathi hero, Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj.
The Maharshtra government has always turned a blind eye to the threats issued by the MNS and the violence perpetrated by its members. The government has brazenly succumbed to the threats of the MNS, doling out the excuse that stricter action would lead to bigger “law and order” problems. The fact that this time the Maharashtra Assembly has suspended the members of the MNS involved in the incident for four years is a heartening sign. But the authorities fear a backlash by the MNS political activists, one that would lead to widespread violence and destruction in “Bombay” and other parts of Maharashtra. They need to display the courage exhibited by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower during the “Little Rock Nine” incident of 1957.
At a time when “Bombay” and the state of Maharashtra are overrun with such problems as terrorism, malnutrition, poverty, and rising prices, it is shocking that some members of the Legislative Assembly would engage in a dangerous linguistic war. On some level, these elected representatives are a reflection of society itself. They are in the Assembly because the people have voted for them. For me, this fact is more dangerous than any threat and any violence that can ever be perpetrated by Raj Thackeray and his goons. As a citizen of “Bombay”, it makes me hang my head in shame. The citizens of Bombay cannot afford to let the city be governed by people who propagate fascism. The time has now come public opinion to turn strongly against it.
Karan Tyagi is an LL.M. student from India.