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The perils of chauvinism

Soutik Biswas | 09:03 UK time, Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Shiv Sena supportersArticles 19d and 19e of the Indian constitution give its citizens the right to move freely and reside anywhere in the country. But 62 years after independence, India is in the grip of a tedious debate over this inalienable fundamental right.

Provoking this specious and dangerous discourse, again, is the Mumbai (Bombay)-based right-wing Hindu fundamentalist party Shiv Sena. It recently said that Marathi-speaking people - the indigenous people of Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital - should get first preference for jobs.

There is always a sense of déjà vu when the Shiv Sena rakes up the issue. The party was set up by a firebrand ex-cartoonist with a liking for Cohibas cigars in the mid-1960s on the back of a "sons of the soil" movement. Bal Thackeray and his men targeted the south Indian migrants and the Communists in the city in their early days. During the high noon of radical Hindu nationalism in the 1990s, they railed against Muslims. The transmogrification of Shiv Sena into a Hindu nationalist force even gave it a brief national profile when it became part of the BJP-led federal government in 1999.

With radical Hinduism finding fewer takers - Indians have repeatedly demonstrated that they want to live in peace despite the country's nettlesome right wing groups - these days the Shiv Sena is back to square one, raising the abhorrent spectre of the "son of the soil" in India's most economically energetic city. To complicate matters, its nativist agenda has now been hijacked by Mr Thackeray's estranged nephew, Raj, who broke away from the party to form Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, which is essentially Shiv Sena Lite, appealing to a section of the indigenous Marathi people of Mumbai.

The Sena is now reduced to playing spoilsport on Valentine's Day as it "defiles" Indian culture, whatever that means, railing against Australian cricketers to protest at attacks on Indians in Australia, and showering invective at Pakistani cricketers for daring to sign up for the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament. Many analysts believe that this is the sign of a party which has run out of ideas and steam.Shiv Sena slogan in Mumbai

This game of competitive chauvinism - between Mr Thackeray and his nephew - does not please or reflect the sentiments of most residents of Mumbai and India. But it gets disproportionate media coverage. Chauvinists and demagogues thrive in India largely because of the importance the media accords them. They are also astute in manipulating the thrill-seeking news TV by attacking women's bars, vandalising shops selling Valentine's Day cards, and thrashing poor migrant workers. With such saturation coverage, people begin to believe in the myth of the power of petty demagoguery.

India has huge and seriously daunting problems to attend to. Instead, much precious time is spent debating things like whether people should be allowed to live and work anywhere they choose or whether a Bollywood star's film should be yanked out of the theatres because the star - in this case, Shah Rukh Khan - expresses his dismay that Pakistani cricketers were not signed at the controversial IPL auction. In any open society, free movement and free speech are non-negotiable positions guaranteed by the rule of law. It is the job of the police to bring to book the vandals - political or otherwise - who break the laws. The media and political leaders could maybe concentrate on matters of greater substance.

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