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Home > India > News > Columnists > T V R Shenoy

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The migrant issue flows from Congress's original sin

November 13, 2008

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As you sowed in 1920, so must you reap today. That is the lesson the Congress should ponder over as it oscillates between antagonising voters in Bihar and voters in Maharashtra.

Raj Thackeray's [Images] Maharashtra Navnirman Sena ignited the migrants issue in Mumbai with an eye to scoring over his cousin Uddhav Thackeray and the Shiv Sena. We do not know how that will pan out in Maharashtra itself but it has had immediate consequences in Bihar's politics, and threatens to snowball into a major debating topic in the next general election.

But the roots of the conflict can be traced back to the Congress session of 1920. That was an epochal event in more ways than one, going down in history as the session where the Congress adopted Mahatma Gandhi's [Images] call for a Non-Cooperation Movement.


One consequence, scarcely noticed at the time, was Mohammed Ali Jinnah's alienation after he was heckled for insisting on saying 'Mr Gandhi' rather than 'Mahatma Gandhi'.

We all know how that ended, don't we, but a second decision was to organise future sessions on a linguistic, rather than a provincial, basis. That meant, for instance, that instead of a single delegation from Madras Presidency there would be separate Congress units from 'Andhra' and Tamil Nad'.


Similarly the old Central Provinces delegates found themselves split into 'Berar', 'Hindi Central Provinces', and 'Marathi Central Provinces', and so forth. And once the British Raj ended, the old administrative units were broken up by the Congress to create new linguistic units.

Like it or not, Raj Thackeray's demands flow inevitably from the Congress's original sin. Once language alone was accepted as a basis for dividing states and provinces, the new territorial units inevitably began taking steps to giving their own linguistic group some special status.


Mock the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and the Shiv Sena for their insistence on Marathi shop-signs if you want, but how different is it from what the Dravidian movement was demanding back in the 1960s?

Come to that, if it is deemed good and proper to say 'Kashmir for the Kashmiris' on what grounds do you deny 'Maharashtra for the Maharashtrians'? Logically, either both are wrong or both are correct.

Again, while Raj Thackeray has a knack for grabbing the headlines let us not pretend that internal migration is an issue only in Maharashtra. If Mumbai is the financial capital of India then Bengaluru [Images] is its information capital. Yet there is a simmering dislike of 'outsiders' there too, with native Kannadigas angry that they have been reduced to a minority in their own capital.

Or take Assam, where again migrant labourers from Bihar have been frequently attacked. When was the last time that you heard our beloved railway minister promising to stage Chhat Puja in Guwahati?

All you ever get from the leaders from Bihar is a lot of political drama. On November 2, Lalu Prasad Yadav [Images] called on all legislators from Bihar -- MLAs as well as MPs -- to quit their seats in protest against attacks on Biharis in Mumbai. How on earth was this supposed to protect migrants? That is something the railway minister did not deign to explain.

The call for resignation was a transparent attempt to bring down Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Both Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal-United and the Shiv Sena are members of the National Democratic Alliance, and the Shiv Sena was identified with 'Marathi manoos' politics well before Raj Thackeray broke away to form the Maharashtra
Navnirman Sena.

Nitish Kumar countered by asking his five Lok Sabha MPs to quit, which they did on November 7. He has now called on his rival to follow suit. As the Janata Dal-United points out with impeccable logic, what is the point of sitting in the Union Cabinet alongside parties that rule Maharashtra yet fail to protect Biharis in Maharashtra?

The Janata Dal-United leader is right. Whatever its inclinations, the Shiv Sena does not govern Maharashtra; the state government is a coalition between the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party -- both allies of Lalu Prasad Yadav in the United Progressive Alliance.

The Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party may dislike Raj Thackeray's tactics but they cannot afford to object to his stated policies. It would be political suicide in Maharashtra if any of the four principal parties -- the Congress, the NCP, the Shiv Sena, or the BJP -- were seen siding with 'outsiders' against the 'Marathi manoos'.

That fact has been underlined by none less than the Congress chief minister of Maharashtra. On November 11, Vilasrao Deshmukh emerged from a meeting of the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee to brief the waiting media. The chief announcement was that his government would ask the railway ministry to hold recruitment examinations in Marathi for vacancies in Maharashtra. Even Raj Thackeray did not think of that one!

The Nationalist Congress Party could not be left behind, could it? It has demanded a white paper on the subject of migrants. And Union Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel, one of the most urbane men around, spoke on television of the need to protect the sensitivities of Marathi speakers.

All this political to-ing and fro-ing is only to be expected from politicians in an election year. But all this talk of 'pride' and 'hurt feelings' ignores the real issues.

First, why are people continuing to flee from Bihar -- Uttar Pradesh [Images] too -- in such large numbers, only to become easy targets in Maharashtra, Assam, Punjab, or Jammu & Kashmir? Shouldn't the leaders in Bihar try to create opportunities in their own state rather than come out with exaggerations about Bihar's contributions to the growth
of Mumbai?

Second, demonise Raj Thackeray as much as you want but the man has brought up an issue nobody can ignore. If we are to have linguistic states -- the principle accepted in 1920 -- how do you deny special status to linguistic groups in their own states?

T V R Shenoy

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