To Whom Does Mumbai Belong? Nobody – and Everybody

The Shiv Sena’s over-reaction to Kangana Ranaut’s provocative statements shows its misplaced priorities.

Maharashtra’s politicians and Kangana Ranaut are made for each other. She makes outrageous statements, aimed at drawing attention to herself and to hit out at someone or the other. The film business, cowardly and always trying to keep up bogus appearances, does not publicly react; when she attacks politicians, they have no such qualms – they rise to the bait, and go into high dudgeon.

This gives her a higher profile and more impetus to make even more provocative statements, with personal comments thrown in; they are happy to be provoked. The television media, always desperate for a spectacle to keep their circus going and their audience satisfied, amplifies the noise. The public is happy. It’s a win-win scenario, except for the millions of hapless citizens of the country who are worried about wages, jobs and life-threatening sickness.

Ranaut has called Mumbai ‘like Pakistan-occupied Kashmir’, a completely gratuitous and nonsensical comment that has nothing to do with anything. Who is it occupied by? Or how exactly are they similar? But it makes good copy and got the Shiv Sena riled up enough to tell her to leave Mumbai if she did not like it here. State home minister Anil Deshmukh has said charges against Ranaut for drug use, made by another small-time actor, will be probed.

The Congress, not to be left behind, has moved a breach of privilege notice against her in the assembly, because she apparently insulted not only the city but the ‘sacrifices of those who fought for Mumbai in the Samyukta Maharashtra Andolan (in the 1950s)’. How exactly is not explained.

The Sena-dominated Mumbai Municipal Corporation has meanwhile gone and demolished portions of her house, even as her petition for a stay – which was successful – was being heard. This level of efficiency by the Corporation has not been seen for decades. The vendetta is obvious, and all because she has ‘insulted’ Mumbai.

Those from the three-party coalition that is in power in Maharashtra say she is doing all this at the behest of the BJP and has their full support. Circumstantial evidence suggests this is true – former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has defended her and called the civic action against her property as ‘an act of cowardice and revenge’. The Centre has given her Y-plus security, a clearly political move to highlight the potential threat against her in Maharashtra. Other BJP partymen too have stood up for her.

Also read: During Lockdown, Maharashtra Has Cracked Down on Journalists and Media

Among Sena-NCP-Congress politicians in the state, therefore, the general impression is that the BJP is up to tricks to undermine Uddhav Thackeray in the hope of dislodging him and his government, because it has not reconciled to losing the state after last year’s election. A guerilla propaganda war on WhatsApp against Thackeray has been going on for some time, suggesting that young Aaditya is somehow involved in the whole murky affair of Rajput’s apparent death by suicide. Ranaut herself has hinted at the ‘people behind Rhea’, after she was arrested for marijuana possession. The Sena’s fears may have a basis.

But Ranaut is no hired gun – she is happy to let loose a fusillade of hate and invective on her own steam. Her first foray, on the Karan Johar show, where she criticised him for nepotism (to which Johar could only giggle nervously), scored a hit, making her a heroine of sorts. She built herself up as a lone outsider fighting the Bollywood mafias, winning praise even from ‘liberals’ who are always looking for someone to fit their proclivities and notions.

Ranaut made some interesting films and proved her talent, but soon her political views became clear, with tweets about nationalism, criticising Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar because they accepted an invitation to an event in Pakistan, and suggesting that those who preached non-violence should have their face blackened and paraded on a donkey. Her film Jhansi ki Rani, which was dressed up in saffron and showed the queen’s concern towards cows, was a clear indication on where she stood. She was ideal BJP material. But all this was much before the party entered the picture – this was Kangana herself, building up a persona which she knew was unique and could be very rewarding.

The BJP may find her useful and she will also be happy to go along. She may well be playing the party’s larger game of goading the Sena. But the extreme reaction of the Sena and its partners is out of proportion, not the least because they can easily ignore her rants and not give her either publicity or credibility. Reports suggest that NCP chief Sharad Pawar, the most mature and politically savvy politician in the state, has told Uddhav Thackeray just that.

For the Sena, hitting back at Kangana for this perceived ‘insult’ is a political necessity. Having built itself up as the custodian of Marathi manoos and of Mumbai, it has to be seen standing up for the city; and it also has to deploy the much vaunted ‘Sena style’ of being aggressive and, if necessary, violent. Knowing fully well that being in the government and transiting to a new kind of party, it cannot use old tactics of blackening her face etc., the Sena has instead resorted to strong statements and sending in the bulldozers to her home. A group of Sena women also enthusiastically beat Ranaut’s images with their kolhapuri chappals. Unsatisfying, but it will have to do.

Also read: Is the BJP Deriving Political Mileage Out of the Sushant Singh Rajput Case?

But the over-reaction raises another, broader question. A defence of Mumbai’s honour is always welcome, but the suggestion that the Sena is the custodian of the city is problematic. Equally debatable is the idea of an ‘insult’ to the city – how exactly is what Kangana said an insult, and that too such a big one that she has to pay for it in different ways?

Day in and day out Mumbai’s citizens express their criticism of the city’s crumbling infrastructure – the potholes on the street, the flooding every monsoon, the creaking public transport and so much more. The municipal corporation comes in for special mention for its various inefficiencies. In actual fact the corporation’s employees are a hardworking lot and there is some real talent in the civic body in several departments, but to the lay person, the visible pockmarks on the roads speak of poor management and governance. The Sena has run it politically for 25 years – it has no excuses left.

But it rouses itself every time someone high profile criticises the BMC. Kapil Sharma, who once tweeted that he was asked for a Rs 5 lakh bribe, found portions of his property demolished; Mallishka Mendonsa, a popular radio jockey who sang a clever song about Mumbai’s travails during the rains was informed by the BMC immediately after that mosquitoes were breeding in her mother’s apartment and she could face legal prosecution, while a Sena corporator demanded that a Rs 500 crore defamation suit be filed against her.

Debris lie on the ground after BMC authorities demolished part of Bollywood actress Kangana Ranauts Bandra bungalow citing illegal alterations, in Mumbai, Wednesday, September 9, 2020. Photo: PTI/Mitesh Bhuvad

The party has long portrayed itself as the upholder of the interests of the Marathi manoos, with the inbuilt implication that they are the true people of the city. The party was formed by building up hate against the ‘outsiders’ – not many recall that originally it was also against the much hated Gujaratis, who too wanted Mumbai to be part of Gujarat state. The focus rapidly shifted to the ‘lungiwallahs’, south Indians of various hues, whose restaurants and properties were vandalised (many years later, it was the ‘north Indians’ who were beaten up). Its Hindutva avatar is relatively recent, from the late 1980s onwards, but its main supporters are Marathi speakers who want someone to represent their voice.

Here too, the Sena is in danger of losing support because the big brother of Hindutva is the BJP and Marathi youths could drift towards it. The certainly were very enamoured of Narendra Modi – besides, the rest of the Sena has poor support outside the Mumbai region. Holding on to its constituency is vital – the Kanganas of this world provide a good opportunity to beat that drum.

But the rest of the city, who are not fully trusting of the Shiv Sena, have immediately understood the subtext, that they are still ‘outsiders’ and therefore must watch their words. Ranaut, for all her odious behaviour, is as much a citizen of Mumbai as anyone – as are the handcart puller, the young professional, the businessman, the thousands of men and women who come to the city to work, and live and pay taxes and suffer the indignities and hardships of daily travel.

Mumbai was built by the toil of all these people, as much as that of Maharashtrians, who came here to work in the textile mills and also contributed to culture and intellectual life, but equally by the business acumen of the Parsis, the Gujaratis, the Kutchis, Muslim communities such as the Khojas, Bohras, Konkani’s, of the hard labour of the Kamathi labourers and of many Europeans, Arabs and Jews who came to settle here and build a life. Mumbai’s history is about welcoming people, not about asking them to get out. They are what Mumbai is about, not some fake construct of nativist pride as represented by a political party; and they are at this moment worried about long commutes, rampaging COVID-19, a worsening economic scenario and, inevitably, potholes on the roads. They couldn’t care less about Kangana and her big mouth.

The Sena and its fellow politicians would therefore be doing a signal service if they forget all about her and talk about how they will manage all these problems. Uddhav Thackeray had come in for praise in the early days of the pandemic and the lockdown; he still has a lot of goodwill. He has been discreet in his public utterances; young Aaditya is winning respect.

They need to get back to governance and tell the party to cool it, instead of giving Ranaut the fuel she craves for. And the Sena could also at the same time – for its own future survival if nothing else – spread the message that it is a party for all those who live in Mumbai and love it and it will do its best to make it more liveable.