It was painful watching Karan Johar’s video, proclaiming his nationalism, pleading for the peaceful release of his film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. Even more disappointing was Bollywood film producers’ subsequent surrender to Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray’s demand that they not include Pakistani actors in films, Karan Johar pledging to donate Rs 5 crore to the Army Welfare Fund. But perhaps the film industry should not be faulted. Their submission speaks of a larger and longer historical failure of the ruling political class to defend democracy.
The agreement hammered out between the producers and Raj Thackeray, under the auspices of the Maharashtra government, is reminiscent of an incident in 1969. Then, Bal Thackeray declared that if the Central government did not cede the Marathi-speaking districts of Karnataka (then Mysore) to Maharashtra, he would ban New Delhi’s leaders from entering Mumbai. He carried out his threat in February 1969, when Morarji Desai, the deputy prime minister, visited. As Desai’s motorcade attempted to avoid the Shiv Sena crowd, all hell broke loose. Thackeray and other Sena leaders were arrested. Sena activists went on an angry rampage, burning shops, torching buses, attacking police stations. The army was put on alert. The Congress government stood helpless. Ultimately, it had to suffer the ignominy of requesting Thackeray to issue an appeal for calm from his prison cell. The government distributed his statement. The Sena tiger had become the keeper of the zoo.
The Congress government’s failure to maintain order was not new. Immediately after its founding in 1966, the Sena under Bal Thackeray emerged as a populist force. In the name of pressing the claims of the Marathi manoos, it attacked South Indians, targeted Muslims and rioted on the streets. Maharashtra’s government under V.P. Naik watched the Sena’s rise from the sidelines — and even encouraged it because guns were trained on the Congress’s political enemy, the communists.
The Sena grew from strength to strength, practicing the politics of violence on the streets. In 1998, the Srikrishna Commission indicted the Sena and several police officers for their role in the 1992-93 communal riots and recommended their prosecution. The Congress-NCP government, however, had little appetite to uphold the rule of law. It zealously prosecuted conspirators of the 1993 bomb blasts — but lost its nerve in holding the rioters to account.
It stood by when the MNS ran rampant in 2008, cadres beating up people from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Under pressure, the government briefly arrested the MNS chief, but did little to uphold the rights of North Indians. Two years later, Bal Thackeray’s grandson, Aditya, set fire to copies of Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey, demanding its exclusion from Mumbai University’s curriculum. Instead of standing up to intimidation, the vice-chancellor meekly surrendered. The Congress chief minister went along.
Protest and demonstrations are a vital part of democracy. But the populist politics perfected by Bal Thackeray, now practiced by his nephew Raj, is something else. Democracy thrives on difference. A discussion of dissenting opinions, a negotiation between varied groups and divergent ideas, are the stuff of democracy. The Constitution provides for expression and settling of differences through political parties, the press, courts, civil society organisations and, of course, street protests and demonstrations.
Populist politics, on the other hand, thinks of difference only in terms of “us” versus “them”, the “people” against their “enemies”. There is no acknowledgment that the “people” may hold varied opinions — no, the “people” are a homogenous body whose opinions and demands are singular and expressed in direct physical action. The authorities must immediately acquiesce, for the “people” have spoken. There is no place for constitutional rights and legal procedures; the “people”’s grievances require swift redress, without the intervention of democracy’s mediating institutions.
With the ruling political class unable or unwilling to vigorously defend democratic rights, civil society institutions retreated. Bombay became Mumbai officially — pressure grew on the city to shed its multicultural heritage. Bollywood buckled; leading actors and producers regularly appeased Bal Thackeray during his lifetime. Recently, populism has taken on the toxic colour of hyper nationalism too. With Hindutva leaders and television channels fanning the flames, populist fires now threaten to consume any difference as “anti-national”. The nation demands, as one television anchor regularly thunders, that its enemies be identified and eliminated. Raj Thackeray spotted one in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil and demanded that its screening be halted. It did not matter that the Censor Board had granted its certification to the film.
What is particularly troubling is that the Fadnavis government orchestrated the agreement between MNS, film producers and Karan Johar, blessing Raj Thackeray’s populist outrage. But then, the rot set in nearly five decades ago. The decay has only worsened as dominant political parties have privileged short-term gains over democratic principles and institutions. The only silver lining in the present mess is that several retired service officers have chosen to defend democracy and refused to play along with faux nationalism.