Sunday, May 29, 2022

To Be An Uttar Bharatiya...

To be Barack Hussein Obama in the United States of America now means a million happy things to his ilk. To be a Shiv Narayan Yadav in Mumbai these days means many things that none of his ilk would wish for themselves...

To Be An Uttar Bharatiya...

To Be An Uttar Bharatiya...
To be Barack Hussein Obama in the United States of America now means a million happy things to his ilk. To be a Shiv Narayan Yadav in Mumbai these days means many things that none of his ilk would wish for themselves...


To be Barack Hussein Obama in the United States of America now means a million happy things to his ilk. To be a Shiv Narayan Yadav in Mumbai these days means many things that none of his ilk would wish for themselves. 

Yadav, by virtue of fulfilling domicile requirement of 15 years, is a Mumbaikar but could be labeled a migrant. Either is an identity, either can be picked upon to suit political ends. Being a migrant anywhere is not easy, much less so in a harsh, crowded, pragmatic to a fault, money-is-honey city like Mumbai. It offers him a half life – a bed shared by three people in turns through 24 hours, 12 inches of space on a clothing line, kitchenette just large enough to store a couple of plates-katoris and a stove to make chai, a corner for pooled-in-and-bought television set to watch Bachchan and Bhojpuri. Yet, migrants flock because Mumbai offers them more than half a chance to make a living. This, after all, is a city built by migrants over two centuries. Over years, depending on political whims, migrants from various parts of the country were made to feel unwelcome by those who claimed a certain amorphous ownership over Mumbai. Now, in the Raj Thackeray era, it is particularly difficult being a migrant from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. And, the difficulty has nothing to do with crowded trains and cramped living spaces.  

o be an Uttar Bharatiya – literally north Indian, but taken to mean those from UP-Bihar – is to wish for a time when the term itself was innocent.

Till not more than a year ago, it was not a pejorative label, not heard, seen, read in Mumbai as disparagingly and widely as it is today. When it was used, it meant little other than someone hailing from the north of India. Now, the innocent term has acquired undesirable nuances. “Ab chhati thok ke kehna ki hum Uttar Bharatiya hain ka matlab hua ke hum kisiko chunauti de rahe hain, halanke aisa kuch bhi nahin hoga,” (To proudly declare that I am an Uttar Bharatiya now means throwing a challenge to someone who is not, though I do not mean it that way at all) whispers Shiv Narayan Yadav, who migrated to the then Bombay over 40 years back, setting up his vegetable stall in Mumbai’s Vile Parle market, among Mumbai’s oldest and third-largest mandis after Dadar and Byculla.  

The suburb of Vile Parle, on the east side, is pucca Maharashtrian. Yadav points out that all vegetable and fruit vendors there have been Uttar Bharatiyas for decades together. ‘Hum to grahak se kuch kuch Marathi bhi bol lete hain,” (We attempt to speak some Marathi with our regular customers) he says. “Lagbhag chaalees saalon ke baad, koi hame yeh to bataye ki hum gair-Marathi, gair-Mumbaikar kaise hue,” (After 40 years here, will someone enlighten me on how I suddenly turned non-Mumbaikar). Yadav asserts that the term Uttar Bharatiya means his roots, his distant past, his origin; Mumbai is his present, his wealth, his life, his future. A quirk of fate, he says, that after servicing Maharashtrians for decades his prevailing identity should be that of an Uttar Bharatiya. Yadav cannot make much sense of this; he only wishes the storm will blow over.  

To be tagged an Uttar Bharatiya in Mumbai now is probably many degrees worse than being one

Ram Narayan exemplifies this dilemma. Shiv Narayan’s call centre-employed son shows the bitterness that the older man masks. “Till the other day I was a Mumbaikar, no one even bothered to ask which part of Uttar Pradesh I came from. I was born here, brought up here. Now, suddenly I am not so much a Mumbaikar but an Uttar Bharatiya,” fumes Ram Narayan. He narrates how his colleagues, educated at least till the graduate level, seem to have re-aligned themselves into community and language based identities. “Marathi speaking friends hang out together. UPwallahas hang out together, separately,” he says. There are many thousands in the Uttar Bharatiya population – estimated at between six and seven million of Mumbai’s total 17 million – who would not answer to the call of an Uttar Bharatiya. Their roots may lie somewhere in Benares or Balia, but their birth certificates are issued in Marathi. This segment finds the controversy hardest to stomach.  

“I have no real home to return to, do you understand,” asks the well-turned out Shivpal Singh with a rage that Raj Thackeray should begin taking note of, “I was born here to parents from UP. I am Mumbai and Mumbai is me.” The strapping 21-year-old who took a degree this June is looking for a job. “Do you think I will get one in this scenario?” he asks rhetorically. At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum is Santlal Yadav, who has been here since he was seven. At 40, he has a modest electrical business servicing repairs in high-end suburban apartments, and a family that he raised in a Mumbai slum. “My young kids do not even properly say the name of our village near Benares. I hardly go there. There’s some land in our name but I have no real connection. I am considered an outsider here and I will be seen as an outsider there too.”  

This section is what Kripa Shankar Singh terms “nobody’s children”. Singh, who started out as potato-onion vendor in Santacruz bylanes in the 70s and rose to become minister of state for home in the Maharashtra cabinet last term, is presently Mumbai Congress chief. “Identity politics has gone on too far, it’s touching and scarring the lives of millions whose only concern is to seek a better life within the parameters set by the Constitution of India. Our government allowed too much latitude to Raj Thackeray.” Singh knows he will have to undertake an immense amount of damage control initiatives if the Congress is to do well in the next assembly and general election. But his deepest distress is about the fault-lines that are drawn. “Mera beta Mumbaikar hai, main Mumbaikar hoon uta his jitna Raj hain. Ab kaun kisko certificate dega,” (My son is a Mumbaikar, I am one too, just as Raj is. Who is to give a certificate to whom)  

To be an Uttar Bharatiya now means living in perpetual anxiety even within one's own basti

It is no one’s case that Uttar Bharatiyas are being identified and harmed by scores all across Mumbai. Statistically speaking, the few sorry incidents do not count as having touched even 0.5 per cent of the community. The couple of taxis vandalized, bhelpuri stalls uprooted from pavements, Dharmadev Rai being beaten up in a local train, and so on – repeated ad nauseum on television screens to wrongly reflect the entire city and its citizens – represent the worst that happened. They are, undeniably, unbecoming of a multi-cultural and pluralistic city like Mumbai. Taken together with reports that scores of Uttar Bharatiyas from Pune, Nashik and other cities have left for their hometowns, they point to an utter and willful neglect of law and order by the state machinery. However, through all this, millions of Uttar Bharatiyas have lived their lives as they otherwise would, doing all that they would, going to all those suburbs and places as they would, engaging in their work and leisure pursuits. The difference between pre-Raj and post-Raj era is so subtle, so insidious and so very gradual that many non-Uttar Bharatiyas have missed it. The difference is not the violence per se, but the anticipation and anxiety of violence anytime anywhere. 

The unspoken, almost indiscernible, difference shows in the manner of living, in the cadences of everyday life. Wives are anxious about husbands going off on their trades. Women are apprehensive that some “sarphira” speaking in Marathi will storm into their basti when the men are away. Men worry about what lies in store for them at workplaces – the dairies, the vegetable and fruit mandis, the security offices, telephone offices, railway counters and so on. Children in their teens, even pre-teens, approach the neighbourhood cricket gully with some trepidation at remarks that are sure to come their way. The family from UP or Bihar who now takes the suburban local is wary of co-commuters, some even yanking their little children off from the window seat to offer it a man who obviously is a Maharashtrian. The neighbourhod ubiquitous bhelpuriwallah, whose favourite parking place was near the Shiv Sena office, now wonders if he should move to a “safer” corner up ahead on that street, or to another street altogether. Every other taxi driver wonders if he should venture into certain areas for his fares. Autorickshaw owners, many of them, drivers themselves, have to put up with the odd passenger who will terminate the ride with a slap instead of the metered fare because he is “a bloody Bihari”. Autorickshaw owners debated if they should “buy over” Raj Thackeray’s goodwill by sending him Diwali mithai. Security guards in modest to upscale housing societies face the prospect of being replaced by their Maharashtrian counterparts. Commercial transporters wonder if they should pen Marathi catch-phrases at the back of the trucks and vans. Film industry workers are anxious. Zari factories, neighbourhood atta chakkis, carpenters and painters, all worry if they will function as they always have. The door-to-door fishwallah, who replaced the traditional Maharashtrian Koli women vendors, are scared that their trade will be snatched away. And so on, it goes…. 

The below-surface but continuous state of anxiety is a barometer of how Raj Thackeray’s campaign has devoured into the typical Mumbai life. “They don’t feel safe, comfortable, at home, anymore. Uttar Bharatiyas are constantly looking over the shoulder for that Raj-type Maharashtrian though the fact remains that Mumbai runs on their services,” says Sanjay Nirupam, former Shiv Sena MP and Thackeray-acolyte, now Congress spokesperson in the state, who was instrumental in organizing the Chhat Puja four-five years back on the scale that made Raj see red. “I say this not as defiance, but as the truth. Yeh Uttar Bharatiya pura shahar ko dho rahe hain. Aap inko nikal do, Mumbai bandh pad jayege” (They carry the burden of te city. Throw them out and Mumbai will come to a grinding halt). Rues Vishwanath Sachdev, noted Hindi journalist, political commentator and writer, “What is happening is a dangerous threat to Mumbai’s composite culture.” 

Kurar village in suburban Malad is an Uttar Bharatiya settlement. Poisar village bridging the suburbs of Kandivli and Borivli in far north Mumbai is home to not less than a lakh Biharis. Across the city’s suburbs are pockets of Bihari and UP homes, ghettos if you like. Even in their own bastis now, the anxieties and apprehensions are palpable. “I sent my wife and kids to UP for Diwali and stayed out of the basti as far as possible. Who knows what shape a regular basti fight will take,” says Bhim Singh, a security guard, whose neighbouring basti comprises Maharashtrians. In downtown city, at the famous Mahalakshmi dhobhighat, Rakesh Gupta is livid that he must account for yet another variable in his otherwise unsettled life. “My grandfather migrated to Mumbai. My father was born here. I was born here. I sell fish. My brothers work at the dhobhighat. This is the only life and home I have, but when Raj’s men came here they threatened to come again if we didn’t take the next train to UP,” says Gupta. None from this biradari have taken that train, but a few are weighing the option. Sachdev and other worry that this kind of social disturbance may explode in ways we cannot now imagine.

To be an Uttar Bharatiya in Mumbai now means watching political games being played in one's name

The man-on-the-street Uttar Bharatiya is astute enough to recognize that politics and political one-upmanship lie at the heart of this unnecessary campaign against his identity. If he is unforgiving of Raj Thackeray and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, he is equally critical of the stream of politicians – Mulayam Singh, Amar Singh, Mayawati, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan, Nitish Kumar – who have descended upon Mumbai quite regularly during the last four-five years to either establish or consolidate their base here. “Yeh sab to rajniti ka khel hain” (All this is a political game), says Bharat Singh who has lived 30 of his 39 years in a Mumbai basti and works as a security guard. He can tell how many times so-called workers of either Mulayam’s SP or Mayawati’s BSP have come into his basti, offered people inducements to attend rallies and so on. He can also tell stories of those local Congressmen who tried to compete with the UP leaders.  

After the de-limitation exercise, Mumbai and Thane account for nearly 70 seats in the state legislature, almost 80 per cent of them in urban areas. The Uttar Bharatiya vote can make a difference between winning and losing in as many as 40-43 seats, according to a Congress internal dossier. This is the piece of the pie that Mayawati, Mulayam Singh and Lalu Prasad Yadav, all are eyeing as the springboard to make their base in Mumbai. This is typically their voter back home in UP and Bihar; his support in Mumbai is priceless when they seek to establish themselves in the city. Leaders unabashedly used festivals and occasions to promote their brand of politics. So, UP divas was celebrated in a big way by the SP. Chhat Puja had Nirupam’s and Congress’ blessings. However, the typical SP/BSP or RJD voter back home has been, traditionally, a Congress voter here in Mumbai. “Whoever forms the next government in Maharashtra will have taken the north Indian vote with him. Otherwise it’s not possible,” argues Nirupam. Arch rival Kripa Shankar Singh agrees. Between them is a royal battle to be the voice of the Uttar Bharatiya within the Congress!  

The Shiv Sena, recognizing the significance of the Uttar Bharatiya vote, made several overtures to the community through their business leaders, community organizations, festival committees and so on. Uddhav Thackeray imagined that his inclusive “Mee Mumbaikar” campaign would nullify years of the Sena’s antagonism towards the community. All this while, the Congress was hard put to dream up strategies to win the Marathi vote which is equally crucial in certain pockets of Mumbai and Thane. Into this cauldron stepped in Raj Thackeray, who saw the potential of crystallizing the Marathi votebank for himself, at the expense of every other political party in the state. The Sena is caught between the Marathi and Uttar Bharatiya vote. The Congress, which happily allowed Raj to knock its principal opposition the Sena, now risks losing its appeal among Uttar Bharatiyas after it dragged feet on action against Raj. “Who speaks for us now? Those who do so in Delhi are doing it for their own ends too,” remarks Saheblal Pandey, autorickshaw owner-driver, who can recite the Gita and who educated his son to join the elite nuclear establishment BARC here.  

To be an Uttar Bharatiya in Mumbai today means that you belong to the bottom zones of the socio-economic ladder

There is a Prakash Jha in the Mumbai film industry whose affection for his native Bihar is up there for all to see. There is a Shekhar Suman who had rarely hidden his Bihari roots. There is an Amitabha Singh, from Benares, whose cinematography skills are in much demand by the advertising and film industry. There are scores of others, hailing from UP and Bihar, spread across the entertainment world, the corporate sector, the service industries and the like. Raj’s campaign, though centred briefly on the Bachchans and Bhojprui star Manoj Tiwari to gain maximum national publicity, has cleverly stayed away from the upper ends of the socio-economic ladder. The anti-Uttar Bharatiya sentiment is directed against the lower and lower-middle class Uttar Bharatiya by his Maharashtrian counterpart.  

The anti-Uttar Bharatiya campaign makes me hang my head in shame, remarked the noted Marathi author Dilip Chitre, writing in Hindi. Its focus on the poorest of the poor, the most defenseless and voiceless, the weakest link in the economic chain like the factory workers and construction labour, is a barely-disguised class war under the garb of a regional identity campaign. “It is easier to stoke the poor out-of-work Marathi youth to run amok against the Uttar Bharatiya than to provide him with skills and jobs,” says Dr R Tiwari, former head of Hindi department in the University of Mumbai. Some Maharashtrian commentators could not agree more. These are people who want to remind Raj, and others like him, that priests were specially invited from Benares to lead Chhatrapati Shivaji’s coronation. Even if, to give Raj the benefit of doubt, the Railway carried an anti-Marathi bias in its recruitment, there is hardly any justification for the fact that nearly 40 different services in the city are controlled by Uttar Bharatiyas who sensed and seized the opportunities as they came. Raj’s response, briefly, was to organize classes to teach Maharashtrians the art of bhel-making. It fizzled out.