In praise of a film star who has seen off the violent mob running India's commercial capital
Feb 18th 2010 | From The Economist print edition
LAW-ABIDING Mumbaikars, as residents of India's tinsel-town are known, celebrated the release of Bollywood's latest offering with gusto this week. The film, "My name is Khan", depicts the fictional trials of Rizwan Khan, an Indian Muslim with Asperger's syndrome, living in California. Shortly after September 11th 2001 Mr Khan's six-year-old son is lynched in a racist reprisal. This leads him to track down President George Bush and tell him: "My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist."
Despite mixed reviews, the film generated $18m in ticket sales in its first three days, doubling the previous record for an Indian film. That was also despite a slow start in Mumbai. Of 63 cinemas due to release the film on February 12th only 13 did so. They were deterred, for that day only, by threats from a gangsterish political party, Shiv Sena, which controls the city's municipal council and is the main opposition in the state of Maharashtra. A Hindu-nationalist outfit, and champion of Maharashtra's Marathi speakers, Shiv Sena had a grudge against the film's leading man, Shah Rukh Khan, one of Bollywood's biggest stars. Mr Khan, a Muslim, and a co-owner of a cricket team, the Kolkata Knight Riders, had offended Shiv Sena's leader, Bal Thackeray, by speaking up for some Pakistani cricketers disgracefully excluded from the Indian Premier League. Unless Mr Khan apologised, Mr Thackeray swore to disrupt the film's release.
That should have been enough to make Mr Khan grovel. With an army of ethnic-Maratha hooligans, known as Shiv Sainiks, at his disposal, Mr Thackeray has terrorised Mumbai's teeming streets for four decades. Non-Maratha migrants, Muslims and foreign cricketers, Pakistani and Australian, have all been targets of his tirades. His followers have been implicated in hundreds of murders, notably in a 1993 anti-Muslim pogrom. Yet Mr Thackeray has hardly been censured. The Congress party, which rules Maharashtra and heads the national coalition government, is loth to upset him. So are Mumbai's tycoons and film stars. But Mr Khan refused to bend the knee. Then the state government, for once, swore to keep order. And Mr Thackeray backed down.
This excellent turn of events, however, invited a question: how is it that liberal, secular India has suffered Mr Thackeray and his thugs for so long? One reason is an abiding sensitivity towards language-based agitations—after a spate, in the 1950s, that posed the greatest threat to India's survival. It led to a reorganisation of the state's provinces into linguistically more homogeneous units: including, in 1960, the creation of mainly Marathi-speaking Maharashtra. Opposed by India's then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, the arrangement has proved remarkably effective. Yet Nehru's fear that the reorganisation would harden regionalist sentiments has also been partly justified.
Mr Thackeray, who founded his party in 1966, began by attacking poor south-Indian migrants to Bombay, as Mumbai was then called. Never mind that Mumbai was barely a Maratha city at all. Almost a third of its population was non-Maratha then; over half is today. Its wealth was created largely by Gujarati, Rajasthani and Parsee traders.
India's democracy has spawned many opportunist outfits of the Shiv Sena type, fermenters of ethnic, religious or caste-based grievance. But it is also in part self-correcting. No communal interest is big enough to secure state-level or national power. To forge alliances extremists have to moderate. For Mr Thackeray, this meant softening his pro-Maratha oratory; but, alas, not the anti-Muslim slant he shared with his main ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). During the 1990s the two parties won power in Maharashtra—which allowed Mr Thackeray to rename Bombay—and, as part of a broader coalition, in Delhi.
Yet their Hinduist scheme now looks stunted: the BJP and Shiv Sena have lost successive state-level and general elections. A firebrand nephew of Mr Thackeray has meanwhile formed a breakaway party, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). In response, Shiv Sena has resumed its pro-Maratha attack. Mr Thackeray has thundered against India's greatest cricketer, Sachin Tendulkar, a Mumbaikar who says he's Indian first, and its richest man, Mukesh Ambani, who says Mumbai is for all. But this cannot disguise Shiv Sena's slide. Congress has hastened it, partly by turning a blind eye to the crimes of the MNS, which, by splitting the Shiv Sena's vote, helped Congress win the most recent state election. This reflects badly on India's ruling party but is in fact grimly consistent with its long reluctance to enforce the law against Shiv Sena—a big reason for the impunity Mr Thackeray has enjoyed.
My name is Gandhi and I am a future prime minister
Prone to communal conniption, India needs enlightened leadership, which Congress has often failed to provide. Instead of defending India's liberal traditions against the chauvinists, it has tended to copy them. In Maharashtra, for example, it has adopted a less rabid brand of nativism than Shiv Sena's. In neighbouring Gujarat, torn by Hindu-Muslim strife, it has preached "soft Hindutva", a milder version of the BJP's hate-filled creed.
So a recent visit to Mumbai by Rahul Gandhi, Nehru's great-grandson and Congress's next leader, was significant. He had spoken up for Mumbai's battered migrants, prompting the Shiv Sainiks to threaten protests. Yet, unabashed, he came and took a train-ride through the city. For some who dream of Congress improving under Mr Gandhi, this was promising.
But it could not deny Shah Rukh Khan the spotlight. A likeable superstar, he has a record of fighting liberal causes. After Pakistani terrorists ravaged Mumbai in 2008, he sought to avert an anti-Muslim backlash. He is close to Congress, and said to be mulling a political career. Unusually in India, which has a history of venal, useless actor-politicians, that might not be a bad thing.