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Battle for Hindutva turf

in Mumbai

SHIV SENA supremo Bal Thackeray's announcement on January 21 of a cessation of the organisation's programme of agitation against the India-Pakistan cricket series came only after its key objectives were realised. The Shiv Sena had succeeded in establishing itself as a more authentic party of the Hindu Right compared to its alliance partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and had for the first time been able to project power outside its traditional bases. Perhaps most disturbing, the Shiv Sena has shown that it can compel no lower a source of authority than the Union Home Minister to beg for peace.

The power thus conceded to the Shiv Sena by the grace of the BJP-led Government in New Delhi is certain to be put to use in the build-up to the Assembly elections in Maharashtra, due by March 2000. The party understands that aggressive communal mobilisation is its sole hope of retaining power. For this larger agenda, the war against the cricket series was just a springboard.

The office of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) at the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai was vandalised on January 18, apparently as part of a strategy to broadcast the Shiv Sena's power to the BJP. The attack, timed to coincide with Union Home Minister L.K. Advani's visit to Mumbai to inaugurate a suburban flyover, was carried out with precision. At 2-30 p.m., some 70 Shiv Sena workers walked into the BCCI offices and proceeded to vandalise it with hockey sticks. BCCI executive secretary Sharad Diwadkar and a visitor from an insurance agency were injured; a 94-year-old woman was hurt when a hockey stick that was thrown in the air shattered window panes in the neighbourhood.

In the 15 minutes it took for the police to arrive, the Shiv Sena cadres completed their task and disappeared. Several icons of India's cricket history lay broken or damaged, including the 1983 World Cup and the 1998 Independence Cup trophies. The attack was part of broad sequence of actions by the Shiv Sena against the India-Pakistan series; last fortnight, the pitch at the Ferozeshah Kotla Stadium in New Delhi was dug up. While the Shiv Sena proudly claimed responsibility for the digging up of the Kotla pitch, those who attacked the BCCI office made no reference to their party affiliation.

The Shiv Sena's claims that it had nothing to do with the attack on the BCCI office were, on the face of it, absurd. Maharashtra Sports Minister Pratap Jadhav, speaking to journalists in Karad on January 17, had asked Indian cricket players to boycott the series or "be ready to face the consequences". If the players refused to participate, he argued, the series would come to an end. The next day Jadhav denied that he had made the remarks, but it is highly unlikely that all the journalists present at his conference misquoted him. Shiv Sena MLA Vijay Loke had earlier threatened to vandalise hotels that put up the cricket teams. The Shiv Sena had also organised protests against International Cricket Council (ICC) president Jagmohan Dalmiya in Calcutta the same day, making their anger with the cricket establishment clear.

Significantly, all 14 accused who were arrested in connection with the attack on the BCCI office were Shiv Sena members. Chief Minister Manohar Joshi claimed that the Mumbai Police had acted without evidence, but one senior officer told Frontline that the arrests were made on the basis of hard information. Joshi's suggestion that the attackers were in fact out to defame the Shiv Sena is implausible, since in that event they would have identified themselves as members of that organisation at the BCCI office. Clearly the Shiv Sena had intended at the outset to deny its involvement. Several of the 14 persons arrested had punched time cards at work that morning, and Joshi's own office at the BCCI, of which he is vice-president, was smashed.

Trophies that were damaged in the attack on the BCCI office in Mumbai on January 18.

WHY then did the Shiv Sena carry out the attack? One reason may be that it wanted to make clear to its own supporters that it was not afraid of the Union Government. But the real message appears to have been directed at the BJP. Several key figures in the State unit of the BJP had been incensed by the digging up of the Ferozeshah Kotla pitch since it came just weeks after an informal deal was worked out as part of which the Shiv Sena was to terminate its campaign in return for an assurance that no matches would be played in Mumbai. Thackeray's undisguised attacks on Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee over the cricket series, too, had angered many in the BJP, leading to repeated suggestions that it was willing to terminate its alliance with the Shiv Sena over the issue.

Those suggestions had come in several forms. On the day the BCCI office was stormed, Joshi was forced to call off a Cabinet meeting owing to disputes between the alliance partners on the supply of free electricity to farmers and the issue of cotton procurement prices. Demands by Deputy Chief Minister and BJP leader Gopinath Munde for a hike in cotton procurement prices had led to a slanging match at a Cabinet meeting a week earlier. There had also been sustained skirmishes between the BJP and the Shiv Sena over statehood for Maharashtra's Vidarbha region, a demand to which the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has long been committed and the Shiv Sena has historically been opposed. At a two-day BJP meeting before the attack on the BCCI office, there were prolonged discussions on the prospect of contesting the Assembly elections without an alliance with the Shiv Sena.

Thackeray evidently decided to call the BJP's bluff. The attack on the BCCI office was timed to force the issue and invite the BJP to act as it wished. Although national leaders of the BJP claimed that they had been pushed to the brink by the Shiv Sena, the specifics of their declarations suggested that Thackeray had succeeded in securing a prompt capitulation. Speaking in Pune on the evening of January 18, Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Pramod Mahajan criticised the Shiv Sena's position on the cricket series as well Sports Minister Jadhav's statements, but said the alliance was under no threat. Advani himself maintained a stoic silence on the vandalism.

The closest the BJP could come to hitting out at the Shiv Sena was through party president Kushabhau Thakre, who made vague noises about the future of the alliance being uncertain. "The alliance with the Shiv Sena is on now," he said in New Delhi on January 20, "but I do not know what will happen in the future." Even this mild warning was tempered by the caveat that the BJP was committed "to keep the Congress(I) from power". What pressure there was on the BJP came from informal allies and other alliance partners such as the Telugu Desam Party, the National Conference and the Trinamul Congress, all of which have electoral constituencies that are hostile to the Shiv Sena's Hindu ultra-nationalism.

Most critical of all, Thackeray's position had the support of powerful elements within the RSS itself. The January 16 issue of the RSS journal Organiser had argued against the series, suggesting that "the (Union) government should not stand on prestige in this endeavour... After all, cricket is not an essential endeavour. We can live without it."

WITH the BJP's political establishment out on a limb, Advani's humiliating journey to Mumbai became inevitable. Although the BJP, and much of the media, claimed that the Shiv Sena had backed down, precisely the opposite was true. Advani's meeting with Thackeray made clear that the BJP was unable to resist pressures from either the Shiv Sena or the RSS-Vishwa Hindu Parishad hawks in its own ranks. Even the stated reason for Thackeray's calling off the protests - the need to avoid giving political mileage to the Congress(I) - illustrated that the BJP's threats to sever ties had no meaning. Further, the alliance Government at the Centre cannot risk the loss of support of six Shiv Sena MPs. Nor can the BJP choose the option of firm action against the Shiv Sena without alienating its own cadres.

After his meeting with Advani Thackeray's tone was buoyant. In a statement published on January 23, he expressed his continued opposition to the tour and venomously attacked the BJP. He claimed that the ban had to be revoked because Vajpayee and Advani were "pressurised by anti-national forces..." "(But) our relationship with Vajpayee and Advani transcends the realm of politics," he explained. "We had expected that those who have stooped low to allow Pakistan's cricket tour of India would welcome our decision, if not support us open-heartedly. But the whole episode has become so reprehensible that (Bal Gangadhar) Tilak and (Gopal Ganesh) Agarkar would have hung their heads in shame had they been alive."

Such aggressive polemic suggests that the Sena is bracing itself for war on the streets. The consequences of these developments are certain to be serious. For one, the Shiv Sena can now proceed with aggressive communal politics secure in the knowledge that the BJP, which fears that such mobilisations will erode its own constituency, will not resist.

Clearly, Bal Thackeray has not retired hurt to the pavilion: well pleased with the Shiv Sena's score in the first innings, he has merely declared the innings closed at a time of his choosing, and is planning his strategy for the second knock in this test of political strength.


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Last updated: February 23, 2000 .