Who does he speak for?



First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

Those are famous lines from a poem by Martin Niemöller, a prominent Protestant pastor who opposed the Nazi regime in the 1930s.

And the lines are very chilling. I am always reminded of them whenever I come across xenophobia in modern times and I never fail to speak up (or, more correctly, write) for people who are targeted by bigots and narrow-minded parochial politicians of the day.

But I have always been heartened to note that, unlike Pastor Niemöller, there are many who speak up for today’s victims of xenophobia and against petty politicians who whip up such divisive sentiments.

In the context of Bal Thackeray and his numerous followers, the case for ‘outsiders’ was never more strengthened than when Sachin Tendulkar made a bland statement at the height of the Shiv Sena’s agitation against north Indians last year. “Bombay belongs to all,” he said adding for good measure that he was a proud Mumbaikar for the very reason of the city’s inclusive nature.

Nothing could have been more devastating for Bal Thackeray than for a fellow Maharashtrian, not just a national icon but an international celebrity as Tendulkar, to speak up for the Sena’s targets and therefore point out to the world that the Sena/Thackeray’s view was not that of other people belonging to the state and that Thackeray, perhaps, stood in a minority of just one or two.

The Sena, of course, was not one to take that lying down – so he lambasted Sachin through the columns of his party mouthpiece, Saamna, asking him to keep himself to just playing cricket and stay off the political turf for that was something he knew nothing about and would be better off leaving it to, well, his betters.

The kind of instant scorching reaction that Thackeray got from fellow Maharashtrians for targeting a greater icon than he could ever be to any of them, took him aback and he had to wisely abandon the move to prove Sachin wrong.

But soon thereafter, there was another Maharashtrian (and national) icon who spoke up for non-Maharashtrians – noted singer Asha Bhosale and this time in context of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena president Raj Thackeray’s targeting of North Indians living in Maharashra.

Her words were virtually the same as Tendulkar’s and left Raj, the Sena tiger’s nephew, fuming and looking rather foolish and red-faced and, like his uncle before him, isolated from the rest of his community.

He is also now mad at nightingale Lata Mangeshkar for choosing Bal Thackeray above him. Lata had sung at a fund raiser for Raj’s Shiv Udyog Sena, a sort of private employment agency, during which he raised crores that have since gone unaccounted. But that was when the Shiv Sena was a united force and the Thackerays, all, belonged to one family.

After Raj’s split with his uncle, Lata chose to sing for Balasaheb at another Shiv Sena do a couple of years ago and that cut Raj Thackeray to the quick. He saw that as taking/switching sides.

So when Sachin Tendulkar moved into his new bungalow and it was discovered that his papers were not quite in order, Raj chose to root for Sachin demanding why the municipal corporation – incidentally controlled by the Shiv Sena and, by association, his cousin Uddhav Thackeray — had chosen to slap a fine on the national icon rather than writing off his dues for the very fact that he was such an icon.

Of course, he hoped to gain Sachin’s sympathy and support but the wise man that he is, the cricketing legend did not rise to the bait and as far as he might be concerned he has said what he had to say and there is really little to choose between the Thackerays and the Thackerays.

But with civic elections round the corner, Raj has chosen to make life as difficult as possible for his cousin Uddhav. And seeing that the Mangeshkar sisters (Lata and Asha) are no longer with him after he went xenophobic and began to smash up North Indians and other outsiders making a living in the city, they are now on his firing line.

It is a well-known fact that the sisters had approached Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh in 2000 when the state government first mooted a second flyover for Peddar road and appealed to him to scrap the project — for fear that the dust raised by the bridge would get into their homes and, therefore, their throats and threaten their golden voices.

With such iconic personalities as the Mangeshkar sisters opposing the flyover, Deshmukh did not dare go ahead with the project though the government found it difficult to junk it either, since this arterial bridge is a crucial need for the city. Recognising that fact themselves over the last decade, the Mangeshkar sisters have bought new apartments elsewhere to escape the dust and grit from getting into their present homes should the flyover project be revived at any time. They also ceased to be actively part of the residents’ movement to oppose the flyover, realising that they were, perhaps, being used by other apartment owners on Peddar Road for their own ends – and that a project that could benefit millions, could not be discarded just for the convenience of a handful few.

However, after Prithviraj Chavan took over as chief minister, the government began to have other ideas, most significant of them being to develop a coastal road from point to point where the flyover was supposed to begin and end. The extension of the current Bandra-Worli sea link is also believed to be one which will further ease traffic to the main business district of Bombay.

So with the government having finally made up its mind to junk the Peddar Road flyover for reasons other than the Mangeshkar sisters’ convenience, it is now Raj Thackeray’s turn to thunder at not just the government and his uncle and cousin but also at Lata and Asha.

I do not think the MNS has any presence in South Bombay and not too many of them might need to traverse Peddar Road on their day to day business. But Raj is now certain that it is the Mangeshkar sisters who have tood in the way of the flyover and has threatened action if the government junks the project in their favour.

When the Shiv Sena came to the sisters’ defense, he taunted them with the taxes slapped on Sachin Tendulkar: if you really cared about Maharashtrians, or aapla manoos (our people) as it were, why did you not save him from the embarrassment of those taxes, he queried.

He was clearly dividing the turf: keep the Mangeshkars, for all I care, he seemed to be saying, Sachin Tendulkar is all mine.

But there has been no response from either the singing sisters or India’s greatest batsman. For they are what they are and they belong not just to Bombay or Maharashtra but to the entire country and perhaps even the world.

Meanwhile, Raj’s political gambit might just have fallen short of the results he might have wished to achieve. Very recently, as I was talking to a shopkeeper who stood to be displaced by the new bridge if t it were ever to come up, he said, “Tell me how to get a gun for myself. And I will shoot Raj Thackeray the moment he steps into my ilaaka (turf). Who is he to decide for us and destroy our lives?”

The shopkeeper, too, is aapla manoos. As ‘aapla’ as Raj Thackeray would wish. But like the good pastor from the Nazi era he might soon be standing alone. In quite the opposite context – for speaking too much for people who don’t care for his divisive ways.

He should now just speak for himself.

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