Political Battle Over Regional Vs National Identity/Languages

November 19, 2009 by  


By Nilofar Suhrawardy, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)  India Correspondent

NEW DELHI/MUMBAI: Samajwadi Party (SP) leader Abu Asim Azmi’s decision to take oath in Hindi in Maharashtra Vidhan Bhavan on November 9 has not only enhanced his political importance but has also proved politically damaging for his rivals. Defying Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS)’s diktat for taking oath only in Marathi, Azmi took oath in Hindi. Though the few minutes, during which Azmi was manhandled and slapped by MNS activists inside the Vidhan Bhavan for taking oath in Hindi must have been traumatic for the SP leader, they have earned him substantial media coverage, adding to his political stature within his own party and across the country.

Amid the backdrop of SP faring poorly in recently held by polls, the worst shock of which is defeat of SP chief Mulayam Singh’s daughter-in-law Dimple from Firozabad, the party apparently is counting on Azmi’s newly earned popularity to help the party improve its political image. Dimple was defeated by Congress candidate Raj Babbar by more than 85,000 votes. The party’s poor performance is linked with it having lost Muslim votes because of its alliance with Kalyan Singh, who was the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and a member of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), when the Babari Masjid was demolished in 1992. The SP has thus decided to distance itself from Kalyan Singh and felicitate Azmi to gain the lost Muslim-base.

“Azmi upheld the prestige of the national language in the anti-Hindi environment prevailing in Maharashtra,” the SP stated at its meeting in Lucknow (November 14). Signaling that SP’s political friendship with Kalyan Singh had ceased, Mulayam Singh said:  “He is not a part of the Samajwadi Party. Kalyan Singh himself says he is not part of any party.”

Interestingly, the political limelight gained by Azmi on taking oath in Hindi has prompted quite a few Marathi celebrities to clarify their stand on their regional and national identity. Cricket maestro Sachin Tendulkar said: “Mumbai belongs to India. That is how I look at it. And I am a Maharashtrian and I am extremely proud of that but I am an Indian first.” (November 13) Tendulkar’s stand has certainly added some fire to the fight on “Maratha-issue” and also prompted more politicians to add their voice to it. 

Criticizing Tendulkar strongly for his remarks, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray said in his party mouthpiece, Samana: “By making these remarks, you have got run-out on the pitch of Marathi psyche. You were not even born when the Marathi Manoos got Mumbai and 105 Marathi people sacrificed their lives to get Mumbai.”
Though it is not the first time that Thackeray has made such comments, they have invited greater political attention than before because of “Marathi-identity” being strongly in news.  Not surprisingly, Tendulkar has won strong applause from various political leaders for his comments. “His statement has been made in the true sportsman spirit. Though he is a Maharashtrian, he plays for the country. This (Tendulkar’s comment) will unite the entire country,” according to Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan. 

Among others who expressed appreciation for Tendulkar’s remarks and also congratulated him for taking the stand are Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, Minority Affairs Minister (central cabinet) Salman Khurshid and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Lalu Prasad. Thackeray has been “clean-bowled” by Tendulkar, Khurshid said.

Thackeray’s criticism of Tendulkar has not won any support from the saffron brigade. Taking a guarded stand on the controversy raised in Maharashtra over “Marathi,” without specifically referring to the issue, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat said at a public rally in Pune: “There are certain issues of Marathi-speaking people and agitations on this can be justified. But it should not be at the cost of national integration and harmony.” (November 15)  Declining to question Tendulkar’s stand, BJP leader Arun Jaitley said in New Delhi: “If Maharashtrian says he is proud of being a Maharashtrian as well as an Indian, then I find this statement absolutely correct.” (November 16)

Welcoming Tendulkar’s stand, Azmi said: “I admire Sachin Tendulkar to have not got cowed down by Shiv Sena’s intimidation tactics and having proudly declared that he was an Indian first. Sachin’s remark must make the Sena ruffians understand that after all, Maharashtra is like any other state – a part of the Indian nation.”  Azmi is also hopeful that his party would be able to regain the support of Muslim-vote. On this, he said: “I welcome my party president’s decision to distance himself from the man who was responsible for demolition of the Babari Masjid. I wonder what had led him to shake hands with Kalyan Singh, but thankfully realization dawned on my Netaji (Mulayam Singh), who finally decided to part ways with that man.” “I am sure that Muslims who had chosen to distance themselves from the SP because of this reason, would once again return to stand by Mulayam, whose contribution to the cause of minorities was unmatched,” Azmi said. SP has a long political innings to play, during which it certainly is counting on projecting Azmi as its Muslim face. It is to be watched whether the limelight gained by Azmi on taking oath in Hindi will help turn the political trend in SP’s favor or not. 

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