But the truth is that regionalism or sub-nationalism has always existed in one form or another — from Potti Sriramulu’s non-violent fasts for linguistically defined states to Maharashtra Navnirman Sena’s (MNS) and ULFA’s violent attacks on ‘north Indians’. Regional parochialism has long been part and parcel of the idea of India.
Surinder S Jodhka, sociologist and author of books like Contested Transformations: Changing Economies and Identities in Contemporary India and Community and Identities: Contemporary Discourses on Culture and Politics in India, has tracked the growth of regional identities in India for decades. He says, “What we are seeing now in Mumbai is a bit different from the past. In the ’50s and ’60s, regionalism was based on linguistic differences and identities. In the ’80s, it was driven by development and the sons-of-the-soil argument. And now, it’s being stoked by cultural and economic anxiety.”
Jodhka says that this is extraordinary considering the profound changes underway everywhere in India. “Even people in the south are now learning some Hindi so that they can communicate with people from other parts of the country. It’s no longer a political issue.” The academic insists regionalism is on the decline in India.
Perhaps. But virulent or not, regionalism has repeatedly raised its ugly head in disparate parts of India. Consider this:
South Indians were the target in Bombay in the 1960s
All migrants were regarded with hostility in Punjab in the 1980s
Bengalis were treated badly in Assam in the ’90s
Migrants to Mumbai from UP and Bihar have been at the receiving end since 2007, when Raj Thackeray formed the MNS.
What has happened in Mumbai in the past few years — hapless taxi drivers and roadside vendors hit and kicked and their paltry possessions destroyed in full view of the watching TV cameras — has shaken the Indian dream. Mumbai columnist Aroon Tikekar recently wrote, “As Mumbai became the dreamland for all Indians, its commercial success created a wide gap between success and failure, wealth and poverty. Politicians always have a field day in such situations and so was the case in Mumbai. Extreme successes bred disrespect for law; extreme failures gave birth to discontent. This combined to increase social tensions.”
Experts define regionalism as a feeling or an ideology particular to people who live in a geographical space characterized by a unique language and culture. It produces the self-belief that they are sons of the soil and every opportunity in their land must come to them first. Regionalism is mainly used for expedient political gains. But not always. “Raj Thackeray has often said that young Maharashtrians don’t speak Marathi. It’s a cultural issue for them. It’s also opportunistic politics,” says Jodhka. “We are seeing this kind of tendency in other parts of the country as well.”