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Kanika Datta: The business of bigotry

Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 

Suppose the top management of Anglo-Dutch fast moving consumer goods major Unilever were to make it a rule that only English and Dutch would be spoken throughout the organisation. Or assume TCS, India’s largest software services company, mandated only Hindi as the official language of communication. Or imagine if the US insisted that Microsoft hire only Americans of European origin. How far would these corporations get?

The answer is a no-brainer of course, but such simple logic appears to have escaped the intelligence of Messrs Banjle, Kadam and other colleagues in the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). Their bigotry in attacking a Samjawadi Party MP for taking a swearing-in oath in Hindi and not Marathi is worrying not just because of the brazen lumpen-ism these MNS stalwarts displayed. The point is it’s taking place in the 21st century when globalisation is forcing not just corporations but countries to drop (or at least mask) racial and cultural prejudices. It also displays an oddly contrarian cultural tendency of growing chauvinism even as India is struggling to integrate itself with the world economy. In fact, the MNS, with its Maharashtra-for-Marathis agenda, is only an extreme example of this.

The MNS, of course, only recently burst on the scene with its harassment of “north Indian” workers in the Pune auto belt, precipitating a flight of labour that cost one of India’s few booming industries crores in production halts. But signs of this were evident as far back as in the mid-nineties when the ruling BJP in the state altered the name of the state capital to Mumbai from Bombay to apparently shake off a colonial legacy. This is hardly bigotry, you might say, but in a sense it’s a starting point, as exemplified by what’s happening in Maharashtra now. True, most modern Indians would be happy to forget our colonial past, but the point is that the British had exited India more than half a century ago and India has long shaken off the cultural and economic hang-ups of the British Raj. Indeed, by the nineties, the more enlightened and practical denizens of Bombay, India’s second city and financial capital, were eagerly looking at gaining from the fruits of economic liberalisation by attracting more foreign investment. Changing to Mumbai didn’t amount to much, except troublesome alterations on documents. It didn’t even make the city more Maharashtrian — which is the MNS’ grouse and the grist for its support base.

Still, it is obvious that such robust localism in the face of growing globalisation had its attractions, since Madras became Chennai in 1996. By 2001, Calcutta had metamorphosed into Kolkata (this in a state where a party called “Amra Bangali” garnered one or two seats in the Assembly in the seventies and was consigned to the loony fringe). Then the Karnataka Assembly passed a resolution changing the name of its state capital from Bangalore to Bengaluru. Although the home ministry approved the name changes for Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata, the okay for Bengaluru has been some time coming, so Bangalore subsists beside Bengaluru, adding to the general confusion. The delay over approving the name change may have its explanation in the usual bureaucratic delays, but it is fortuitous. It matters less that Calcutta is Kolkata since the state is back to its declining ways or Madras is Chennai, which had less of a global cachet in the nineties. But Bombay and Bangalore have needlessly forfeited global brand-names. This is more so for the latter, which has acquired the clichéd descriptor of being India’s Silicon Valley. Being “Bangalored” has entered the global lexicon as a reflection of India’s strengths in IT.

History has shown that the growth of collective chauvinism of any hue is the product of economic stress and shrinking opportunity — just as Americans protest when IT jobs get outsourced to India even as margin-hungry Big Business champions the trend. The MNS claims it is protecting the interests of Maharashtrians who are being done out of jobs by “outsiders” (other Indians). Yet it is the Maharashtra government’s policy of banning English and promoting only the Marathi language in state and state-funded schools that has diminished the employability of its own people. Likewise with Bengal where a similar education policy now means that whole cadres of youth find themselves facing fewer jobs in a state headed for chaos. Admittedly, these decisions were prompted by an unattractive Hindi chauvinism in the sixties and the seventies but the reactions were scarcely practical.

Contrast this with Unilever, which proudly says in a recruitment presentation in Australia (no stranger to chauvinism!) that its top 1,000 managers span 45 nationalities, or TCS which claims to encompass 45 nationalities globally. Diversity is being sold as a point of attraction. So if MNS truly cared about Maharashtrians, it should do it darndest to attract the best talent India has, if only because it would help the state grow faster and provide more jobs for the boys.

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First Published: Thu, November 12 2009. 00:11 IST