Raut told some journalists later that he felt “awfully sorry” writing all this but likened the harsh, provocative, unconstitutional and illegal suggestion in the column to “a surgery [which is] often needed to restore one’s health”. Irrespective of what his emotions were while writing, what shines through is that Raut – a Member of Parliament, and executive editor of a paper by which lakhs of Shiv Sainiks and Sena sympathisers are swayed – used logic in his argument in a way that primary school students would not.
To paraphrase Raut: Muslims have been used as a vote-bank for years both by parties who claim to represent the community and by secularists; petty politics has manipulated their voting power; if their numerical strength continues to be misused by political parties, they will not be on the path of development and they will have no future; therefore, they must be disenfranchised.
The fallacy in the argument is stark. It’s like saying the main water pipeline to an area must be cut because the water supply there is contaminated. The solution is to treat the water to de-contaminate it, not to cut the pipeline. But a logical nuanced argument is hardly the strong suit in the Sena leader’s repertoire.
Rich irony: Nor does he comprehend the meaning of irony. Why else would Raut, who has displayed ferocious allegiance to a party whose core political philosophy is to represent the Maharashtrian, a geographical-linguistic community, rail against a religious community being used as a political tool by rival parties? By Raut’s reading, Maharashtrian vote-bank politics is perfectly acceptable, Muslim vote-bank politics is not.
Vote-bank politics, caste and sub-caste driven political arrangements and appeasement of core support base of a party is the bane of Indian politics. Political scientists offer reasonable sounding theories to explain the phenomenon of vote-bank politics and how these arrangements may even serve a marginalised community in the initial phase. On the ground, it has been reduced to appealing for votes on the basis of identity – religious, geographical, linguistic or any other.
The Shiv Sena has practised vote-bank politics since 1967, a year after it was formed, when it fought its first election. In 2015, Raut’s rant pointed to the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, the Hyderabad-based party seeking to represent Muslims, which put up a candidate in Saturday's by-election to the Maharashtra assembly in Bandra (East). It’s where the Thackerays live. It’s also an area long considered the Shiv Sena’s citadel.
The MIM’s Owaisi brothers, Asaduddin and Akbaruddin, represent a particularly vicious brand of Muslim vote-bank politics but have tasted moderate success in a series of local and state elections in Maharashtra in the last few years. Their candidate in the by-election to the prestigious seat meant that the party was throwing a direct challenge at the Shiv Sena. It was enough for the barely-concealed viciousness in the Sena, which turned Muslims into the despicable rivals in the late 1980s and '90s, to be put out on display.
Routine insults: Muslims are the people the Sena's founder and cartoonist, the late Bal Thackeray, routinely insulted with a derogatory local term for circumcised people, blamed for many ills in the state and nation, and snubbed for having built housing communities that were “mini-Pakistans” in Mumbai and elsewhere. Thackeray was the original “Hindu Hriday Samrat” ‒ the Emperor of Hindu hearts ‒ long before the fan-boys of Prime Minister Narendra Modi anointed him with the title.
The fact that the Thackeray’s personal physician for many years was a Muslim was often touted as testimony that he held no personal animosity towards the community. Wrong logic, again. In speech after speech in the late '80s, Thackeray heaped so much scorn on the community that it became the trademark of his public addresses. The distinction between “patriotic/nationalist” Muslims and “anti-nationalist Muslims” was yet to be made.
While campaigning for Ramesh Prabhoo in the 1987 Maharashtra assembly election, Thackeray so vividly invoked the Hindu identity and criticised Muslims that a case was filed against him for violating provisions of the Representation of the People Act. This resulted in Thackeray being convicted of corrupt electoral practices – and punished by having his voting rights susended.
On December 11, 1995, the Supreme Court advised the President to debar Thackeray from contesting or voting in elections for a period of six years. President KR Narayanan, however, referred the matter to the Election Commission. A two-member bench of the commission conveyed its opinion to the President on September 22, 1998. On July 17, 1999, the President finally decided to debar Thackeray, but with retrospective effect from the date of the Supreme Court order, December 11, 1995. Therefore, Thackeray’s disfranchisement lasted only till December 10, 2001.
For those two-and-half years, Thackeray’s name had been deleted from the voters’ list in Bandra (East). What were his statements that got him disenfranchised? Here are a few (from the court documents):
· “I appeal to all my Hindu brothers, sisters and mothers gathered here” to “…please send the Shiv Sena to the Legislative Assembly”; otherwise, he warned, “it would be difficult for us to live because there would be (a) war of religions (and) Muslims will come” – November 29, 1987
*“We win an election with such votes…” he said, likening Muslims to “snakes” and asked “Who are these [expletive deleted]?...They should bear in mind that this country is of Hindus, the same shall remain of Hindus.” ‒ November 29, 1987
*“Whatever masjids are there…if one starts digging the same, one will find Hindu temples…A person by the name of Prabhoo who is contesting the election in the name of religion [should be] sent [to the Assembly].” – December 9, 1987
*“It will do if we do not get a vote from any Muslim…If anybody from them is present at this place he should think for himself. I am not in need of their votes. But I want your votes…You must send only Dr. Ramesh Prabhoo of the Shiv Sena, otherwise Hindus will be finished…[and] it will not take much for Hindustan to be green [i.e. Islamised].” – December 10, 1987
Violent history: A few years later,, during the 1992-'93 riots in Mumbai, Shiv Sena leaders offered the excuse that the spate of violence in January 1993 was a spontaneous response to the killing of four mathadi workers [porters who carried loads on their heads] and burning of six Hindus in the northern Jogeshwari neighbourhood. But that contention was refuted by the government-appointed Srikrishna Commission, which produced an official inquiry report into the violence.
“That they were criminals was underplayed by Hindus and that they were Muslims was all that mattered, and a cry went up that the Muslims were bent upon a second round of riots,” the Commission observed, placing these horrific incidents in the context of communally provocative propaganda in those weeks. It further noted that such propaganda, reinforced by local rumours that attacks by Muslims using sophisticated arms were imminent, turned some “irresponsible and hot-headed” Hindu elements violent.
The commission said:
Statements and acts of Sena leaders and Thackeray's writings and directives kept building up communal tension, the Commission stated.
The dog whistle: When Raut wrote his prescription against vote-bank politics, he invoked Thackeray. It served to hit all the right notes for a readership that is familiar with the late leader’s stridently anti-Muslim ideology. It remains, to this day, a persuasive and powerful talisman of the party. Thackeray’s successor son and president of the party, Uddhav Thackeray, has sought to draw lines between the “nationalist” and the anti-nationalist” Muslims, spelling out the difference in his interviews and speeches during the elections last year.
“The Shiv Sena will continue to oppose the ‘anti-national Muslims’ who do not respect the country's laws and create problems for people,” Uddhav Thackeray told his own paper, Saamna. “Like my father Bal Thackeray used to say, those Muslims who consider India their motherland, respect the laws of this country, don't ignite riots and live amicably, we have nothing against them ‒ as far as the others, they have no right to live in India,” he explained.
He went so far as to recommend revocation of Indian citizenship for those Muslims who do not fit the Sena’s description of what an Indian Muslim should be. Raut’s suggestion of disenfranchisement is part of the piece. Such stridency helps to keep its flock together and demonstrate that the party has not in any way “softened” on the issue, especially when political challenges must be faced. In fact, he would be pleased that Sakshi Maharaj, another Member of Parliament, elected from Unnao, promptly backed the disenfranchisement demand.
Such talk and demands are not new. They happened in the context of the MIM’s cynical exploitation of the Muslim identity. But they gained a seriousness and threat value in a landscape replete with what the political scientist Shiv Vishwanathan recently called “…the politics of anxiety and identity”.
Raut generously tapped into that politics. His political opponents have called for his Rajya Sabha membership to be revoked and criminal proceedings started against him. The Aam Aadmi Party has called for Shiv Sena itself to be de-recognised. Raut had earlier suggested deleting “socialism” and “secularism” from the Constitution. This time, it was disenfranchisement of a community. Any ideas what his next anti-Constitutional suggestion will be?