More than two and a half centuries after the Maratha invasions of north and east India, including Bengal and parts of Bihar, a new type of duel is on between the Shiv Sainiks of Mumbai and the political leaders of Patna. In the latest flare-up, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena threatened that its cadre would not allow the celebrations of Bihar Day that were to be held in Mumbai on April 15. Reacting to the warning, the chief minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, said that he did not need a visa to go to Mumbai and no one could stop him from attending that function. The MNS later withdrew its threat and the Bihar Diwas celebrations, attended by Kumar, went well.
The recent threat sent out by the MNS is similar to the one its leader, Raj Thackeray, had issued a few years back when he had said that he would not allow Biharis to observe the festival of Chhath (the worship of the sun god) in Maharashtra. The Rashtriya Janata Dal chief, Lalu Prasad, had then strongly objected to his remark, saying that he would observe the ritual on the coast of the Arabian Sea in that state.
Incidentally, the latest shot was fired by the MNS a couple of days after the Shiv Sena member turned Congress leader and member of parliament, Sanjay Nirupam –– who is from Bihar but is now settled in Maharashtra –– asked Biharis not to be carried away by sub-nationalistic rhetoric. He said this while speaking in the debate organized by The Telegraph in Patna on the topic, “In its centenary year, Bihar needs a strong regional identity for a strong national identity”. He even urged the Bihar chief minister to desist from whipping up such a passion, at least in the interests of those living outside the state.
The war of words apart, one thing is clear: unlike the 18th-century military penetration of north and east India by the Marathas, several cities in Maharashtra have certainly been overwhelmed today by an invasion of white and blue collared workers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. But this army of civilians is engaged in building, and not in destroying, pillaging or terrorizing Maharashtra. In the process, they are earning their livelihoods too.
Unlike Bihari sub-nationalism, which may, at most, be in its embryonic stage, the passion whipped up frequently by the Bal and Raj Thackerays has a very aggressive overtone. Perhaps they take their inspiration less from Shivaji, who fought Aurangzeb, than from the marauding gangs of Marathas, who wreaked havoc in Bengal, Orissa, parts of Bihar and large chunks of north India in the mid 18th century. The people of east India, in particular, had to pay a heavy price then.
The name, Maharashtra, may sound innocuous but it contains a suggestion of greatness and nationhood — maha is great or big while rashtra is nation. So if a group of Shiv Sainiks –– certainly not all Maharashtrians –– think that they have a role of national importance to play, such a feeling cannot be dubbed simply as regionalism or sub-nationalism. It would be more apt to describe it as a sort of supra-nationalism. If the Thackerays make noises now and then, they cannot be said to be speaking as advocates of sub-nationalism — which can be contained, and, to some extent, even be tolerated. What is disturbing is the tinge of authoritarianism in their tone.
Amidst this Maharashtra versus Bihar tussle, a positive development took place in Patna. Those present in the jam-packed hall during The Telegraph debate on regional identity on April 6 overwhelmingly rejected the motion, thus making it clear that the people of Bihar, notwithstanding all the propaganda, do not approve of this latest brand of sub-nationalism.