LAST YEAR, a 25-year-old Mumbai native named Savita went out with her boyfriend to celebrate Valentine’s Day. (The names of characters in this piece have been changed to protect their identities.) The couple chose an expensive Middle Eastern restaurant in Mumbai where, a few minutes into the meal, a group of men burst in and began to verbally harass them. “Why are you celebrating this American holiday?” they demanded before leaving. After Savita and her date finished their meal, they found the same group waiting for them outside. The men beat Savita’s companion badly. “He bled all over and had to be taken to the doctor,” Savita recalls. “His nose was broken.”
Savita told me her story as we sat in a quiet Thai restaurant near the ocean. As its variety of cuisines demonstrates, this cosmopolitan port city of 13 million is a diverse mélange of cultures, home to both Bollywood and the Bombay Stock Exchange. It’s not the kind of place where one expects to find a violent hoard of Valentine’s Day haters. But not only does such a group exist—it is the city’s ruling political party. The men who attacked Savita’s friend were members of Shiv Sena, a group of Marathi Hindus (Hindus from the Indian state of Maharashtra, which includes Mumbai) who, in elections this past February, re-secured their complete control of Mumbai’s municipal government. Shiv Sena, which means “Army of Shiva” (the founder of the Maratha Empire), incites violence and unrest over what it deems improper cultural or religious events—from Valentine’s Day to Richard Gere’s recent public smooch of Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty. More ominously, it preaches contempt for foreigners, Muslims, and non-Marathi Hindus.
As Shiv Sena demonstrates, India is going through a debate over immigration and national identity very similar to our own. But, instead of hanging out by the border peering through binoculars, India’s Minutemen are actually running one of the country’s major states—the Indian equivalent of California. In Mumbai, Shiv Sena has even promised to end migration into the city. How did a party bent on exploiting every ethnic and religious fault line manage to gain control of the most cosmopolitan city in the world’s largest multi-ethnic democracy? And what does this tell us about the United States?
ON A HOT morning in March, a 28-year-old bellman named Firoz, whom I had met through a mutual friend, brought me to Shiv Sena’s nondescript, multi-storied headquarters to hear a speech on Marathi values. As a foreigner, I was seated separately from Firoz in the women’s section, which is closer to the stage; the party may not be too fond of American culture, but it treats foreign journalists with fawning courtesy. Meenakshi, the young woman sitting next to me, took my pen and notepad and translated from the Marathi: “He is telling all of us, young Marathis, to fight for our rights. We must not let anyone take away what is ours.” “Long speech,” I scribbled as the speaker droned on. In front of my words, she wrote “a very” and grinned.
Afterward, I mentioned to Meenakshi that she did not strike me as someone who would follow Shiv Sena. “Everyone in my neighborhood does,” she said. “It would not make any sense for me to oppose them.”
Much of Shiv Sena’s success lies in the displacement of the Marathi community in central Mumbai. In the 1950s, immigrants from all over India began to pour into the city for jobs, and many native Marathis began to feel marginalized and shut out of the workforce. Into this void stepped Bal Thackeray—“the Tiger,” as his supporters call him—a former political cartoonist bent on reasserting the rights of Marathis. In 1966, he founded Shiv Sena; and, by 1984, he had allied it with the BJP, the major right-wing Hindu nationalist force in India. Over the next two decades, international companies moved in and real estate prices skyrocketed, forcing Marathis into the suburbs. “After the economy began to heat up, the Marathi got dispersed and dislocated,” says Kumar Ketkar, the editor of the Marathi paper Loksata (“People Power”). Thackeray capitalized on this—vocally championing the rights of native Hindus. By the mid-’90s, the “Sons of the Soil,” as Shiv Sena is called, had completely taken over Mumbai’s government. (Thackeray had the city, formerly the anglicized “Bombay,” renamed in an “anti-imperialist” gesture in 1995.)
Thackeray’s rise has not been without controversy: He is widely assumed to have been behind the 1992 Hindu-Muslim riots, in which approximately 1,200 Muslims were killed, and a variety of other attacks on non-Hindus. As for Thackeray’s affection for the Führer, he told an Asian newspaper, “I am a great admirer of Hitler, and I am not ashamed to say so! ... Actually, we have too much sham-democracy in this country. What India really needs is a dictator who will rule benevolently, but with an iron hand.”
Shiv Sena is currently led by Uddhav Thackeray, Bal’s son. (Bal’s nephew Raj has started his own political party that is, by some accounts, even more extreme. He recently told a crowd of Marathis to “serve a tight slap” to job-seekers from the eastern state of Bihar, a phrase that was repeated to me by several Shiv Sena bosses.) When the rally concluded, an aide took Firoz and me up a few floors to meet with Uddhav, who had decided to skip the event. At least 30 men were sitting patiently in the large waiting room outside his office. To the sound of chanting and the assembled crowd rising, Uddhav finally entered the room. He was dressed casually in jeans and a pink polo shirt and seemed unfazed by all the excitement. “You have come all the way from America because America now knows about Shiv Sena,” he said. He then turned his attention to the Bangladeshi immigrants streaming into Mumbai. “The jobs must go to Marathi people,” he said. “You have the same problem in America. But you do not have Shiv Sena in America. Shiv Sena will do what is needed to protect Marathis.”
Contrary to Uddhav’s words, however, America is unlikely to have a Shiv Sena anytime soon. While the party has managed to gain strength as Marathis in Mumbai have experienced displacement, its success is also a consequence of what Delhi-born scholar Sunil Khilnani calls India’s “internally homogenous communities, each insulated from the others.” In addition, the legacy of the caste system has inured Indians to a society where one group governs solely in its own interests. In contrast, in the United States, the amorphous national identity of being American works to supersede ethnic and religious allegiances.
The danger Shiv Sena poses to democracy in India became even clearer to me after Firoz and I left the rally. “It is too bad that you did not take a picture with Uddhav and I,” Firoz said as we walked past the cricket fields near the University of Mumbai. He had told his friends and neighbors about the time he had been spending with Shiv Sena, and he wanted a picture to prove it. “Are they Marathi Hindus like you?” I asked. He laughed. “I am not Marathi, nor am I Hindu,” he replied. “My family is Muslim.” I was incredulous. Surely he knew Shiv Sena’s opinion of his faith. “It is much harder now to tell certain people you are Muslim,” he explained. “Some of my friends know that I am Muslim. Others do not. I tell people that I support Shiv Sena. So does my family. It is much easier for us this way.”
This article appeared in the May 21, 2007 issue of the magazine.