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Of Bhoomiputra and Housing

July 19, 2009

DSCN8740I was moving around Mumbai city on that weekend, mainly in the western suburbs. Several posters and banners were put up all over, announcing a call to a mass rally by Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray. Thackeray’s clarion call for that meeting was: “Housing for the bhoomiputra“. Bhoomiputra literally means son of the land. On an overt reading of the poster and slogan, one could conclude that the Sena is back to its advocacy of the sons of the soil theory which originally raised it to prominence in the 1960s. But when I attended the rally and noticed the people who attended it, I asked myself, so who exactly is this son of the soil that the Sena is talking about? Is it the Marathi manoos, the local underdog who the Sena argues has no social and economic space in his/her own city? If it is truly the Marathi manoos, then how do I interpret the presence of North Indian women, Bohra muslim women, perhaps even Dalit women, and many other women who I tried to mark but could not classify as either Hindu or Christian or any other particular else.  Hmmm ….

The posters of the rally intrigued me because Thackeray was calling attention to the ‘shoddiness’ of the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Board (MHADA) in providing housing for the bhoomiputra. It was not the bhoomiputra aspect of the slogan which caused me to attend the meeting. Rather, it was the issue of housing and particularly Thackeray Junior’s emphasis on the issue of rehabilitation of tenant occupied buildings that caught my attention and interest. Let me give a brief backgrounder here. 1990s has been a very important moment in the history of Mumbai city. Surely, the changes initiated in this decade must have been preceeded by important moments and trajectories in 1970s and 80s. The 90’s marked the introduction of housing schemes for slum dwellers in Mumbai. These were initiated and implemented by both Congress and Shiv Sena governments. Transfer of Development Rights (TDR), a mode of conferring economic value on owners of properties and builders, was also instated in this period. TDR gives the builder the incentive to redevelop slums, buildings declared dilapidated by MHADA, and provide rehabilitation housing for persons affected by the implementation of development projects. In return, the builder gets TDR which allows him to either construct extra housing and commercial units in the same space where he has redeveloped properties, or in areas lying to the north of the site where the redevelopment was undertaken. TDR is a highly lucrative proposition for builders, as it has been claimed by activists and experts. The Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) was also constituted in 1990s to redevelop slums in collaboration with private builders. In summary, 1990s was an important decade for Mumbai city because command and control over the city’s land was reorganized in this period through introduction of new laws, authorities and planning rules. This, in turn, laid the basis of a renewed (?) or at least modified relationship between political parties and the builder lobbies as well as between parties, slum dwellers, squatters, tenants and ‘informal’ groups in the city. This reorganization in the property regime has affected not only property owners, but also significantly tenants and sub-tenants who are omnipresent in the city, but are grossly ignored by the property rights and the housing rights discourse. I am not suggesting for a moment here that property and housing rights now need to advocate rights for tenants. The relationship between tenants, owners and landlords is highly complicated and past interventions, as research and literature suggest, to legally arbitrate claims between these entities results in increased complexities. They also indicate that the fact of being a property owner or a tenant does not automatically imply that the former is more powerful than the latter. The relationship could well be inverse. The figures of sub-tenants and in many cases sub-sub-tenants make the relationships even more intricate. For now, it would suffice to say that claims around land and tenure arrangements are highly local. The intervention in the 1990s through introduction of new rules, procedures and authorities, has reconfigured social, political and economic dynamics in this arena.

DSCN8738So, I want to know what Thackeray Junior has to say about housing, state’s responsibilities, tenants and claims. The rally, it was announced, would start at 9 AM. I am struggling to get there by 9 because I do not want to miss out on the speeches. Turns out, I am too diligent. At 10 AM, when I reached Mahim Fort, even the police and security organization was in a yawning stage. Municipal contract sweepers, dressed in the neon orange coloured plastic uniforms, had come some way in cleaning up the beach area where the rally was to take place. They kept on sweeping until the ground was swelling full with the ‘public’. At 10 AM, we were a handful few at the rally ground. There was a press reporter, who was perhaps as diligent as me, in arriving early. Some red coloured chairs were lined up in front of the stage and the chair area was barricaded with bamboo fences. The fences were, however, permeable. They seemed more symbolic and practical and not exclusive and non-permeable. At one time, it rained heavily and all of us handfuls ran towards the shed that was constructed for people to take shelter under in case of rains. The shed area expanded into the sea. You could see the, shall I say, ‘overbearing’ Bandra-Worli-Sea Link from here. The showers stopped in a split second and we went back to the stage area.

It was 11 AM. By now, the crowds started gathering. Mediapersons and their crew and vans had also begun to assemble. Women gathered around where I was standing. The numbers of women seemed much more than those of the men. At one point, I could not see men any more. I was totally surrounded by women. Interestingly, the women belonged by and large to a few categories. Some of them were very well dressed, conversant in English and seemed to be the leader-like. It is likely that they were wives of the shakha pramukhs (heads of the local Sena offices) or they were family membeers and relatives of the elected representatives from the party. Another bunch, a significantly large number, were women who seemed to be lower level party workers. The well dressed women were also party workers, but this rung which I am talking about, hailed from a lower-middle class background. They seemed to be the assiduous fieldworkers, distributing welfare from the party to the people on the ground and fulfilling their own claims for upward mobility and social power by being attached to the party. I managed to smile at one such party worker and it worked! We got talking for a bit:

How long have you been with the party?

17 years.

Wow, that is a long time.

Yes.

Then she asked me,

Which shakha do you belong to?

No, I don’t belong to any shakha. I just came to see the rally, to know what happens.

Really? Where have you come from?

From South Mumbai.

Aiyya! Nice.

And then she started telling people around her about how I had come alone, all the way from South Mumbai, to attend the rally, just to see what goes on. The women were impressed with me. I was noticing the party worker I spoke to very carefully. She had a cross tatooed on the area of the hand below the thumb and above the wrist. A cross, eh? I wondered. What is she? Perhaps from the fisher community. Then I watched the woman along with her, who seemed to speak fluent Marathi, but appeared more like a North Indian Hindu or Muslim woman to me. Then, it suddenly rained. We all fled into the shed. This time, the shed was mighty full up. The rains again stopped in a few minutes. We waited cautiously inside the shed before going back. There was still no sign of the party chief i.e. Thackeray junior.

Before I move on to describe what happened, I need to mention a third rung that lies below the welfare distributing paty workers (who can be roughly equalled with local leaders and/or NGO/CBO workers). This third rung consists of women who are followers and receipients. But even within this third rung, there could be women who are more aware than others and hence, despite being followers, their identities and social positions are fluid, mostly upwardly mobile. I spoke to one such woman, asking her when she came to the rally:

They, the shakha pramukhs, asked us to come by 7:30 AM. They said the meeting will be over by 12:00 AM. Thank goodness we refused to come at 7:30. We have come from the eastern suburbs.

The rains stopped and we walked back. The stage was set. All this while, archaic songs of Marathi patriotism were being played from the loudspeakers. Then, the announcer came on the stage and thanked everyone for coming to the rally:

Thank you, thank you, thank you – for showing up in such large numbers. Our party workers and followers are coming from all over the city. The traffic police, may I please make a request: please clear the traffic on the road so that the cars and lorries coming from South Mumbai, carrying our Shiv Sainiks, can pass smoothly. Traffic police, please, please manage.

Friends, we have gathered here today, under the leadership of Shri Uddhavji Thackeray, with the blessings of Balasaheb on our heads, to raise the question of housing. Look at what is happening in our city today! There is such mayhem. Our dear leader will be arriving any moment. Meanwhile, we have set up a complaints redressal counter at the side. Please submit all your complaints and grievances regarding your housing, slum and redevelopment probelms. We will look into it. Please, please submit all your complaints, here at the side where the counter has especially been set up today. This counter will be there all along. Please, please submit your grievances.

Now, I want to request all the assembled people, especially the women, to move towards the left, that is towards the side of the shed. There are lots of party workers and followers coming to this rally. The entrance has to be cleared. There is clear, fresh air emanating from the left hand side. All of you enjoy it. I also urge you to take a look at the Bandra World Sea Link which is there. This project was initiated under the Sena’s rule and has now been completed. We have proudly named it the Swatantrya Veer Savarkar bridge. Come, take a look.

We were all laughing upon this remark. To some extent, the reference to the sea link also intrigued me. On the one hand, Shiv Sena wants to take up the issues of the poor and on the other hand, it does not want to give up the development discourse even when such development takes place at the expense of displacing the poor. Moreover, the naming of the bridge is such a symbolically powerful act. While the sea link has been named after Rajiv Gandhi, the Sena claims to have named it after Savarkar. Currently, there are a few notice boards outside some slum pockets regarding the naming controversy.

We continued to stand and wait. Meanwhile, the women were socializing. They were discussing how they prepared food in the morning before coming for the rally – at least the family is taken care of for the rest of the day, some of them remarked. Women gossiped, pointing fingers at those inside the bamboo cordon, trying to recognize who is who. Some of the more well dressed and seemingly leader-like women hobnobbed with the junior level party workers and made some inquiries. Some women were inducting new people into the party via the rally. A man was moving around, selling party symbols to be worn on the sleeve and chest. Tea sellers were selling tea. Contractors were setting up the bamboo barricades. Employment for all!

A loudspeaker burst into a pop song about Shiv Sena, the singer singing what the Sena had done for the Marathi people. The loud beats of the songs entertained people. Orange flags were flying all around. Slogan shouting happened from time to time. The atmosphere was livewire. At some points in time, I went to self-doubt about myself too, wondering whether I was getting getting myself inducted into the party. At times, the orange flag would touch my body and my own reactions seemed to vary between dislike to self-doubt during those tactile moments. At one time, a slogan was called:

Ek dhakka aur do (give one more push)

And then my heart skipped a beat because this was the same slogan that was used when demolishing the Babri Masjid in 1993.

And the fellow shouted again:

Ek dhakka aur do (give one more push)

And people responded by saying:

Aagadi sarkar ko phenk do (throw away the current ruling government)

I turned back to the party worker who I initially spoke to:

Many people are here, isn’t it?

Yes. The housing issue is quite something. But we have to press for it. Few days ago, we took a morcha to the Reliance headquarters to protest against the high electricity tariffs. Mehengayi has increased drastically. We have to do something about it.

Mehengayi, I thought to myself, the demon of rising prices. I began to think again about the call to the bhoomiputra. Who is this  bhoomiputra? And here is what I speculated: while at one time, the bhoomiputra was a particular Marathi person, today, this figure or ideology includes everyone who is a resident of the city and is troubled by the demon of mehengayi. That does not mean the particular Marathi bhoomiputra is dead. He/she may arise in particular moments, but for now, the party has to consolidate its votes and include in its fold all those resident people who are troubled by inflation and increases in the price of basic commodities.

I also thought about political rallies. The common stereotype is that the poor attend these rallies and their attendance is symbolic of their loyalty and vote support for the party. But clearly, today’s experience indicated that the rally is a space for networking and for expanding one’s social and political networks. The manner in which the women joked and talked and discussed issues and mundane topics made it clear that rallies are not only political spaces, but also social spaces.

It was 12:00 AM. The announcer kept saying that Uddhavji would come in another 5 minutes. Eventually, all the assembled were asked to segregate into separate areas for women and men. It was decided that Thackeray junior would come straight to the MHADA office and we would all march to Bandra East to the housing board’s office. At that point, I decided to give up because I was afraid of being trampled and stamped on if the rally took momentum. I left, not sure what transpired next.

I checked the next morning’s Times of India Mumbai edition to see the rally’s coverage. A big photo of the rally with a few lines below on page 5 said that Uddhav is rallying people around the Bhoomiputra issue, just like the MNS is raising the issue of protecting Marathi interests from the North Indians. The report could not be any more false because it did not analyze the context of the meeting. Clearly, while the rally did address the issue of Bhoomiputra and housing, that Bhoomiputra was not an exclusive person – it included all those who were troubled by inflation and were individuals making claims on the city.

This big media I tell you … run from it!

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