The March of the Paper Tiger


The March of the Paper Tiger

Illustration: Rutuja Patil/ Arré

What a last couple of days we’ve had. The Shiv Sena office in Mumbai was attacked by a pro-Maratha group on Tuesday for publishing a cartoon that “hurt the sentiments of the community”. Immediately after, irony beat up a couple of tollbooth workers.

The cartoon that was published on Sunday, mocked the silent marches that the Maratha community has been holding all over Maharashtra. In the ultimate act of protest, a group called the Sambhaji Brigade attacked the Sena’s Navi Mumbai office, while three activists pelted stones and broke a few windows of the Saamna printing press. If you needed an illustration of the phrase “more Catholic than the Pope”, this was it.

This must have come as an utter surprise to Shiv Sena activists, who are used to being on the other side of the pelting. The Sena came to fame for its political cartoons, especially supremo Bal Thackeray’s caricatures – of other people. But now that one of its cartoons has managed to offend the very community that the party was formed to serve, it seems that the stoners have become the stoned.

In any other situation this would be seen as a violation of the freedom of speech and expression, and we would have been up in arms condemning the Maratha group for having no chill. But this situation is actually hilarious, mainly because the Shiv Sena has been a pioneer of such behaviour for many years.

The Sena is not exactly known for its tact or generosity of spirit in dealing with situations that involve people of other faiths, cultures, or unsuspecting couples who happen to be out on the streets on Valentine’s Day. So we might have felt bad for them if its members weren’t known for attacking media houses that “insulted” Bal Thackeray, or thrashing toll booth workers for doing their jobs.

The Sena is a party that has pushed the boundaries of “taking offence”. One of its corporators wants to ban bras on mannequins because it is apparently giving men across the city semi-boners. A few had called for a complete boycott of Shah Rukh Khan movies after he supported the inclusion of Pakistani cricketers in the Indian Premier League. And of course, who could forget the famous ink attack on activist Sudheendra Kulkarni.

All over the world there is evidence that violent posturing and fundamentalist politics will give rise to hardliners, who will later bite the hand that fed them.

Stone pelting and antagonising people is actually somewhat the Sena’s specialty. It has encouraged such behaviour, along with its ideological cousin the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, in Mumbai for years. After Bal Thackeray’s death, two girls were arrested for a Facebook post wondering why Mumbai had been shut down. One of the girls didn’t even have anything to say, she simply “liked” the post.

This is a classic case of chickens coming home to roost. Or in this situation, cubs coming home to hunt. After years of posturing around the city, attacking anyone who disagrees with them, it was only a matter of time before the Sena had to deal with the ghosts of vandals past.

The incident has, in fact, caused a schism within the party with some demanding that Saamna editor Sanjay Raut offer a public apology, which he has refused to do. The cartoonist has meanwhile apologised, which is very unlike the Sena, but that hasn’t stopped members of the Maratha community demanding that the Maratha MLAs within the Sena resign.

Meanwhile, on the national level, we’ve witnessed a similar situation playing out. When the BJP came to power, it took a strong stance against beef-eaters across the country and projected fringe voices as candidates for Parliament. It was only a matter of time before these empowered fringe voices declared their eternal love for cow lives. Over the last year, we have made significant new additions to our political lexicon: lynchings, anti-nationals, beef vigilante. Which is, strictly speaking, not an ideal outcome.

Similarly, our Prime Minister’s promise that he would take a strong stance against Pakistan when voted into power also came back to haunt him. What started out as innocent posturing escalated to a 10 last week, when Twitter bhakts literally fell over themselves with calls for NUCLEAR WAR. Since the Uri attack, trolls have been using the PM’s own statements against him (“Dear PMji, Nawaz Sharif has 56-inch chest now”), much like he did to the Congress when he was campaigning for the general election in 2014. In fact, I’ve heard rumours that the “surgical strike” today was carried out just so Twitter bhakts would shut up.

In the United States as well, presidential candidate Donald Trump’s statements calling for a ban on Muslims and a wall for Mexicans, has given the hard-right a chance to say shit without fear of consequence. If Trump comes to power he’s going to have to explain to these hardliners that making Mexico pay for a wall between the two countries isn’t a likely proposition after all. And anyone who’s ever tried telling a neo-Nazi he isn’t going to get what he wants will know that isn’t going to end well.

All over the world there is evidence that violent posturing and fundamentalist politics will give rise to hardliners, who will later bite the hand that fed them. Nowhere is this more apparent than the Middle-East. In the ’80s, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, a number of Arab volunteers banded together. The volunteers were encouraged and trained by the US, who were desperate to counter Russia’s influence in the region. In the middle of this posturing, the volunteers decided to hell with the USA. We now know them as the Al-Qaeda.

Much the same way in Iraq, US aggression created severe sectarian division and poverty in several Sunni regions of the country, empowering one minority sect that the Al-Qaeda capitalised on. Say hello to the Islamic State. It became a global threat after releasing a video that depicted the beheading of journalists from America, the very state that encouraged them in the first place.

Bundling the ISIS and the Shiv Sena together is an unfair comparison – but it’s an example of the potential threat violence and fundamentalist politics can pose. Ideally, the party should kick back and take some time off for serious introspection. The stoning of the Saamna office is an example of the kind of intolerance they’ve doled out to everybody else. Maybe this is a chance to adopt a softer stance when dealing with things they don’t like. Perhaps that will make their supporters more tolerant to a cartoon – or they run the risk of looking like one.