A battle for the cultural soul of Mumbai is brewing between Hindu radicals and the cosmopolitan urbanites who are the global face of this Indian city. The radicals appear to be winning.
In the last few weeks, the Shiv Sena group has blocked the broadcast of a hit reality show — after its mob tried to storm the filming set — and convinced the prestigious University of Mumbai to ban from its curriculum an acclaimed novel, saying it offends the local Marathi-speaking people.
The conflicts are a reminder of the power of divisive politics in the world's largest democracy and the fragile balance of diversity in India's most globalized city.
Shiv Sena emerged during the 1960s and bills itself as the defender of the Marathi speakers in Mumbai — the capital of India's financial and entertainment industries, which has attracted generations of migrants, resulting in an ethnically and culturally diverse population of some 18 million.
It's a city where it is possible to find Brioni suits, Scottish beef — anathema to Hindu traditionalists who revere cows as holy — and migrants from different states with different languages mixing and marrying.
Such cosmopolitanism has sparked a backlash, led by the Shiv Sena, which does not hesitate to use violence to enforce its vision of primacy for natives of Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the main city, and secondly for majority Hindus within India.
This month, the group targeted the TV show "Bigg Boss" — an Indian version of "Big Brother" — demanding the removal of two stars from India's historic archrival, predominantly Muslim Pakistan. A mob tried to storm the gates of the bungalow where the show is filmed in Lonavala, a hill station outside Mumbai, and staged a strike that shut down the town for a day.
On Oct. 13, Shiv Sena-affiliated cable operators, who control between 30 and 70 percent of Mumbai's television sets, blocked transmission of Colors, the channel owned by Viacom Inc. and India's Network18 Group that airs the show.
The next day, the channel wrote an apologetic letter to Shiv Sena leaders and broadcasts resumed, according to an official close to the negotiations who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the matter. Colors declined comment.
That followed Shiv Sena's success in pressuring the University of Mumbai to withdraw Rohinton Mistry's acclaimed 1991 novel, "Such a Long Journey," from its second-year syllabus for English literature on the grounds that it offended Marathi sensibilities.
"He has written against the workers of Maharashtra. We are hardworking people," Shiv Sena parliamentarian Sanjay Raut said of the novel that was nominated for the Booker Prize. "What Mr. Mistry has written is not freedom of expression. He has written books only to get cheap publicity."
Raut also accused Mistry of "derogatory" statements in the book against Indira Gandhi, who served four controversial terms as prime minister from 1966 until her assassination in 1984.
The book also has a direct poke at Shiv Sena, with one character accusing the party's founder of worshipping Hitler and Mussolini and stirring up Mumbai's underclass.
"This is his character who refers to people in this way," said Ranjit Hoskote, a writer and freedom of expression activist, who was among those outraged by the university's ban. "It's not the author's perspective. It's a simple literary principle, which seems to escape these guys."
Characters in the book also mock South Indian pronunciation and ethnic groups like Sikhs and Gujaratis — groups distinct from Shiv Sena's core constituency.
A civic group has staged a reading of the "offensive" passages from the book, and students have launched petitions, but the ban, announced Oct. 2 by university Vice Chancellor Rajan Welukar still stands.
Welukar declined requests for an interview, but in an e-mailed statement the university said the decision was taken "after an elaborate discussion on the matter."
Some say the Shiv Sena is picking fights because economic growth has weakened its appeal and it needs to regain its electoral foothold. The two incidents could be a ploy to win votes in next week's municipal elections in Thane district north of Mumbai, seen as a curtain raiser for Mumbai's 2012 municipal elections.
The conflicts may also be a way to pass the torch from Shiv Sena's charismatic, aging supremo — one-time cartoonist Bal Thackeray — to his untested heirs. The Mistry protests marked the political debut of Thackeray's grandson, Aditya, a 20-year-old student, who was then named leader of the group's new youth wing.
"It's shameful. It's a hangover from the past," said Kumar Ketkar, editor of the Marathi newspaper Loksatta, of the protests. "They create an episode of violence just to show they still matter."
Shiv Sena emerged during the 1960s and surged in popularity in the early 1990s — both periods of economic strain — before India began to liberalize its economy, improving job opportunities for young men of Mumbai who are the backbone of its support.
Though their power today is diminished, the Shiv Sena still feeds on the quiet rage of the dispossessed in India's richest city, and their message has resonated with those who worry their jobs and quality of life are being swept away by the tidal wave of migration that strains Mumbai's swollen infrastructure.
The Shiv Sena is allied with India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, and holds 11 of 543 elected seats in India's national parliament. In last year's Maharashtra state legislative elections, the Shiv Sena won 45 of 288 seats.
While its direct political clout has been diminishing, Hoskote said Shiv Sena's latest campaign leaves cultural expression in Mumbai "truly threatened."
"Very few people stand up and resist because they know they will not be protected by the state," he said.
Indeed, the state's top official, Chief Minister Ashok Chavan — a member of the ruling Congress Party — offered Shiv Sena his tacit support, telling India's NDTV that he found the book's language "highly objectionable" — even though he didn't read the whole book.
Mistry, who lives in Canada, said in a statement that he was dismayed by the university's quick decision to ban his book, which comes "perilously close to institutionalizing the ugly notion of self-censorship."
He urged Aditya and the university's vice chancellor to consider the words of Nobel Prize winning Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore:
"Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
...Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake."