The metropolis of Mumbai has no single parent but has innumerable children. When actress Hema Malini claims that it has got overpopulated and is bursting at the seams, she forgets two important facts—she is one of the innumerable immigrants to Mumbai and she would not have been the superstar she became had Bal Thackeray succeeded in stopping—or even throwing out—South Indians migrating to and making a life in Mumbai.
In fact, even Thackeray, the founder of the xenophobic Shiv Sena, had as few claims to exclusive ownership of Mumbai as Hema Malini did when she migrated to the city in the 1960s. Thackeray’s own father, Keshav Prabodhankar Thackeray, a socialist, who later fought bitterly for the integration of the then Bombay state into Maharashtra, was a migrant to Mumbai; he was originally a resident of areas now under Madhya Pradesh and travelled across the country in search of a livelihood before finally settling down in Bombay Province at the time of the British rule in India.
His story is no different from that of thousands of other first- generation migrants to British-administered Bombay which was a magnet to those escaping oppression and poverty from other parts of the country. British liberalism, equality under the law and easy access to an ‘English’ education at the innumerous institutions set up by them drew tens of thousands of people, particularly from the South, who later populated not just the British administration but also the Indian bureaucracy after Independence.
The British had to quit India in 1947 but no city owes its existence more to the British. They made a composite whole of a ragtag group of islands they had inherited as dowry for King Charles II from the Portuguese in 1662 and converted it into a thriving port city of India. To supply their textile mills in Manchester they set up cotton farms around the Bombay province in a major way (modern day Vidarbha, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka) and encouraged local entrepreneurs to set up their own mills in Bombay to utilise the excess cotton produce.
This led to a skewered demography wherein all the rich in Mumbai were Gujarati, Parsi, Sindhi or Bohra Muslim entrepreneurs from neighbouring Gujarat. All their workers were migrants from other parts of Maharashtra and their clerks, accountants and managers were largely South Indians—the rich, the poor and the middle class in broad terms.
This economic disparity fuelled the Shiv Sena’s parochial politics in the 1960s and, while it could do little against the rich businessmen who enjoyed political patronage, South Indians were targeted in various ways, their shops and restaurants were burnt, their names and office and residential addresses were taken from the telephone directory, made public and local lumpens were invited by Thackeray to target and drive them out of Bombay.
Hema Malini entered the city in the midst of all this turmoil and, notwithstanding the Sena’s anti-South Indian rhetoric, was welcomed with open arms by the city. The BJP MP quite misses the irony of the fact that she is an outsider, by her own definition, not just to Mumbai but also Mathura which she represents in Parliament. She is a serial offender in this outsider debate.
Hardly ever present in Mathura—she was caught unawares in June 2016, tweeting about a great day shooting for a film in Mumbai when clashes erupted between police and followers of a cult guru in her constituency—the actor had earlier similarly advocated stopping widows from Bengal and Bihar coming to Mathura to resolve its poverty and population issue. When a major fire broke out in a restaurant in the Kamala Mills compound—one of the many mills set up under British patronage way back in the last century— killing 14 people, her solution was to set a limit for migration and stop people at that number.
Hema Malini may not have read the Constitution of India but she must be told it is the underpinning of the Indian state which allows free movement of people anywhere in the country. The same document prevented Thackeray from stopping her working and living in Mumbai and the very same Constitution allows her to represent a city with which she may have no cultural connect in Parliament.
A vacuous comment like hers, with little or no understanding of constitutional freedoms and democracy, does more damage not just to her reputation and intelligence but also the better wisdom of the national party she represents. Mumbai is bursting at the seams, yes, but that is essentially because it is blessed since the days of the British with ample job opportunities for not just every section of society but also all streams of careers and professions. If these job opportunities cease, migration would automatically end but do the authorities wish for a city with a dead or stagnating economy to reduce the population?
Ten days before the Kamala Mills fire, there was a similar one in a farsan (savoury) shop in Andheri in north Mumbai which similarly trapped and killed a dozen workers sleeping in the loft. In both instances it is the municipal authorities who either ignored the security violations or allowed these to happen for other considerations. The government needs to crack down on corrupt officers along with those violating the laws to prevent such accidents in the future. Throwing out the population is no answer.
The Kamala Mills victims were rich and middle class. Those who died at the farsan shop were poor labourers. All, like Hema Malini, were immigrants who make the city what it is today. Mumbai would be poorer without any of them. They all belong to Mumbai. The city is a mother to all of them, without exception.
Senior journalist and political commentator