The heart of what was then Bombay city was bathed in blood in January 1956. The Bombay police were ordered to fire on peaceful demonstrators who were on the streets to demand a linguistic state for the Marathi speaking people, with Bombay as its capital.
The government in New Delhi had already agreed to the right of other linguistic groups to form states, but was dilly-dallying when it came to Maharashtra.
Eighty-three people were mowed down in what remains one of the most brutal police attacks on a peaceful rally in independent India. The total number of people who lost their lives in the movement: 106.
These martyrs have now become the center of a renewed political battle as the state of Maharashtra prepares to celebrate its golden jubilee on 1 May. Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party is trying to build on its huge success in the recent municipal elections in Navi Mumbai, and has plastered Mumbai with posters reminding citizens that 23 of the 105 martyrs were from other communities, thus trying to position itself apart from the two Senas run by the warring Thackeray cousins. The list of martyrs includes Muslims, Jews, Christians, Parsis and North Indians. While it is not clear how many of these were Marathi speakers — the Konkani Muslims, Bene Israelis and the Christian East Indians of Vasai speak Marathi as their mother tongue — the broader point of the NCP posters is well taken.
The movement for a united Maharashtra was led by a rainbow coalition — the writer P.K. Atre, the communist S.A. Dange, the socialist S.M. Joshi, the social reformer Prabodhankar Thackeray, the Gandhian Senapati Bapat, the economist D.R. Gadgil, the peasant leader Keshavrao Jedhe and the proletarian bard Shahir Amar Sheikh, among others. The January 1956 killings angered moderate opinion as well. A miffed C.D. Deshmukh, India’s finest finance minister till Manmohan Singh came along, resigned from the Nehru cabinet.
The overall political leaning of this leadership was to the moderate Left, and there were hopes that the state that eventually emerged from the bloody battles would be progressive in both social and economic terms. In fact, the battle for Bombay was split along class lines. The business class that funded the Congress wanted the city to become a Union Territory that it could control while the predominantly-Marathi working class wanted it to be the capital of a progressive Maharashtra.
Fifty years later, the latter dream is in a shambles. The state is deep in debt, the epicenter of farmer suicides, threatened by Naxalite insurgency at its peripheries, struggles with immense deprivation in many districts and has seen its industrial supremacy threatened by other states, even as power has been captured by a narrow and venal political elite linked to the sugar lobby.
Meanwhile, Mumbai has lost its green spaces as successive governments changed rules to benefit builders, its infrastructure has not kept pace with population growth and the social composition of many old parts of the city has changed.