Democracy versus Bombay

We are, for the immediately foreseeable future, a long distance from Bombay, or would perhaps write more cautiously. Calling it “Bombay” would be the first incautious note. This was the name given to the city by the British, who founded it. From the start it was an entrepôt; through centuries it became home to a great variety of peoples.

However the British came upon that name — probably from Portuguese, for it was the Portuguese who ceded the territory to the British East India Company — there was never a place named “Mumbai.” This new name, which the whole world’s gliberal media quickly adopted after official proclamation in 1996, is actually a corruption of “Bombay” in Marathi. “Mumbai” happens to be the name in Gujarati, too, but this was mere accident; it was imposed as an act of Marathi chauvinism. (A Gujarati speaking in English would say, “Bombay.”) Various alternative etymologies have been offered, all of them fanciful, & all advanced by political wingnuts.

The British even supplied most of the land, beginning in the late 18th century. The site was originally seven small shallow-water islands, much flooded at high tide, along the western rim of a natural deep harbour. They were a fisherman’s perch, & a navigation hazard. In 1782 the governor, William Hornby, began the land reclamation project with a causeway linking these islands. To this was added successive wonders of civil engineering, until by the middle of the next century Bombay had grown physically into the Manhattan of the Indian subcontinent, sea-walled where necessary above the tide line.

It was the capital of the British presidency of Bombay; it became the capital of the State of Bombay after Indian independence. In 1960, the state of Maharashtra was created, as an ethnic domain corresponding vaguely to the old Hindu marches that hemmed & threatened the Mughal Empire. Maratha warriors were genuinely fearsome, in their day.

Bombay became the capital of Maharashtra, being in it though not of it. The kind of statistics one reads in e.g. the Wicked Paedia are highly misleading, for by generalizing they suggest that Maharashtra is among India’s richest states. Populous it is (more inhabitants than Mexico), but rich it is not. Bombay is, by the standards of modern India, filthy stinking rich. So, to some degree, is Poona (“Pune” in current political jargon). Nagpur may have moments. But the rest of Maharashtra just lowers the averages.

Let us walk into the Bombay Stock Exchange (still defiantly so called) in our imagination. We have done so in our person, but not recently. Yet to this day, we are assured, it is full of Gujaratis, with a fair sprinkling of Parsees & many other ethnic & linguistic avatars, freely trading with each other. One will hear a lot more English than Hindi (the ethnic language of north-western & north India, imposed on the rest of India by politicians); & hardly ever Marathi. This is spontaneous, not legislated multiculturalism; for the beating capitalist heart of Bombay is not ethnic. Nor can it become ethnic except by political intervention.

To this day, the Marathis, who do indeed supply a great mass of the city’s labourers, & people most of its slums, make better farmers & craftsmen & soldiers & have, for all their numbers in Bombay, not flourished as investors & industrialists & traders. (They control Bollywood, however; a scene almost as ugly as Hollywood.) Beneath this lies deep cultural history; & we do not mean to condemn the Marathis, for as gentle reader may have observed, we are partial to farmers & craftsmen & soldiers; & actors & actresses & musicians for that matter.

We are however opposed to populists & bigots, & this is where the chauvinist Marathi politician, Bal Thackeray, comes in.

Caution two: we wouldn’t be writing this in Bombay just now, while “Bala-sahib” has lain for months on his deathbed, & where units of India’s Rapid Action Force & myriad anti-riot squads wait upon news of his medical developments. For the man “Thackeray,” once a newspaper cartoonist, was the founder of Shiv Sena, an extremely ugly political party built on the ministrations of thuggees & goondas. They are “bad news for Jews” (yes, Bombay has Jews), & for every other ethnicity that is not Hindu Marathi, including Muslims (of which Bombay has plenty), & Parsees, & Christians of all origins. And Buddhist Marathis, too, who converted to escape the stigma of the “untouchable” caste. Also, potentially or actually bad news for any prominent Marathi of an independent disposition. In other words, bad news all round for anyone not in the client demographic.

But numbers, not truths, are what tell in a democracy. And to the great Marathi masses, Bal Thackeray is a kind of saviour. His Shiv Sena has always promised to deliver into their hands what could not be obtained, except through politics: chiefly, other people’s possessions.

The name “Thackeray” is incidentally fake. It was actually “Thakre” to start with, & not even Maharashtrian, for the family hailed from Bihar. The Anglicization was in this case pure pretence; “Bala-sahib” pronounces it as if it were English, as in William Makepeace Thackeray (whose Indian links were to Calcutta instead). Likewise, his descendants have attended the Bombay Scottish School; it is a prestige thing.

Hitler, for that matter, was not actually a German; & we mention him advisedly. Thackeray has often praised Hitler, & presented him as someone who did for the Germans what he proposes to do for the Marathis. (Ask a German today what boons Hitler conferred upon the Germans.) Thackeray has perhaps as often angrily denied that he has ever praised Hitler. It depends, as it does with demagogues everywhere, on the day of the week & the time of the day.

It was Bala-sahib Thackeray who got the “Mumbai” ball rolling, just as it was he who contributed through the years not only to Maharashtrian thug politics — financed through protection rackets — but to the pan-Indian Hindu nationalism that offers the planet something to look forward to when fanatic Islam relaxes. He has done this through a bewildering array of party alliances of convenience, each of which tends to prove most convenient to the nastiest party. And although he is quite mortal, he has left this earth a delinquent nephew, named Raj Shrikant Thackeray, to carry on his work. Raj, also known locally as “Mini-me Thackeray,” embodies a Marathi chauvinism that makes his uncle sometimes seem by comparison modest, gentle, & wise. He lacks his uncle’s almost charmingly sick sense of humour.

We are not proposing to write a book on Indian politics at this moment. The interested reader could acquaint himself with background, foreground, & prospects of doom, by long & patient study. The limit of our present ambition is to call attention to a phenomenon too frequently overlooked. It is about democracy, & it helps to explain why we don’t like it much.

Thackeray is a product of democratic politics, who could rise in no other. So was Hitler: not merely the winner of a crucial German election, but a man who could not rise except atop a party machine, whose very existence was predicated upon the democratic style of representative institutions. So was Mussolini; so was Lenin; so was Mao. Shiv Sena, the Nazis, the Fascists, the Communists, & every other manifestation of tribal & totalitarian irredentism, was made possible by the historical emergence of the party model; easily exported to places where “democracy” itself had never been, via the European empires.

Such parties do not necessarily come to power by free election; but the very condition for nationalist & socialist advance is party-political. Moreover, even without winning elections or ever achieving formal power, such parties can exert a decisive influence on the course of political events — compelling other parties to make concessions in order to keep the real crazies from power.

The nationalism & the socialism are the obverse & reverse of a single coin. One side flips to the other, then back, as needed; both offer the appropriation of the individual by the mass, & the replacement of God with the Leviathan. That is, both identically herald the self-worship of mass-man.

There is of course much more to be said on this. But we are trying to give an indication of what needs saying: that those truly opposed to nationalism & socialism, & more generally to Godless tyranny, will observe its chief modern source & cause. In a single word, loaded with cant, it is “democracy”: the politics of the mob.

There are many words to oppose this cant expression, all of which revert from the general to the particular, again. In English one of our favourites is, “Bombay.”