On Tuesday and Wednesday, an estimated two million people gathered in beaches and on river fronts and lake shores across Mumbai and Navi Mumbai to celebrate Chhath Puja. Juhu beach alone hosted nearly seven lakh people, police officials said. Chhath Puja is celebrated by fasting women mainly from Bihar, Jharkhand and parts of Uttar Pradesh to seek the sun god’s blessings for their families.

That the festival passed off peacefully, without an angry word hurled or a hand raised, is nothing short of a wonder. There wasn’t a squeak of protest from the Shiv Sena and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena – a dramatic U-turn from their belligerent attitudes and incensed views over the last decade towards Chhath Puja and the “Uttar Bharatiyas” or “outsiders” (to Mumbai) who celebrate it.

On the contrary, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray is set to attend an event organised by the Uttar Bharatiya Mahapanchayat Sangh in Kandivili, a northern suburb of Mumbai, on December 2. The city’s northern suburbs have pockets with substantial North Indian migrant populations. North Indians make up 28% of Mumbai’s population and are the second largest group after Maharashtrians. The Uttar Bharatiya Mahapanchayat Sangh may not be the largest or most influential organisation of the community in Mumbai, but this could be the start of a new friendship, and a dramatic departure from 2008.

Ten years ago, Thackeray had ridiculed Chhath Puja as “drama”, “political tamasha” and a “show of arrogance” by North Indians. “Where did this Chhath Puja start?” he asked. “On this soil, you will have to live like Maharashtrians.” Opposition to the festival swiftly gave way to an anti-migrant, anti-outsider agenda, with migrants accused of taking away jobs from Maharashtrians in Mumbai. “Bhaiyya”, a term for North Indians, became a slur.

Anti-outsider card

Thackeray’s belligerent words were a signal to his cadre to flex their muscles on the streets of Mumbai. Young North Indian men participating in railway recruitment exams in and around Mumbai were roughed up, taxi and autorickshaw drivers from the community were beaten up and their vehicles set aflame, street vendors threatened and their goods vandalised. At a rally marking his party’s second anniversary in 2008, Thackeray threatened, “Let Lalu Prasad Yadav come and do Chhath Puja outside my house… he will not go back.” Yadav, a former chief minister of Bihar, was Union railway minister at the time.

This led to howls of protest in Parliament. A Union minister called for Thackeray’s arrest under the National Security Act. The Congress-led government’s supposedly timid handling of Thackeray, and of Shiv Sena cadre competing with him for a share of the anti-migrant action, drew severe criticism. Each party was trying to consolidate its pro-Maharashtrian, “sons of the soil” commitment. At the height of this agitation, a Bihari man, Rahul Raj, was killed by the Mumbai Police in what many have called a fake encounter.

At the time, Thackeray faced some 16 police cases and had a string of non-bailable warrants out against him. He was briefly arrested over violence in Bandra. The Mumbai Police also issued a gag order, which saw him soften his stance a bit. By the end of 2008, Thackeray was saying that he “did not oppose Chhath Puja but the politics around it”.

Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray is set to attend an event organised by North Indian communities in Mumbai on December 2. (Credit: IANS)

Thackeray’s U-turn

Ten years on, Thackeray is at a now-or-never moment in his political journey. The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena barely made a dent in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections while it slipped from 13 Assembly seats to just one in the state polls that same year. In elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation in February 2017, his party won seven seats in the 227-member House, down from 28 five years earlier. Even the Congress managed to win 31 seats without thumping the “Marathi manoos” drum.

In the battle for Marathi votes, Thackeray’s bete noire and former party, the Shiv Sena, now has the clear upper hand. The sons and daughters of the soil backed the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena in its initial years but have since returned to the stability, purpose and power that the Shiv Sena, headed by Thackeray’s cousin Uddhav Thackeray, holds. In such a situation, it would be foolish for Raj Thackeray to continue his estrangement with the Uttar Bharatiya communities, especially with Lok Sabha and Assembly elections coming up in 2019. He needs all the votes he can get, including any votes of the Opposition parties he can cut into.

Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leaders deny their U-turn on Chhath Puja and North Indians has anything to do with next year’s elections. “Raj-saab” is against the politics of it all, not the puja itself, they protest. The irony of first politicising the Marathi vote in their party’s favour and then reaching out to former adversaries for political reasons seems to elude them.

The Thackeray cousins have perhaps realised it is not possible to have a meaningful political engagement in Mumbai without including North Indians. Raj Thackeray’s softening stance towards Uttar Bharatiyas is a sign that he is willing to shake hands with them, even if it is tentative and need-based. The Shiv Sena has, meanwhile, taken a number of North Indians on board as lower-level office-bearers. It cannot be anti-North Indian in Mumbai and head to Ayodhya to demand a Ram temple at the same time.

Politicisation of Chhath

“What is clear is that there is now acceptance across the board that you cannot be anti-Uttar Bharatiya and still do electoral politics in Mumbai,” said Sanjay Nirupam, the Congress’ Mumbai chief.

A former journalist, Nirupam is Bihari and has consistently spoken up for North Indians in the state. He was among the first to start a public-political celebration of Chhath Puja in Mumbai back in the late 1990s, despite then being a part of the Shiv Sena. He roped in filmstars like Amitabh Bachchan for the celebrations, which thus took on another dimension altogether. As the event grew bigger and drew more organisers with each passing year, all the political parties wanted a piece of the pie.

Parties in Maharashtra now consider the annual Chhath Puja on par with Ganeshotsav or Dahi Handi, both festivals they fund and use as platforms to consolidate the Marathi vote. During Chhath festivities this week, the Bihari Front, an organisation of which Nirupam is a member, put up banners with images of Congress president Rahul Gandhi. The Bharatiya Janata Party-affiliated Chhath Puja Mahasangh had Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis as its chief guest. The Mahasangh’s president, Amarjeet Mishra, is a general secretary of the BJP in Mumbai.

That the Chhath Puja, once unloved in Mumbai, is now an important date on political calendars points to the growing influence of North Indians in the city’s daily life. From the supply of milk, vegetables and fruits to the network of security guards in residential buildings and taxi and autorickshaw drivers on the streets, North Indians dominate 48 services in the city, by one estimate.

This prompted Nirupam to say earlier this month that “if the community decides to stop work for a day, Mumbai will grind to a halt”. To which Maharashtra Navnirman Sena spokesperson Sandeep Deshpande retorted, “Challenging Congress’ Bhaiyya [Nirupam] to bring Mumbai to a halt.” This shows the two parties are still sparring over North Indians and “Bhaiyya” is still used as an insult. But it is also true that the Chhath Puja is no longer a time for Raj Thackeray’s threats and violence.

Smruti Koppikar is a Mumbai-based journalist and editor writing on politics, urban issues, gender and media.