The ongoing gang-rape saga in India has taken some decidedly strange and unexpected turns.
Three weeks after a brutal sexual assault on a 23-year-old female medical student on a Delhi bus, India has taken a good long look at itself and how it has historically mistreated its women and are now demanding changes in its society’s attitude and laws.
But some demagogues are exploiting this tragedy for their own ends by seeking to create divisions among people.
One such actor in this sad tale is none other than the notorious Raj Thackeray, the leader of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, or MNS, the Mumbai-based Maharashtrian nationalist party that has long fomented hostility against migrants from other parts of India who have flocked to the state in recent years in search of jobs.
MNS has complained that migrants from northern and eastern India have taken away jobs in Mumbai that rightfully belong to the native Marathis.
People from Bihar, a huge, backward and impoverished state in India’s northeast, represent one of Thackeray’s principal targets -- he has now accused Biharis of committing not only the much-publicized gang rape in Delhi, but also a disproportionate amount of sexual assaults in the country.
"All are talking about the Delhi gang rape, but nobody is asking where these men came from. No one is asking who did this. No one is talking about the fact that all these rapists are from Bihar," Thackeray said, adding that even the chief minister of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, has commented on the wave of crimes committed by Bihari migrants in the capital city. "The system has collapsed.”
At least one of the six men arrested in the Delhi gang rape does indeed hail from Bihar. The New York Times reported that Akshay Thakur, who faces a potential death penalty if convicted of all charges, comes from the poor, remote village of Lahangkarma in Bihar. The origins of the other five defendants in the case are unknown.
Nonetheless, government officials in Bihar have taken offense to Thackeray’s incendiary comments.
Bihar’s State Animal Husbandry Minister Giriraj Singh of the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, told Indian media that Thackeray had lost his "mental balance" and demanded that the MNS be outlawed.
“Nobody can be permanent in politics by spreading communal discord. The election commission must dismiss his party, because such statements are not constitutionally accepted,” Singh said.
Lalu Prasad Yadav, the president of the Rashtriya Janata Dal party and former chief minister of Bihar, said Thackeray has a "habit of speaking in this manner" and that the authorities should punish him.
"It has become a habit of Thackeray and his extended family [the extreme nationalist Shiv Sena] to insult Bihari migrants all the time and for all crimes taking place in the country," he said.
Ali Anwar, the Bihari leader of the Janata Dal-United party, characterized Thackeray as “mad.”
“He is insane, and there is no use commenting on his statements. He should make such comments outside Mumbai or in any other part of the country, and then he will see the consequences. He has a mania for making such illogical statements and disrespecting people,” he said.
The ruling Congress party indicated that MNS has sexual criminals among its very own ranks.
"Last month, an MNS leader was arrested for raping a minor girl. Three years ago, a minor domestic help was gang-raped by four MNS workers. An MNS leader was arrested for the rape of a girl in Amravati in April 2011," Maharashtra state Congress spokesperson Sachin Sawant said.
"Raj Thackeray is bereft of issues and is resorting to such statements to divert attention from his [party's] actions. Instead of holding a particular state responsible for heinous acts like rape, he should control his activists, which will bring down the crime rate in Maharashtra. His recent statement is an example of his irresponsibility and shallow thinking.”
Another Congress spokesperson, Rashid Alvi, said such remarks could threaten India’s stability.
“Some [people] are differentiating between Bihar and Maharashtra. This is unfortunate, and such remarks will weaken the country and its democracy,” he said.
Thackeray has a history of making disparaging remarks against workers from both Bihar and neighboring Uttar Pradesh who have moved west to Mumbai and Delhi --- he even called them illegal immigrants even though they are from the same country as he.
But MNS is not just engaged in verbal smears; some of its members have physically attacked workers from these impoverished northeastern states.
Thackeray has been accused of hate speech dozens of times over his career, but he has never been charged or prosecuted.
However, Bihar does indeed have a very negative reputation within India.
Nestled between Nepal to the north and West Bengal to the south, Bihar ironically gave birth to the peaceful religion of Buddhism -- Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) is closely linked to the region that now encompasses Bihar and attained “enlightenment” there.
Over the centuries, however, a poisonous atmosphere of criminality and violence seeped into Bihar that is so deep that no one flinches when a local judge or politician is accused of committing murder or rape or other serious infractions of the law. Criminal gangs and politicians work hand in hand in Bihar and are frequently one in the same.
If the endemic corruption was not enough of a burden, Bihar is also wracked by communal violence between Hindus and Muslims, deep caste divisions and a decades-long insurgency by Maoist guerillas. Murders and kidnappings are commonplace, infrastructure is crumbling or nonexistent, and public services are dismal.
Bihar is essentially a medieval feudal society that has somehow survived into the 21st century, in defiance of the economic prosperity found in other parts of India. A handful of powerful and wealthy land barons and businessmen control much of the land (including farms and coal/iron ore mines), often with the help of compromised police and mafia-like private armies, while the overwhelming majority of the people work in agriculture and barely make a living.
A report from the World Bank said that almost 40 percent of Bihar’s 90 million people live below the poverty line, sending millions of desperate people to look for work in glittering urban centers like Mumbai and Delhi.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.