Heritage architects have complained for years that the Soviet-style concrete statue next to the Flora Fountain ruins the visual sweep of the Fort’s colonial facades and streetscape. But did you ever wonder what this monument is supposed to commemorate? Fifty years ago this year, the struggle for Samyukta Maharashtra spilled onto the streets of the city formerly known as Bombay.
This socialist realist sculpture was later erected as a martyrs’ memorial to Marathi nationalism — the Hutatma Chowk — marking the 105 people who died in protests against Nehru’s plan to make Bombay into a City State after Independence. Like with the Shivaji statue opposite the Gateway of India, the statue at Hutatma Chowk was intentionally placed to ruin a view of a famous colonial landmark, and reorient the symbolic geography of the city.
The battle for Mumbai heated up when the States Reorganisation Committee report, published in 1955, recommended statehood for Telugus in Andhra Pradesh, in the old princely state of the Nizam of Hyderabad. But the same report proposed the erstwhile Bombay State either be a bi-lingual Marathi-Gujarati unit with Bombay as its capital, or that Bombay be made an Union Territory, separate from the linguistic states of Gujarat and Maharashtra.
These proposals stirred a popular outcry against the denial of a Marathi state without Bombay, and a coalition of anti-Congress activists and political parties united in the demand for Mumbai to be the capital of a united Maharashtra — from Socialists, Communists and trade unions to the Marathi press, literati and workers across the city. After popular unrest and street violence, the Centre capitulated, and made Mumbai into the capital of the new state of Maharashtra on 1 May 1960.
It is no coincidence that Maharashtra Diwas is also May Day, the annual holiday when working-class solidarity is celebrated throughout the world. Samyukta Maharashtra was important because the demand for linguistic statehood was in Mumbai combined with a popular movement against rigid class hierarchies in an industrial city dominated by big business interests.
In the years before and after Independence, city politics was a conducted in back-room deals between the Congress Party cronies and fat-cat industrialists — the Parsi, Gujarati and Marwari sheths and sahebs of the popular imagination. It was this corrupt party machinery, identified with S.K. Patil and the party bosses, that was targeted by the Samyukta Maharashtra movement as unrepresentative, and not in keeping with the new order of things in independent India, where common people should participate in governance.
While today we identify the official changing of the name of the city from Bombay to Mumbai with the Shiv Sena in 1995, it was a generation earlier, during Samyuka Maharashtra, that “Mumbai” was first extensively used in the public sphere to signify a city different from “Bombay”. For Acharya Atre, S.A. Dange, and Prabodhakar Thackeray (father of Balasaheb) — the leaders of Samyukta Maharashtra — Mumbai was to be a working-class city with better employment opportunities and social justice for all — not just a city that spoke Marathi, favoured sons of the soil, and suspected outsiders of stealing their jobs.
Class justice was as important as linguistic unity in the socialist vision of the Samyukta Maharashtra. The Shiv Sena was founded in 1966, more than ten years after the Samyukta Maharashtra movement, when the city’s economy stagnated and shrunk, and popular dissatisfaction with the hopes of statehood led to the emergence of more parochial forms of linguistic politics.