Arguably the city with the most diversity in India, Mumbai also has enormous diversity in terms of pejorative terms used to stereotype communities. While some lend themselves to a good-humoured repartee, some lead to a rap on the knuckles from the High Court.
A division bench of the Bombay High Court on Tuesday chided a man for having used the term 'ghati' during an alleged drunken brawl with police officers. While lamenting that the police appear to be soft targets, one of the judges hearing the case pointed out that the word 'ghati' is taken as an abuse in Mumbai, as reported by The Indian Express.
In Mumbai, 'ghati' — literally meaning people from hilly regions — has a less benign connotation. Journalist S Hussain Zaidi, in his book Byculla to Bangkok, points out that north Indians in Mumbai sometimes refer to Marathi-speaking people as 'ghatis'. The term is part of a protracted conflict between different social groups in Mumbai spanning several decades, and can be used to map the history of tensions between diverse communities.
The aggressive nativist party Shiv Sena, in its early days, had primarily targeted people from South India. The party patriarch Bal Thackeray, in his speeches, referred to people from South India as 'yandu gundu' — making fun of languages from the region and chided them with slogans of 'uthao lungi aur bajao pungi.'
Not surprisingly, the name-calling was not restricted to regional communities, but has also entered popular discourse as a way of referring to religious groups. For instance, Christians are referred to as 'paav wala,' while Parsis are called 'bawa'. While the former refers to a preference for food items of foreign origin (e.g. bread), the latter is a stereotype of the typical Parsi as a bespectacled, bumbling, grumpy old man.
As the focus of the Shiv Sena's rage shifted to the north of the Godavari, the preferred term of vilification became 'bhaiyya'. This refers to people from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and depending on convenience, is used for any Hindi-speaking people, including those from Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh or Rajasthan.
Just as there are competing terms for different communities, there are competing terms for the city itself — with Mumbai, Bombay and Bambai all referring to competing claims over Mumbai's identity. The media, too, reflects this debate — the most recent example being The Independent, which took a decision to refer to the city as Bombay, rather than its official name, saying that it wanted to stand up to 'Hindu nationalism'. However, while the city was officially renamed in 1995, it had always been called Mumbai by the Marathi-speaking people, including the fishing community, the earliest inhabitants of the island. On the other end of the spectrum is the Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamana, which refuses to refer to Aurangabad by that name, choosing to call it 'Sambhajinagar', after the eldest son of Maratha warrior king Shivaji.
At times, the Bombay/Mumbai debate ceases to be an issue of semantics, and takes a violent turn. Some years ago, the film Wake up Sid faced violent protests from the Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), after the city was referred to in the film as 'Bombay.'
Clearly, much political anger in Mumbai revolves around names, and it is little surprise that this reflects in everyday conversations as well. In a context of competitive identity politics in an overcrowded city, political correctness over nomenclature appears to be the last priority.