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Amitabh swept up in anti-immigrant backlash

NEW DELHI (Reuters Life!) - India’s biggest film star Amitabh Bachchan is at the centre of violent regional rivalries in the commercial hub of Mumbai, where a local political party is leading a campaign against millions of migrants who control the city’s economy.

Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan waves to his fans at the airport in Chandigarh January 21, 2008. Bachchan is at the centre of violent regional rivalries in the commercial hub of Mumbai, where a local political party is leading a campaign against millions of migrants who control the city's economy. REUTERS/Ajay Verma/Files

Bachchan, who hails from Uttar Pradesh and found fame and fortune in Mumbai, has become a lightening rod of criticism that immigrants have sidelined Maharashtrians, the city’s original inhabitants.

Leading the charge is Raj Thackeray, head of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), a party campaigning against “outsiders” which has targeted migrants from northern India that it accuses of robbing Maharashtrians of jobs.

Party workers have intimidated migrants, damaged vehicles and beaten up taxi drivers, most of whom are from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, police say.

For generations, willing-to-do-anything migrants from these two states and elsewhere have flooded Mumbai, displacing Maharashtrians in jobs and taking control of the economy.

Thackeray last week called Bachchan ungrateful, saying proof of this lay in the fact that he was building a girls’ school in Uttar Pradesh and not Maharashtra, whose capital is Mumbai.

Bachchan’s wife, an actress-politician, stoked the controversy by saying she did not know who Raj Thackeray was.

On Sunday, MNS workers attacked theatres screening films in the northern Indian language of Bhojpuri, beat up dozens of migrants and damaged their vehicles.

Witnesses and media said two people riding a motorcycle stopped in front of Bachchan’s home early on Monday, and hurled abuse before throwing a bottle at the well-guarded residence, although this specific attack was denied by police.

“There have been some disturbing incidents and we are making arrests,” Mumbai police officer K.L. Prasad said. But he denied the attack on Bachchan’s home.

The MNS says the incidents were a spontaneous reaction by Maharashtrians angered by insults to their leaders.

“It’s not us who are raising the issue of outsiders. It is outsiders who are playing politics on the migrant issue,” MNS spokesman Wagish Saraswat told Reuters.

He said the MNS would do what it takes to demand more jobs for the “sons of the soil” and respect for the locals from migrants. Maharashtrians form only about 30 percent of Mumbai’s more than 17 million population.

The issue had surfaced in Mumbai during the 1990s when the Hindu nationalist party of Shiv Sena attacked migrants. But the party changed tack after realising the crucial role immigrants played in the economy.

The MNS was founded after Thackeray broke away from Shiv Sena in 2005.

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