How Maharashtrian is Mumbai, really?

Past is present.
Past is present.
Image: EPA/Jaipal Singh
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Figures differ and are controversial but everyone broadly agrees that something like 60% of the population of Mumbai comprises non-Maharashtrians. The state’s politicians say that this is a consequence of migration to the city from elsewhere in India and perhaps it is. But equally, other figures show that 70% of migrants to Mumbai come from other parts of Maharashtra.

So how Maharashtrian is Mumbai, really?

Well, originally at least, not very. The city was created by the British who reclaimed much of it from the sea, and then developed by Parsis, Gujaratis, Muslims, and other communities. The Maharashtrians always had a large role to play—the textile mills which first contributed to the city’s prosperity, ran on the basis of their hard work. But there is no evidence to suggest that their role was significantly greater than that of many other communities. And you could argue that were it not for a political decision—the naming of Bombay as the capital of the new state of Maharashtra in 1960—they would have no special claim to it.

In fact, there are few historical connections: The great Maratha Kingdoms never included Bombay and even the RSS chose Nagpur as its headquarters.

For all Maharashtrian politicians, Mumbai/Bombay has remained a source of glamour, envy, and outrage.


You can sense the hunger to dominate Bombay in the aggravation over its name. Many cities have had their names changed: Madras is Chennai, Bangalore is Bengaluru, Calcutta is Kolkata, and so on. But only in Bombay/Mumbai does the new name matter so much. Cinema halls will be attacked if a character dares refer to Bombay rather than Mumbai. 

Shopkeepers will be threatened if their signboards do not give their address as “Mumbai.” So why should it matter so much? Nobody will beat you up in Bengaluru if you still use the old name. Why is Mumbai so different? I guess it is because of the central conflict between the city and the state: Maharashtrians run Mumbai now and want us all to acknowledge that.


The city of Mumbai, where the Gateway of India is located, has always been the centre of conflict between the various communities in the country. This is the city that makes Maharashtra the leading state in the country, acting like the gateway to the rest of India for Maharashtrians from different regions of the state.

But it is a city built not just by Maharashtrians alone. Large sections of people from across India have contributed to what it is today. Though some political parties may wish to lay exclusive claim to Mumbai today, their xenophobic campaigns, aimed at ridding the metropolis of all its non-Maharashtrian residents, are clearly not just short-sighted but also historically incorrect. 

That is because the city has had a chequered past in terms of ownership and its resident communities, and no singular ethnic group can claim exclusive rights over its land and its people. The seven islands that were joined together by the British to create the city of Bombay—as the city was known then—were actually ruled by Muslim kings until the advent of the western colonialists. As a result, the biggest landlords of Mumbai are still Muslim and Christian trusts and these communities continue to control large swathes of land within the domain of the seven islands. The original ruler of these seven islands was Sultan Mohammad Shah who “sold” two islands to the Portuguese in the 16th century in return for their protection against the Mughals.


Eventually, however, the Portuguese took over all the islands from the local rulers but seemed to have no idea what to make of the disparate pieces of land mostly occupied by indigenous fishing communities, such as the Kolis, who even today dominate the fishing industry and are considered the original inhabitants of Mumbai. However, when Prince Charles II married Catherine of Braganza in 1662, the islands passed as her dowry into the possession of the British, who believed they had been cheated out of substantial sums and handed a dud by the Portuguese.

It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that the British recognised the strategic value of these islands and began the process of reclaiming land from the waters surrounding the disparate islands to join them into a single mass of land. The British laid roads and railways and soon Bombay developed into a strategic naval defence installation as well as a viable commercial seaport, displacing Surat in Gujarat from its pre-eminent position in this regard.


Once the British began to give primacy to Bombay over Surat, much of Surat’s trading activities shifted to Bombay as did many of its resident entrepreneurs—Gujaratis, Bohra, Khoja Muslims, and Parsis, who soon gave Bombay an uncharacteristically Gujarati flavour. Perhaps the migration of these communities from neighbouring Gujarat was essential because Maharashtra did not have its own traditional class/caste of traders.


Thus Bombay had a liberal and anglicised character, which influenced even native Maharashtrians who either frequently visited the island city or made it their home. The Bombay Presidency under the British later morphed into Bombay Province and then into a bilingual (Gujarati and Marathi) state after independence. It became the capital of Maharashtra after a bitter contest between Maharashtrians and Gujaratis, prior to the states’ reorganisation in 1960.


The fact that Bombay is still India’s financial and commercial capital, that it continues to be cosmopolitan in nature and is more liberal and westernised than other districts or other leading cities of Maharashtra, and that there is no single monolithic culture that defines the Bombay or Mumbai of the 21st century, is all due to the British influence in the period stretching from the 19th century to the early 20th century. That British influence is visible in the politics of the city even today.

Soon after the British had developed Bombay—a name they inherited from the Portuguese who thought it was a good (bom) port (bahia) and hence named it Bombay—as a major seaport in the mid-19th century, they faced a huge industrial crisis back home. This crisis was caused by a major failure of the cotton crop in the United States of America, which was the chief source of raw cotton for the textile mills of Manchester.

Britain used this raw cotton to produce rich fabrics, which were exported to foreign markets, including markets in Europe, Far East and India. Looking to augment their supply of raw cotton, the British began to encourage cotton farming in western India. As it turned out, most of their raw cotton came from the Central Provinces and Berar region, which is part of present-day Vidarbha. This region was also a major supplier of oilseeds and jowar.

The transport of raw cotton from the interiors to the ports of Bombay and onwards to Britain did not come without some risks. Much of the raw material tended to be destroyed by seepage and the vagaries of nature. Hence the British encouraged, in a limited fashion, the setting up of textile mills within the reclaimed city, which soon became a mini-Manchester of the east.

Even today, vast tracts of land in the modern metropolis are mill lands established in those times. These mills, set up by the British and enterprising individuals from neighbouring Gujarat, have greatly contributed to the demographic composition of Mumbai, and continue to influence its politics today. For while the mill owners were almost all rich Gujaratis, their workers were local Maharashtrians, and since the city’s native settlers were largely fishermen, much of the workforce came from the hinterland of Maharashtra.

Excerpted with permission from Rupa Publications from Maharashtra Maximus: The State, Its People & Politics by Sujata Anandan. We welcome your comments at