If there was ever a man to invoke the kinds of crowds that are generally reserved for weekday mornings in trains from Virar to VT, it had to be Bal Thackeray. It finally happened. The man they called the Tiger passed away to pastures new. Cue
angry mourning Shiv Sainiks going from apartment to apartment asking people to take down their Diwali lights, asking the local shopkeeps to pull down their shutters and generally emptying the streets. In an island city teeming with over 22 million residents, the sight of an empty street is as rare as a pig in flight. The unforeseen happened. No, no they did not find a swine in flight. They found several empty streets in Bombay. So, who was this person and why did people fear respect him to such an extent that they would be willing to sacrifice their annual celebrations of the Festival of Lights, close down their stores on the day when they would probably rake in a good amount of business selling their wares.
Bal Thackeray was a right-wing leader of an ethnocentric party that catered to the rights (?!) of the natives of Maharashtra. He championed various causes during the course of his long political career. Some valid, some controversial and some downright ignorant. As a cartoonist in his early days, he focused his attention towards creating a separate linguistic state of Maharashtra. But then saw the “immigration” and hence growing influence of marwaris, gujratis and south indians in to Bombay. This led his party workers to start violently targeting said workers from other states.
Certain causes he fought were quite valid which included an end to Pakistan sponsored terrorism which particularly hurt Bombay the most, the limiting of freebies offered to Dalits. Let me go in further to describe this one. Dalits were, at a time very early in Independent India, considered the untouchable caste. So, Dr. Ambedkar, who was a Dalit rights activist and also one of the main authors of the Indian Constitution suggested that certain rights be reserved for Dalits, but only for a period of 10 years, by which time they should be self-sufficient. But 66 years hence, Dalits have more than 60% reservation in most walks of life including premier educational institutions.
But as a young boy watching an old Muslim man have his beard set on fire in the middle of the street, 1992 was quite a harrowing year for a 6 year old me. The communal riots that ensued after the Babri Masjid demolition by Hindu Extremist leaders, was horribly destructive and led to so many innocent lives being lost. Religious tensions were at their peak in Bombay in that year. This was followed by 1993 Bombay bombings which was claimed to be a retaliatory strike by Muslim extremists for demolishing the Babri Masjid, the killing of innocent muslims and inactivity of the police towards these innocent muslims. Ever since that incident, Bombay just became an easy target for Pakistan sponsored terrorism and people who live there are in constant fear of being killed, yet carry on with their lives one day at a time.
In times like these, it’s hard not to hate a man whose every single ideology revolved around the concept of Hindutva. Religion based politics have been the bane of our country ever since it got independence. And with regional sentiments seeded in people’s minds, the non-Maharashtrians were viewed as the enemy. Personally, I have lived in Bombay for the most part of my life and would still consider it my home and my city even though I am not remotely Marathi speaking, even though I am a Maharashtrian.
Balasaheb was undoubtedly gifted with an intuitive skill to sense the fissures within our social fabric, divided on caste ,religion, language and ethnic origins. It was no co-incidence that he realised the potential of a huge political capital in this divided sense of identity, particularly in a metropolis city like Bombay. Considered historically as a city of opportunities, it was only natural that people from across the country of all hues would pour into Bombay, to eke out a living or to realise their dreams. Bombay was destined to have a multi-layered composition of its populace . Plurality in terms of language, religion and ethnicity has always been the essence of its identity. A talented political cartoonist then, for Thackeray, this was a perfect setting to arouse and incite a dormant regional identity of the Maharashtrians, giving birth to a myth called “Marathi Manus”. Deftly using a combination of satire, sarcasm and vitriolic, his oratory and prose succeeded in solidifying this myth in the minds of aimless, rudderless Marathi youths of an entire generation.
Marginalisation and cultural isolation in one’s own homeland is indeed a strong passion of victimhood that has huge political value. Thackeray, the politician, used it unabashedly as an effective currency and a potent tool to carve out a distinct political space in Maharashtra. Shiv Sena ,thus became the Nazi party of this Fuhrer, Sainiks, his storm troopers, let loose on the streets. The agenda was plain and simple. Threaten, persecute and terrorise all “outsiders”- read non Maharashtrians. This admirer of Adolf Hitler could shockingly play out with impunity the dangerous game of identity politics, as long as there were targets. From South-Indians to Gujaratis to North-Indians(UP/Bihar) to Muslims, he and his party invented the causes that were inimical to the interests of his Marathi Manus, and so accordingly targeted. What he preached through the party mouth piece “Saamna” , his storm troopers would practice on the streets of Mumbai and Pune. The “pride” instilled in the Marathi Manus was borne out of prejudice against target groups, rather than positive virtues inherent in them. Thankfully, the goons in the guise of Sainiks could not carry out ethnic cleansing and restricted their terror tactics to vandalism, destructions, arson and injuring their victims. Slowly yet firmly, this paper tiger sent a strong signal to all non-natives that they were not welcome in Bombay. As he grew in strength, he colonised other parts of Maharashtra, notably Pune. For those who chose to stay on and continue to work in Maharashtra, he sought a tacit compromise. That is, to give in to his diktats as and when he issues them.
Later, as he and his senseless game of identity politics became increasingly irrelevant and a stale theme to arouse or disrupt, he expanded his themes .Although Balasaheb exhibited extreme right wing Hindu nationalistic ideology, the new targets like works of art and literature had wider implications than the narrow Marathi manoos cause. Ironically some of them, like his steadfast stand against any concession to Pakistan or whole hearted support to the Indian Army during the Kargil war were indeed welcome deviations. But essentially, he remained every inch a fuhrer till end. He revered in imposing his will on others, could not brook any dissidence or disagreement. Loyalty to him was the ultimate virtue. Authoritarianism, just as his idol Hitler, came naturally to him. Even Bollywood and business community could not afford to earn his ire and overtly offered obeisance to him to remain in his good books. The legacy of Balasaheb Thackeray, if at all there is one is unmistakably that of regional extremism, intolerance, rigidity of misplaced ideas, coercion, vandalism, arson, rioting, and plain goondaism. All of them, when put in one basket is what Shiv-Sena stands for today, in stark contrast and incongruent to the of 21st century progressive mindset.
Ironically Balasaheb’s legacy of intimidation played out most eloquently even in his death. While the Bombay police issued advisories to its citizens as if some calamity has struck streets and by lanes of this maximum city wore deserted looks with shops and services closing down, people remained indoors in hushed silence stocking up essentials for the impending crisis, the designs of the lurking legacy was unmistakably sinister.
With the end of the phenomenon called Balasaheb Thackeray, his hard core followers may feel deeply marooned. His progenies, Son Udhav and nephew Raj have inherited his legacy to a great extent, both genetically and by virtue of close proximity. MNS, the mutated version of Shiv-Sena is promising to outdo the latter in the dangerous game of identity politics. But eventually, like all such parochial mindsets, they are all destined to be lost in the quicksand of time as they will become irrelevant in the growing globalised identity and priorities of Bombaykars such as myself. If we have survived multiple terrorist attacks, this too shall pass.
RIP Balasaheb Thackeray.