Mavericks like Bal Thackeray create no dynasties; worse, they leave behind a greater chaos than they were able to create.
How this same rabble-rousing rhetoric found a resonance in the hearts of the jobless youth, the discontented lower middle class, the working class and the lumpen is a mystery.
It is the evening of the Dussehra Day. I am watching the Marathi channel of Star TV — Star Maazaa. I switched on my TV just minutes before the supremo of the Shiv Sena was mechanically brought by a lift on to the podium at Shivaji Park from where Bal Thackeray has addressed the annual rally of the Shiv Sena since 1967 when his party celebrated its first anniversary.
The man has aged and is obviously ailing. He is helped onstage by his prince-in-waiting, Uddhav. He is welcomed by his loyal ‘minister’ Manohar ‘Pant’ Joshi. As Balasaheb begins to speak in his familiar bass, pausing for effect, giving the audience cues for applause, the audience listens.
There is nothing new in his message and in his vituperative vocabulary and his sarcastic comments on his adversaries. The message is simply that he is still there, though nobody knows for how long.
People of my generation have known Bal Thackeray since he was an humble cartoonist for The Free Press Journal where I was initiated into journalism in the late 1950s. When I joined the paper, Thackeray had just left it to join a certain Hariharan who wanted to set up his own rival daily called Newsday from a small office right across Dalal Street. In the event, Newsday failed to take off, leaving its founding team high and dry. That was Bal’s last stint with an English-language publication.
It was not Bal, but his father the late Prabodhankar Keshav Sitaram Thackeray who was front page news during the Samyukta Maharashtra agitation for the creation of a reorganised linguistic state of Maharashtra. The senior Thackeray was a fiery orator and wrote in a razor-sharp, strident Marathi style full of allusions to the spirit of the first Hindu Maratha King Chhatrapati Shivaji. He was one of the architects of the Marathi-speaking state of Maharashtra that a reluctant Nehru had to concede in view of a Maharashtra-wide agitation.
As a college student, I took part in a satyagraha defying section 144 of the I.P.C. and spent two weeks in the Byculla jail in Mumbai.
However, it was Y.B. Chavan who got the credit for the creation of the new state, as he came to Mumbai as Nehru’s emissary to announce the launching of Maharashtra. The Samyukta Maharashtra agitation united all political parties against the Congress, then led by Jawaharlal Nehru himself. It was an omnibus front with varied passengers on board. The socialists, the communists, the Shetkari Kamkari Paksha, and disgruntled members of the Congress itself comprised its ideological spectrum. It was truly a mass movement.
The Chief Minister of Bombay then was none other than Morarji Desai and, despite his claim of being Gandhian, he ordered the police to fire at allegedly ‘unruly’ demonstrators at Flora Fountain. In the event, over 150 demonstrators lost their lives and this proved to be the turning point that caused the downfall of Morarji Desai’s government. Today, Flora Fountain is known as Hutatma Chowk or Martyrs’ Square.
That mass movement whipped up public hysteria and encouraged the rise of linguistic and regional chauvinism, jingoism, xenophobia, and paranoia. The Shiv Sena drew its strength from these leftover public sentiments after Maharashtra came into being with Y.B. Chavan as the state’s first Chief Minister.
Even during the Samyukta Maharashtra agitation, certain sections of Marathi-speaking Mumbaikars regarded Gujaratis and Kannadigas with suspicion and hostility. They were the first among the many ‘others’ that the Shiv Sena later targeted from time to time. Bal’s father, K.S. Thackeray, was bitterly opposed to the partition of British India and the creation of theocratic Pakistan. This had made him rabidly anti-Muslim and anti-secular.
Inheriting his father’s ideological legacy, Bal Thackeray chose Muslims as his perennial target and questioned their loyalty to what he still calls ‘Hindustan’. His other targets emerged as the population of Marathi-speaking Maharashtrians continued to relatively decline in Mumbai and ‘outsiders’ became a majority in the burgeoning megapolis.
In the late 1960s, the Shiv Sena flourished under the indirect patronage of Vasantrao Naik. Since the Shiv Sena was founded in 1966, Bal Thackeray’s bullying and blustering style has won him many devotees among those who look for cut and dried explanations for all their social and economic woes. H
owever, there is an effective fascist method in the madness of the Shiv Sena. It drew support in the working class neighbourhoods by eliminating labour union leaders and set up their own Kamgar Sena (Workers’ Army). This did not happen without gang-war style street fights and bloodshed. At the same time, the Kamgar Sena were patronised by industrial corporates to ‘solve’ their disputes with workers.
By 1968, the Shiv Sena received the secret support and encouragement of Vasantrao Naik, Maharashtra’s Chief Minister appointed by Indira Gandhi. Naik was a banjara from a minority tribe from Vidarbha. Mrs Gandhi used him as a counter-weight to the Marathas of Western, Central, and Southern Maharashtra. Naik had no base of his own in Mumbai or elsewhere in Maharashtra. This happened, significantly, just before the Congress Party split into the ‘Indicate’ and the ‘Syndicate’ factions, and Indira Gandhi’s ‘Indicate’ faction ran away with a win.
When the Shiv Sena announced their decision not to let Morarji Desai enter the city of Mumbai, Naik advised his cops to look away while the Shiv Sena took the law in their hands, felled trees and electric poles to barricade the roads from the airport into the city, and then went on a rampage for the next three days, destroying street furniture, milk vending booths, attacking restaurants, and looting small shops as well as big department stores. I was an eyewitness to these planned riots that went out of control.
There is a sinister aspect to the Shiv Sena’s unchecked rise and growing clout in Mumbai. Most of the Marathi-speaking constabulary in the Mumbai police are avid readers of Saamana, the Sena’s mouthpiece edited by Thackeray himself. Up to the rank of Marathi-speaking sub-inspectors, it is the same story. In the 1993 anti-Muslim pogroms and organised riots, the police were involved in at least some of the atrocities and did not book any Hindu rioters in many of the worst affected areas.
The Shrikrishna Commission, in its comprehensive inquiry into the riots, tried bring all these culprits to the book. However, for sheer political reasons, the subsequent governments of Maharashtra have let the Sena and its official and unofficial co-conspirators off the hook. In the Mumbai blasts case that followed these riots, the law did bring those who perpetrated the crime or colluded with the criminals. The role of the home ministry and the police in shielding the Sena cannot be underestimated. Whether it was a failure of political nerve or the complex sub-text of a sinister scenario is a moot point.
The Shiv Sena’s traditional ritual of mustering and showing off its muscle in Mumbai is their annual Dussehra Day rally at Shivaji Park, the neighbourhood where K.C. Thackeray once lived in a small flat with his three sons, daughters, and extended family.
It is here that Balasaheb addresses his acolytes from a saffron-banners-decorated podium. His oratorical style consists of homilies and sarcastic remarks peppered with sinister warnings to his real and imaginary foes.
He is the one who originally popularised the phrase “Marathi Manoos” to distinguish his followers from the rest of Indians and human beings. The “Marathi Manoos” is as endangered in Thackeray’s rhetoric as Islam is in khatra in an average mullah’s preaching.
How this same rabble-rousing rhetoric has found a resonance in the hearts of the jobless youth, the discontented lower middle class, the working class, the O.B.Cs, and the lumpen year after year is a mystery. Thackeray is able to persuade them that the rest of the world is pitted against them; and he promises them that he would lead them in a charge against the rest of the world, but with one target at a time.
There is a long history of desertions from the ranks and files of the Shiv Sena over nearly three decades. His lieutenant in the industrial belt of Parel, Lal Baug, Kala Chowki, and Chinch Pokli, Bandu Shingre, was the first to leave. After that, successively, luminaries such as Chhagan Bhujbal and Narayan Rane left Thackeray’s company. The unkindest cut was his nephew, Raj’s leaving the SS to launch his rival MNS with almost a cloned agenda. As the aging and ailing Fuehrer recently remarked, “I have been stabbed in the back so many times by now, that there is no unscarred part left on my back.”
Thackeray at 81 has little political life left in him. His public appearances have become rarer. He knows, and his son and successor Uddhav knows too, that the Shiv Sena does not have a bright future. There is a possibility that both the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navanirman Sena will face mass defections before and after the next elections.
Bal Thackeray is, after all, a maverick of sorts; and mavericks create no dynasties; or worse, they leave a greater chaos behind than they were themselves able to create and take advantage of.
The writer is a well-known Marathi poet, translator and film-maker.
6 months ago