At a little after 2 pm, politician Raj Thackeray arrived at the Girgaum Chowpatty end of Marine Drive in South Mumbai in a Toyota Land Cruiser, and proceeded to do exactly what the police had declared off-limits - he launched what was intended as a five-kilometre march to Azad Maidan, the venue of his scheduled protest meeting. As Mr Thackeray, wearing dark glasses, stepped out of his SUV into the centre of at least 20,000 workers from his party, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), the police made no attempt to stop or detain him. Drums were beaten and party flags waved as the crowd began moving with Mr Thackeray in its midst.
It took just minutes for the traffic to melt into chaos. Soon after, though, Mr Thackeray got back into his car and drove away, prompting the sea of people to disperse and move towards Azad Maidan, where another meeting earlier this month ended with a riot. That demonstration had been organized by the Raza Academy, and its speakers sought to highlight recent atrocities against Muslims in Assam and Myanmar. A mob armed with iron rods and knives attacked the crowd; two people died and more than 40 were injured; many vehicles were set on fire.
The police was worried about whether another rally at the same grounds would pass off peacefully. Nearly 15,000 police men were posted across the city, at major roads, and railway stations. 2,000 of them guarded Azad Maidan. The police have now registered a case against the MNS under Section 135 of the Bombay Police Act for violating the conditions agreed upon and holding the protest march at Girgaum Chowpaty without the required permission.
When Mr Thackeray arrived there, he headed into a waiting vanity van - the sort of trailer that usually denotes the presence of a movie star. Here, he changed into another white shirt and snacked while waiting for the crowds to start streaming in. Then he moved onto a massive stage draped in his party colours of orange, purple and green.
The MNS had projected that its rally would draw one lakh people. Police estimates said there were nearly 40,000 at Azad Maidan. Mr Thackeray, as he had promised, asked for the resignation of Maharashtra Home Minister RR Patil and Mumbai Police Commissioner Arup Patnaik. "If they have an ounce of shame, they should immediately quit," Mr Thackeray said to widespread, if somewhat premeditated, applause. "They (Patil and Patnaik) have played with the morale of the police. Our policemen kept waiting for instructions to control violence," he said. He also attacked the government for not compensating the policemen and women who were hurt in the Azad Maidan riot. "Why would they try to protect us next time around?" he asked.
Then came his standard tirade against migrants to Mumbai, an insidious stand that has nevertheless worked to his advantage in a city stretched to the limits for space and jobs. "In Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, dens of people from Pakistan and Bangladesh have been created...they are the ones who fill up trains and come to Maharashtra. And we will face problems in the future because of these dens...Raj Thackeray understands only one religion, that is Maharashtra religion. I don't understand any other religion," he said.
Towards the end of his nearly 20-minute speech, a police constable in uniform walked onto the stage and offered Mr Thackeray a yellow rose. He later told reporters that he was at the rally because he was disappointed because his seniors had refused his request for a transfer to another department.
Mr Thackeray ended his meeting by urging his audience to disband peacefully. The city heaved a sigh of relief as the evening rush hour remained unaffected by those leaving Azad Maidan.
Responding to Mr Thackeray's demand for his resignation, Mr Patil said that the demand was politically motivated and hence, there was no need to take it seriously. Asked why the police did not stop the rally as no permissions were granted, Mr Patil justified the police action stating, "Action always does not have to be taken on the spot. Police kept the focus on maintaining peace and law and order."
For Mr Thackeray, the rally set the tone for his election campaign. Maharashtra votes for its next government in 2014. In 2006, Mr Thackeray founded the MNS after a falling out with his uncle, Bal Thackeray, who chose his son, Uddhav, to head the Shiv Sena. Since then, Mr Thackeray has carved a space for the MNS in the political landscape of Maharashtra that often overlaps with the party he quit. Like his uncle and cousin, Mr Thackeray places strong emphasis against migrant labour and on the Marathi Manoos
(sons of the soil). Last month, the political rivalry within the family was suspended when Mr Thackeray attended to Uddhav during his hospitalization.(With inputs from Agencies)