Controversial. Communal. Demagogue. And the only man who could bring
Mumbai to a halt. At the same time: a talented cartoonist, a master
orator, a shrewd politician and a hero who fought for the rights of
Depending on which side of the divide one is, these
are the many perceptions of Shiv Sena President Bal Thackeray, a figure
who will go down in Indian history as one of the most divisive and
Born in 1926 to Keshav Thackeray -
popularly known as Prabhodhankar after his magazine Prabhodhan -
ironically, Bal Thackeray came from a legacy of tolerance. His father
was a social reformer who worked to eradicate the evils of the caste
system. In the 1950s, he was one of the leading voices of the Samyukta
Maharashtra Movement that was launched to create a state for
Maharashtrians on linguistic grounds. But the young Thackeray would take
from that movement, not too much of its progressive and
forward-thinking aspects, but its violent nature.
Along with RK
Laxman, Mr Thackeray started his career in Bombay - as it was then known
- as a cartoonist for the prestigious Free Press Journal. The talented
Mr Thackeray was acclaimed for his clean strokes, his flair for wit and
his keen observation. In 1960, he started his own journal Marmik -
meaning poignant - which turned into a launch pad for his entry into the
political arena. It was then that the 'insider-outsider' debate sparked
off in Mumbai as he began targeting Gujaratis and South Indians,
accusing them of snatching jobs he claimed were meant for local
Marathi-speaking Maharashtrians. Marmik, in fact, even published names
of people from these two communities. Each list would end with a
provocative call: read and stay silent.
It was with this
objective that in 1966, on Dussehra, Mr Thackeray launched his party,
the Shiv Sena at a mammoth rally held at the Shivaji Park in Dadar in
central Mumbai. As the rally broke up, the crowds spread out to attack
the "outsiders" and the city got its first brush of Sena's politics of
violence. Though there was widespread condemnation, the Sena justified
it calling this their fight for the sons-of the-soil. In 1970, the Sena
launched a campaign against them and Mr Thackeray's workers were accused
of murdering Krishna Desai, a stalwart communist leader. The Left also
accused the Congress of supporting the Sena so as to end its hold on the
city's working class and trade unions.
Mr Thackeray had by now
been able to successfully build a massive personality cult. Unlike other
khaki-clad leaders, he openly smoked pipes, wore sun-glasses and even
drank beer - an image that was in stark contrast to the growing
hooliganism of his workers. Even his fiercest critics won't deny that Mr
Thackeray was perhaps the most charismatic mass leader Maharashtra has
ever seen. A master orator, Mr Thackeray's followers grew in numbers as
he would continue to rouse the crowds with his fiery and often vitriolic
speeches which would invariably always be punctuated with pot-shots and
under-the-belt remarks taking on his political rivals. His supporters
loved him and would wait for the Sena's annual Dussehra rally to hear
their 'Balasaheb' speak. This mass hysteria gave him a larger-than-life
appeal, all without once holding any public office.
In 1984, the
new credo of Hindutva got the Shiv Sena and the BJP to join hands in
Mumbai and Maharashtra. To propagate his cult-hood, Mr Thackeray too
went for a makeover. Dressed in white or saffron robes, with a blazing
tika on his forehead, Mr Thackeray would sit on a massive silver throne.
Two to three necklaces made of rudraaksh beads would add to the image
of his new avatar - that of a Godman.
The most serious allegation
Mr Thackeray faced was of being communal and anti-minorities. From
South Indians and Gujaratis, the Sena had a new target: Muslims. The
fallout of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement had caused tension across the
country. Thackeray used his party newspaper and mouth piece, Saamna, in
which, just on the eve of the Babri Masjid demolition, he wrote an
incendiary editorial, "Towards Ayodhya". He is quoted as saying, "Now,
no one can stop the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya. An ocean
of millions of Ram devotees is surging to Lord Ram's Ayodhya. Our brave
Shiv Sainiks are also joining in."
It is still contested if
Shiv Sainiks actually took part in the demolition. But Thackeray is
believed to have said that if that was true, then he was proud of them.
The CBI, however, named him as one of the accused in the Babri
demolition and accused him of conspiracy.
The 'anti-Muslim' tag,
earned greater currency post the demolition as the terrible communal
riots in 1993 tore Mumbai apart - some say forever. Over 1,000 Muslims
were killed and once again, the Sena was accused of playing an active
role. Perhaps, the strongest evidence to support Mr Thackeray's alleged
hatred for Muslims is found in the report compiled by the Justice BN
Srikrishna Commission which looked into the riots and indicted Thackeray
and Sena leaders.
In a searing comment, Justice Srikrishna said,
"There is no doubt that the Shiv Sena and Shiv Sainiks took the lead in
organising attacks on Muslims and their properties under the guidance
of several leaders of the Shiv Sena from the level of Shakha Pramukh to
the Shiv Sena pramukh, Bal Thackeray who, like a veteran General,
commanded his loyal Shiv Sainiks to retaliate by organised attacks
Mr Thackeray was tried and acquitted in several
cases but only for hate speech and never for conspiracy and the mass
killings. His party too denied the accusation claiming had it not been
for the Shiv Sena, Mumbai would have burnt even longer. Much later, Mr
Thackeray had issued a call to form Hindu suicide squads to counter
Islamic fundamentalism and terror in India. But he would also soften his
stance stating he was not against all Muslims but only those who acted
against the country's interests.
The riots led to a deep
polarization and the Sena-BJP alliance swept to power in 1995. Though
Maharashtra was officially governed from its Secretariat - Mantralaya -
in South Mumbai, Matoshree, the Thackeray residence in Bandra became the
new power centre. Respected by a few, but feared by all, politicians,
industrialists and actors would be at the 'Tiger's' beck and call,
including the King of Pop, Michael Jackson who posed with Thackeray and
got clearance for his sole concert in India. It was also an open secret
that Congress leader and Bollywood actor Sunil Dutt had to plead before
Mr Thackeray, whose government had arrested his son Sanjay, accusing him
of being involved in the 1993 Bombay blasts that followed the riots. It
was this dominating influence over the city, without officially holding
any position that earned Mr Thackeray the nickname 'remote-control.'
Through fear and intimidation, Bal Thackeray ruled Mumbai.
of being dictatorial and a demagogue, Mr Thackeray was quoted by the
Asia Week saying, "I am a great admirer of (Adolf) Hitler, and I am not
ashamed to say so! I do not say that I agree with all the methods he
employed, but he was a wonderful organiser and orator, and I feel that
he and I have several things in common... What India really needs is a
dictator who will rule benevolently, but with an iron hand."
the honeymoon was short-lived. In 1999, his government was voted out. Mr
Thackeray could not even vote as the Election Commission had banned him
from voting and contesting elections for 6 years as he had been found
guilty of electoral malpractices. Out of power, the Sena remained
confined to only ruling Mumbai's civic body. The diatribe though
continued and the party turned into becoming the moral police and
cultural arbiter of the state. Mr Thackeray lampooned those who
celebrated Valentine's Day, his Sainiks vandalising shops that sold
related merchandise. His tirade against Pakistan grew fiercer and took
an ugly turn when Shiv Sainiks dug up the cricket pitch at the Ferozshah
Kotla Stadium in Delhi.
Yet, Mr Thackeray remained above the
law. In 2000, he was arrested for his inflammatory speeches by his
former acolyte Chhagan Bhujbal. Mumbai came to a standstill. But the
arrest was seen only as tokenism and Thackeray was let off.
rhetoric of intimidation and violence was finding fewer and fewer
takers. In 2004, the alliance faced a humiliating defeat at the hands of
the Congress-NCP combine, never tasting power again. Then, two years
after the ignominy, the Thackeray family was split right in between,
with his charismatic nephew Raj Thackeray exiting the party, angry that
Thackeray's son Uddhav was being projected as the heir to his father's
Mr Thackeray faced further embarrassment, as right under
his nose, Raj's new outfit - the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena - sharply
cut into the Sena's Marathi vote-bank. To counter this loss, the Sena
found a new target to 'appease' the Marathi Manoos: the city's North
Indian population. To create a fear psychosis, a few taxi and auto
rickshaw drivers, vegetable vendors, milkmen - all migrants from Uttar
Pradesh and Bihar were attacked, forcing many to leave the city. Again,
in a provocative editorial, "Ek Bihari, Sau Bimari" (One Bihar, Hundred
problems), he slammed them as an unwanted lot.
The party that had
rechristened Bombay as Mumbai also targeted local boy and cricketer
Sachin Tendulkar for his statement that "Mumbai belonged to India."
Actor Shah Rukh Khan was also not spared when he spoke in favour of
Pakistanis playing in the Indian Premier League.
As his party's
political fortunes declined - losing even the 2009 state elections - so
did Mr Thackeray's health. In his last Dussehra rally speech in 2012,
the ailing leader couldn't make it in person and the Sena played out a
pre-recorded video message. Frail, his hands shaking, Mr Thackeray knew
he was sinking. Unseen ever before, with folded hands Mr Thackeray
pleaded to his followers to support his son Uddhav.
was any solace in his final days, it was the Sena's splendid victory in
2012 Mumbai civic polls and also in the first glimmerings of a patch up
between his son and estranged nephew.
However, it still remains
uncertain what they will make of the Thackeray legacy. His admirers see
it as asserting the rights of the Marathi manoos. But his critics see as
one of great paradox: of a man who injected a culture of intolerance
into the veins of India's most tolerant city.