Fear over the city
“… as news spread, office-goers scrambled home, shopkeepers pulled down shutters, petrol pumps closed down, taxis and autos went off roads and cinemas called off screenings. Hooligans were soon on the streets, forcing shops to close and shattering neon signs left on. A partial shutdown is likely to prevail for 3-4 days.”
–Front page blurb in the Sunday Times (of India), November 18
Mumbai strongman Bal Keshav Thackeray’s death on Saturday afternoon emptied out the streets of India’s Maximum City, sending ordinary residents scurrying home. Thousands of kilometres away, in Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appealed for calm.
Bal Thackeray attempted to rule Mumbai by fear, sending out his goons to check those who he thought shouldn’t play cricket, write books he didn’t like or write articles in newspapers that weren’t to his liking. His Mumbai for Mumbaikars maxim applied only to Marathis and consciously targeted south Indians, north Indians and minorities.
The fear the city witnessed after the formal announcement of his death only details the politics that he practiced – undemocratic, strong-arm and divisive.
Bombay filmwallahs and big corporate guns had been making a beeline for the Thackeray residence for the past few days, giving the right bytes to the many television reporters covering the unfolding saga of the Shiv Sena founder’s death.
For over four decades, he controlled the politics of the city, dividing residents on the basis of their ethnic origin or religion and reaping rich political and personal benefits for himself, his family and close associates.
Picking on soft targets, the cartoonist-turned politician, who never contested an election in his career, used his newspaper, Saamna, to build up an image of the defender of ethnic Maharashtrians and Hindus.
Neither did Thackeray ever take office in Mumai, Maharashtra or Delhi, preferring to rule by remote control when the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party took power in Mahasrashtra in 1995.
After hitting out at South Indians in the late 1960s, Bal Thackeray was an effective tool that was used by big industrialists to attack and crush the communist-led trade union movement in the city. Today, with the textile mills of Mumbai closed, developers are now using this vacant mill land to make millions. A militant and effective trade union movement that kept ruthless business in check is no more.
Bal Thackeray had no positive vision, no programme for Mumbai. His ideology was what he said on the day. Over four decades since the Shiv Sena came into existence, Mumbai is not a better city in terms of civic amenities, environmental health or even security for its citizens.
His most pernicious legacy is his attacks on Muslims, with the Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission of inquiry into the Bombay riots of 1992 and 1993 holding the Sena and Bal Thackeray squarely responsible for the killings.
“There is no doubt,” the report records, “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 against Muslims.”
In 1999, India’s Election Commission struck off Thackeray’s name from the voters list and barred him from contesting elections for a period of six years for using religion to garner votes.
For many who didn’t want to dirty their hands, it was good to have Bal Thackeray around. The strong-man could get the job done.
His brand of politics must also make Indians ponder about our brand of democracy and our inherent tolerance for those who break the law.
The Bal Thackeray phenomenon could not have grown in importance but for support from the State, initially from successive chief ministers of the Congress party.
An open admirer of late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi – and Adolf Hitler –Thackeray was open in his support for the Emergency (1975-1977) when all civil rights were suspended in India.
Many admired him for his consistency in preaching hate. He articulated the many biases in our society.
Such adulation can only strengthen authoritarian politics while simultaneously diluting the rule of law.
Mumbai and India are better off without such politics.
Amit Baruah is an independent, Delhi-based journalist. He is the author of Dateline Islamabad and reported for The Hindu newspaper from Pakistan.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.