By Vidyadhar Date
Mr Bal Thackeray was essentially a man the capitalists liked and they were very comfortable with him. That is why he was always boosted by much of the media as a larger than life figure and after his death there is more gushing praise of the man.
`The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with the bones,’ said Mark Antony in his famous funeral speech in Shakespeare’s play Julius Ceasar. Mr Thackeray has no such problems and this is not to suggest that he did evil. In his case there is no shortage of people going out of the way to write in support of him. Mr Thackeray’s father Prabodhankar Thackeray was an avid Shakespeare fan, he spent so much from his scarce resources on books that this alarmed his mother and he devoted a lot of time researching in libraries. Mr Thackeray was so unlike his father in many many ways. Prabodhankar was a rationalist, activist, supporter of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr Ambedkar and social reformer Jotirao Phule, he wrote several books. But how many remember him today ? Mr Bal Thackeray had little use for serious books.
Liberals have often criticized Mr Thackeray for his communalism, hate speech and chauvinism and rightly too. But during his time and after there is little recognition of the fact that he was very friendly with capitalists. The system everywhere has always needed an army of people to deal with others, especially dissenters. The Shiv Sena was seen as a solid ally.
There is justifiable and widespread anger over the arrest of two girls for their post on Facebook in the wake of Mr Thackeray’s death. But then killing someone with whom one does not agree is far more heinous. That is exactly what the Shiv Sena did and that is how it launched its foray into politics.The politics of terrorism of the Shiv Sena began in 1970 with the stabbing to death of Mr Krishna Desai, the Communist MLA, in 1970. That was the defining act of the Shiv Sena. It showed where it stood. It was a measured and well thought out attack on the Left movement which was fairly strong then. The murder aroused few protests from outside the Communist fold then .Even today few remember it today though it should serve as a warning for all times to come. Many of the political analysts writing on the Shiv Sena have often beaten about the bush, showered praises on Mr Thackeray for his ready wit and friendliness with them but most have overlooked the class affiliation of the Sena.
When it comes to confronting the fascists and hoodlums and the wealthy and imperialists, there is noticeable timidity and inactivity on the part of intellectuals. The German activist clergy man Martin Niemoller warned against this inactivity when drawing attention to the Nazi threat in Germany through his famous lines which state that if you do not act when others are attacked, there will be no one to protect you if you are attacked. . There is conspicuous omission in the gushing obituaries of Mr Thackeray of the Shiv Sena’s role in attacking the working people’s movements . As a young journalist then I still remember veteran Bhalchandra Marathe of Free Press Journal recalling what one of the assassins of Krishna Desai talked about. He said he thrust the knife and then turned the handle because that is what really ruptures the inner parts of the body. A murder most foul. If Mr Thackeray deserves a memorial, Mr Krishna Desai deserves it even more.
Mr Thackeray’s role also has to be seen in the context of the way the cities are being reshaped the world over to serve the interests of the rich and to exclude the poor. David Harvey, one of the most eminent thinkers of urban life , economics and politics , is our best guide to understand the issues. He asserts that the ordinary people should get a right to the city, access its services, shape its development. . It should be seen as a fundamental right.In a recent book Rebel Cities he shows how cities can be a harbinger of protest and change as in the case of the Occupy Movement in the U.S.
Unfortunately, Mr Thackeray intervened little on behalf of the poor though the poor Marathi Manoos was his main plank. Talk was seldom matched in practice when it came to the crux. But then how does one explain the phenomenal response to the funeral procession ? This question is aptly asked on Facebook by Mr John Game, a Britisher , who has done field work in Mumbai . A staunch leftist himself, he says we should realize that the Shiv Sena also did some service to citizens.
( As for the huge turn out at the funeral, let us remember that only some eleven people attended the funeral of Marx. ) True, Mr Thackeray took up the cause of ordinary people, channelized people’s frustration and economic hardships but he did it in a very negative way, reinforcing prejudices and encouraging violence, threats. Often, the poor were the victims, as in the case of those who were seen as outsiders. The rich had little to fear from him. It is opportunistic to criticize Mr Thackeray from a narrow perspective and not take cognizance of a system that is built on exploitation and then creates organizations that can divert the attention of the people from real issues.
He was expected to halt the gentrification of Mumbai and the eviction of the poor through physical and financial coercion. He has been called a tiger, an emperor and king of Mumbai and what not. Why was the king then so powerless to help the poor ?
The brutal gentrification of Mumbai, the extinguishing of its character as a working class city took place in the prime of Mr Thackeray’s political career. The most blatant and glaring example of the Shiv Sena’s role is evident right there in front of Shiv Sena Bhavan in the heart of Dadar You just cannot miss it. A monstrous, high rise, glass box , environment-unfriendly structure is coming up there distorting the character of the relatively environment-friendly area. It was from this building under construction that hundreds of people hung out to watch the funeral procession as seen in media photographs.
The land belonged to the Kohinoor textile mill of the National Textile Corporation and anyone would expect a party speaking in the name of Marathi Manoos to demand that it be used as a space for public use in this city which desperately needs public spaces. Strangely, it was bought for hundreds of crores and the buyers were Mr Raj Thackeray and Mr Unmesh Joshi, son of former Shiv Sena chief minister Manohar Joshi. Both have close ties to real estate. Mr Thackery is said to have made a huge profit by selling his stake, as reported by Economic Times of 15 November, 2009.
The mill once belonged to Laxmanrao Apte, the father former Test cricketer Madhav Apte, very much a Marathi Manoos. The Aptes were so affluent they owned a big bungalow on Peddar Road now converted into a high rise Woodlands apartments.
Had the big plot of Kohinoor mill remained vacant, the government would not have had to hunt for space for the memorial to Mr Thackeray now being vociferously demanded by the Sena. But then it is so much easier to prey on public resources. So there is a demand that the memorial be constructed on Shivaji Park, one of the few big open spaces in the city. One can only hope that the memorial is environment friendly and not some hideous and gigantic structure of cement and concrete .
There is clearly a sense of lack of proportion in the building of monuments. I was in Nagpur last week where life was as usual on the day of the funeral and death. Thee was no bandh anywhere. On the outskirts of the city is a cultural centre Pasayadaan with an anachronistically large statue of saint Dnyaneshwar.
Mr Thackeray comprehensively reversed the long liberal tradition of Maharashtra (my article on this subject in the Times of India 4 July, 1995). Mahatma Gandhi’s guru was Gopal Krishna Gokhale and favourite disciple was Vionoba Bhave. Mr Thackeray bore the title of Senapati, a military general, and acted ruthlessly. So different from another Senapati in Maharashtra, Senapati Pandurang Mahadev Bapat, a highly respected Gandhian who took the path of peaceful struggle after studying in college in England and learning bomb making.
He led the world’s first anti-dam struggle in what is known as the Mulshi satyagraha against the take over of the land of poor peasants, Mavlas, whose hardy forefathers were the backbone of Shivaji’s guerilla army. The same situation as in Singur, the government forcibly taking over fertile land for the Tatas. This was in 1921. The pillage of the land of the poor is now revived. The land of the Mavlas is now being overrun, vandalized by the rich and being turned into fancy townships but the Shiv Sena has not uttered a word against this though it speaks all the time in the name of Shivaji because this is politically convenient and easy to exploit. And the Shiv Sena does nothing to stop the complete removal of working class history and heritage.
Much of the political analysis and academic work overlooks the cosy relationship between the Sena and capitalists. But here is a surprise and it comes from unexpected quarters. One can read between the lines in an article by Mr Rahul Bajaj, chairman of Bajaj group, and an articulate spokesman of corporate interests, on the front page eulogizing Mr Thackeray in Economic Times of November 19. Says Mr Bajaj `My late uncle Ramkrishna Bajaj was a good friend of Balasaheb. When Parliamentary elections were taking place both Balasaheb and my uncle were anti-Communist. Though the ideology of the Congress and Shiv Sena was not common, they maintained a good rapport.’ . It was a time when anti-Left organizations were floated in different parts of the country in the wake of the debacle of the Congress in the elections . The reversal of the Congress and the rise of the Left had alarmed capitalists. As for the role of the Americans, any sincere police officer or political observer of the time will throw light on it.
Many people are in awe of the power wielded by Mr Thackeray. I found that even the highly respected cartoonist R.K. Laxman, my senior colleague in the Times of India , had this feeling . Both began as political cartoonists in the Free Press Journal in the 1940s. See how far ahead Mr Thackeray has gone, and here I am, he said to me one day in a sad tone. This was one time I could not agree with Mr Laxman.
Now, there is some consolation that there is more public awareness about the attacks on the freedom of expression. There was little of this in the past. A glaring victim of prejudice was Prof Pandharinath Vishnu Ranade, a Marxist professor of history. He was also an art lover , a poet and the author of a book on the art of Ajanta..This was in 1974, the year of the terecentenary of Shivaji’s coronation of 1674. It was celebrated in Maharashtra with much fanfare. Prof Ranade offered a dissenting note in an article in the weekly Ranangan. He was quite respectful towards Shivaji and only argued that hero worshipping him was inconsistent with democratic principles given the nature of the feudal era in which Shivaji lived. This created a storm. Mr Ranade lost his job in Marathwada university and he was reinstated only after protests by some leading progressive historians in the Indian History Congress. One day he was surrounded by Shiv Sainiks and threatened on Dadar railway bridge when he was returning after delivering a lecture. When I intervened I was assaulted and my spectacles were broken. Instead of condemning the attack on the freedom of expression, Mahaashtra Times, the leading Marathi daily, editorially criticized Mr Ranade. That is the tragedy . The public perception of many people is entirely at odds with reality. I have met any number of `well educated people` who firmly believe that it was because of Mr Thackeray that Hindus were saved from the onslaught of Muslims in the riots in 1992-93 !
It is easy to dismiss the masses who supported Mr Thackeray as riff raff. I believe they did this in desperation because our system is basically so unjust and unfair. If `well educated` people are so drawn towards fascists, one cannot really blame the common folk for supporting them.
Look at a comment made by Harsh Goenka, industrialist and art collector to the Times of India after Mr Thackeray’s death. He called him a revolutionary. That is contrary to the very term. If anything, Mr Thackeray could be called a counter revolutionary.
As for Lata Mangeshkar’s fanatical support for him, the roots go back to her father, the reputed singer actor Master Dinanath who was an ardent admirer of the founding ideologue of Hindu nationalism V.D. Savarkar. Her brother Hridaynath, music director, has frequently glorified Savarkar during television programmes, often going out of the way to do so.
Among the responses from political parties, Ideologially the most forthright comment I noticed was from Dr Ashok Dhawale, general secretary of the Maharashtra CPM. He has analysed Mr Thackeray in class terms.
I have covered several of the political rallies addressed by Mr Thackeray when I worked for the Times of India. Many of these were really impressive and one must grant him his sense of humour. Sometimes, he was pleased with my coverage and I heard this from his wife’s brother who worked in the administrative section of the paper. But when it comes to analysis of the Shiv Sena, the perspective has to be objective.
The negatives in the Sena were also too strong. At one meeting in Khar in Mumbai during the time the Shiv Sena was in power in the state, Mr Thackeray used such obscene words that I won’t be able to use them even in private conversation. Sadly, he pushed the political debate to extremely low levels. The most chauvinistic leaders in other states did not use such language of terror and hate as the Sainiks did.
Mr Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of the book Traffic in the era of climate change. Walking, cycling, public transport need priority.