Bal Thackeray, the son of an anti-caste reformist, came from a background rich in learning and culture. Yet, he chose to use his learning and wit to destroy rather than create. Under his direction, the Sena resorted to intimidation and terror, first against south Indians, then communists and Muslims.
It was an ordinary Saturday afternoon on a sleepy road with people, desultorily going about their routine. Suddenly, the scene changed. Women pleaded with vegetable vendors who were hurriedly shutting shop; people ran after buses, autorickshaws fled. It reminded you of scenes shown in Hitler movies, of Jews out on a peaceful street when they suddenly hear the sound of a Nazi patrol approaching. It was as if a malevolent spirit had descended like an ominous cloud.
Bal Thackeray’s death had just been reported in his city.
Thackeray would have been proud that in death, as in life, he generated fear among ordinary citizens going about their normal lives. He would have praised his “boys” for vandalising a hospital because the owner’s niece commented on Facebook that the city need not have shut down for his funeral. As the girl in question realised, there was nothing anyone could do when faced with the wrath of a Shiv Sainik mob. For the leader of the Shiv Sena was also the “Saheb” of those paid to protect you from Sena bullies. So it was but natural for the police to haul her to the police station. The Mumbai police’s advice to citizens not to step out on the day of Thackeray’s funeral was not surprising. It was not their job to ensure that the city went about its work as normal. It was their job to facilitate the Sena supremo’s grand funeral.
This advice from the Mumbai police was in line with the advice some of them gave to Muslims during the post-Babri Masjid demolition riots of December 1992 – January 1993. “We made sure they left the area safely”, many of them proudly told the B N Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry into the riots. They did not think it their duty to protect Muslims from Shiv Sainiks. They just wanted them out of harm’s way so that they could sit back as Sainiks looted and burnt the Muslims’ homes at will. That was a deed to be proud of, indeed, considering the number of policemen found by the Commission to have actively encouraged the Shiv Sainiks to riot, or to have looked the other way as they killed defenceless Muslims.
1984 Riots Pave the Way
Early on, in 1984, just before Mumbai saw its first major post-Independence Hindu-Muslim riot, Bal Thackeray had told the city’s police force to take a leaf out of their Punjab counterparts. The latter, he had said in a speech at Chowpatty that acted as the trigger for the riots, supported “anti-national Khalistanis”. He went on to say, “Here you should at least not arrest your own people when they are fighting traitors”. In the fortnight of violence that engulfed the city and its outskirts soon after the speech, the police followed his advice. 1984 was when Mumbai’s Muslims, appealing to the police for help from Shiv Sainiks, heard for the first time, the phrase that would define the police’s relationship with Bal Thackeray: “We are Shiv Sainiks under our uniforms.” Official confirmation of this relationship came in the form of a circular issued by the city’s tough police commissioner, Julio Rebeiro, wherein he asked: “I want to know who is ruling this city – the administration or the Shiv Sena? When orders were given clearly to use force and beat the Shiv Sainiks who are going around ordering shops to close, the local police failed to do so’’ (Indian Express, 30 June 1984).
The 1984 riots were not one-sided. Apart from two Urdu newspapers which inflamed passions by deliberately misreporting Thackeray’s speech, there was the Congress-I Muslim MLA who garlanded Thackeray’s bust with slippers in Parbhani. On the ground too, Muslims in Bhiwandi and Govandi, to name just two areas, were the aggressors, and in areas such as Nagpada and Dongri, they did retaliate.
But the case of Thane during the 1984 riots was revealing of the way the Shiv Sena operates when it is in control. A local Bharatiya Janata Party leader told this reporter after the riots that of the 57 persons killed in Thane, 55 had been Muslims, and two others had been killed for sheltering Muslims. There was no retaliation by Muslims in Thane. As the former Sena mayor and later Member of Parliament put it: Thokaichey hotey, thokle (we decided to hammer them and we did). Even Muslim Shiv Sainiks, as well as those old-timers who were so integrated with their Marathi-speaking neighbours that you could not tell them apart, were not spared.
Thane had been the Sena’s early triumph – it emerged as the single largest party in the Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC) in 1967 itself, a year after the party was launched, and controlled the TMC from 1974 to 1981. The 1984 riots paved the way for the Sena’s triumphant entry into Mumbai’s Municipal Corporation the next year. In this it was helped generously by the then Congress chief minister (CM) Vasantdada Patil’s mischievous announcement that the centre (ruled by his own party) was planning to separate Mumbai from Maharashtra, a possibility he knew did not exist. After the 1984 riots that claimed 258 lives, Patil refused to prosecute Thackeray for his Chowpatty speech, saying that Thackeray had denied making any derogatory remarks against prophet Mohammed. He also rejected the demand for a judicial inquiry into the riots. He did, however, arrest shakha pramukh Madhukar Sarpotdar under the National Security Act, as well as underworld leaders Haji Mastan and Karim Lala. All three were freed after the Sena helped the Congress elect its nominee as the speaker of the Maharashtra Legislative Council a few days after the riots.
Blatant Abuse of Muslims
The 1984 riots displayed all the characteristics that came to be associated with Bal Thackeray and his party – Muslim baiting, violence against Muslims, the Mumbai police’s Sena bias, and the Congress-Sena nexus. All this was seen on a much larger scale in the 1992-93 riots, for the January phase of which the Justice B N Srikrishna Commission indicted Thackeray with the words, “like a veteran general, (he) commanded his loyal Shiv Sainiks to retaliate by organised attacks against Muslims”. These attacks were not just the conventional looting and burning of property or stabbing to death. In January 1993, Shiv Sainiks were charged with stripping, burning and mutilating Muslim women, stoning unarmed Muslim men to death, and then burning their bodies to chants of “Jai Sri Ram”. Eyewitnesses told the Srikrishna Commission that they did not spare even handicapped boys. After all this, they got the best Sena lawyers to defend them.
There was one more difference between 1984 and 1992 – Thackeray’s abuse against Muslims no longer needed confirmation or denial by him. It was all there in his newspaper Saamna, which he had launched in 1989. Editorial after editorial in Saamna castigated Muslims as fanatic traitors, residing in “mohallas in which flowed streams of treason and poison”. The community constituted one of Pakistan’s “seven atom bombs placed in Hindustan”. One editorial asked the corpses of Hindus to come alive to “tell us, from which mosque was a bomb thrown at you? Which fanatic traitor aimed his stengun at you?” The news pages of Saamna celebrated the burning of mosques by “patriotic youth in this dharmyuddh, mosques which have become store houses of unauthorised arms”. Saamna, Thackeray said later, provided the “spark that lit the fire of patriotism which kept the country, god and religion alive”.
Yet, the Congress government took no action except to send the editorials to the Press Council, a toothless body! On a petition filed by two citizens, two judges of the Bombay High Court ruled these editorials to be unobjectionable, since they criticised only anti-national Muslims, not the entire community. The Supreme Court rejected the appeal against this judgment without going into its merits.
To be fair, the judiciary was not always kind to Bal Thackeray. In 1997, he, then the remote control of the Sena-BJP ruling alliance in Maharashtra, was forced to appear in person before a magistrate and apply for bail as prime accused for instigating Shiv Sainiks to attack reporters in 1991. In 1999, he was barred from voting or standing for election by the Supreme Court, which upheld a Bombay High Court order finding him guilty of having canvassed for his candidate on the basis of religion in the 1987 assembly elections. It made little difference to him – he had never wanted to stand for election anyway, preferring to be the “remote control” of the party rather than be accountable by holding a public office.
Contempt for the Law
Thackeray’s attitude towards the judiciary was consistent with his attitude towards the law, democracy, and the Constitution – an attitude of open contempt. It is hardly surprising that most of his corporators and Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) had criminal cases registered against them, involving charges not just of rioting and assaulting public servants, but also of extortion, kidnapping, and murder. A tape recording of the 1988 Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) mayor, Diwakar Raote, had him expressing displeasure at the meagre amount of Rs 5,000 each offered to him by Gujarati traders, and boasting that to save their lives, “I have slaughtered Muslims taking the sword in my hand… In one riot, we have slaughtered 300-350 Muslims”. No action was taken against Raote by the then CM Sharad Pawar, and Raote is now a Sena Member of the Legislative Council (MLC). The man he appointed as CM, Narayan Rane, according to police claims, started off life as a part of the “Narya-Varya’’ gang in Chembur, and had a murder case against him when he became CM. Rane is now the Congress’ industries minister in Maharashtra.
Thackeray’s contempt for the law and democracy has not arisen from any long and bitter fight through constitutional means against an unjust system. He had no patience with legal means from the word go. That was the reason for his instant popularity with the Marathi-speaking restless youth who found themselves on the sidelines of the wealth that was being generated in Mumbai in the 1960s. The new capital of the new state of Maharashtra was then the most industrialised city in India, attracting the most investment from around the country. But those who controlled it were mostly non-Marathi-speaking people, belonging to communities that had always been a part of the city. Thackeray directed the aspirations of Marathi-speaking youth against these other communities. He became their godfather, in every sense of the term. His fiery speeches and writings in his weekly Marmik drew them like a magnet to his ideology: hatred against others who have deprived you of what is yours, and snatching it from them by any means. At the same time as they put this into practice, the Shiv Sainiks through their shakhas across the city also solved problems such as water supply, and raided shops of hoarders when prices of foodgrains skyrocketed.
The Sena’s first rally was in 1966 in Shivaji Park. On their way out, the rallyists attacked an Udipi restaurant, marking the start of the Sena’s terror tactics. In 1967, alongside south Indians, communists became a target. Shiv Sainiks attacked the Communist Party of India’s (CPI) office in the working class area of Parel, and violently engineered splits in CPI unions. In 1970, they killed the CPI’s sitting MLA from Parel, Krishna Desai.
For Thackeray, leftists were anti-national. Four months later, backed by the Jan Sangh, the Swatantra Party, the Congress (O) and the Hindu Mahasabha, the Sena’s Wamanrao Mahadik won the by-election to become the party’s first MLA. Addressing the party’s victory rally, Thackeray said: “This is our dharmyudh. It is the Shiv Sena’s aim to destroy all those who are not loyal to the nation…Our victory is the victory of Hindutva’’ (Vaibhav Purandare, The Sena Story, Mumbai, 1999). Twenty-two years later, Thackeray exhorted Saamna readers with the same phrases during the Ayodhya campaign and the riots that followed the Babri Masjid demolition. This time, the dharmyudh was against a different set of anti-nationals.
But Muslims had always been anathema for Thackeray. As far back as 1970, the Sena was indicted by the Justice D P Madon Commission of Inquiry for its role in the Bhiwandi riots. It is just that unlike south Indians, Muslims remained his target till the very end. In 1972, Thackeray set up his Sthaniya Lok Adhikar Samitis (local people’s rights committees) in banks and government offices, and began ensuring jobs for Marathi-speaking youth. His formidable clout forced the Congress government to issue a directive to all employers in 1973 that 60% of managerial jobs and 90% of other lower category jobs in Mumbai be given to those domiciled in Maharashtra for 15 years. There was no need after that to target the yundugundus, as he described south Indians.
Anti-Muslim rhetoric – he called Muslims landyas and “green serpents” – and violence were intrinsic to the growth of the Sena. If the 1984 riots helped Thackeray capture the BMC, similar riots helped the party capture parts of Maharashtra through the latter half of the 1980s. Vaibhav Purandare’s The Sena Story details how every new city that was captured saw riots taking place: Nashik, Amravati, Nanded, Aurangabad (renamed Sambhaji Nagar when the Sena came to power in 1995). Finally, the 1992-93 riots helped the Sena capture the state in 1995.
But Thackeray’s hatred for Muslims as pro-Pakistani traitors did not come in the way of him embracing the party that still retained the name Muslim League. After the Bhiwandi riots in 1970, the Sena negotiated the presidentship of the Bhiwandi municipality with the township’s Muslim League. Both Sudhir Joshi and Manohar Joshi became mayors in the BMC with Muslim League help, the first immediately after Sena-League riots had claimed five lives in 1973. Sudhir Joshi’s victory procession was led by Thackeray and League president G M Banatwala. After the Sena took over the BMC in 1985, the Muslim League came to the Sena’s rescue whenever voting on crucial issues took place, in return for posts in important committees.
Alongside Muslims, Ambedkarite dalits, who rejected Hinduism and were only too conscious of their rights, made Thackeray see red. When the Dalit Panthers were formed in 1972, their first clashes were with Shiv Sainiks in Worli’s BDD chawls. In 1987, the Sena campaigned against the inclusion of the chapter “Riddles in Hinduism” in the state government’s compilation of Ambedkar’s writings and speeches. Sena leader Chhagan Bhujbal even bathed the Flora Fountain monument with gangajal after a huge dalit rally was held there on the issue.
Thackeray was the only one to openly oppose the renaming of Marathwada University as Ambedkar University, and throughout the long namantar agitation, Shiv Sainiks attacked dalits in Marathwada, burning their homes, desecrating Buddhist temples and Ambedkar statues. Many of the “minor” cases registered against them under the Prevention of Atrocities Act were withdrawn by Sharad Pawar after the university was renamed in January 1994. The next year, when the Sena came to power, CM Manohar Joshi withdrew more such cases.
It is this licence given by successive governments in Maharashtra that encouraged the “Tiger” to roar and maul as he pleased. In 1988, he called a press conference at which Sikh leaders of Mumbai were summoned and threatened with an economic boycott if they did not get their religious leaders in Punjab to issue a directive against Khalistanis. His “roars” have been delivered in what his admirers describe as Thakri bhasha. The most creative use of this bhasha has been against women. Veteran socialist Mrinal Gore, who refused to enter into an alliance with him till the bitter end of her political career was described as “Goregaon’s buffalo”, and Janata Dal president V P Singh’s paayachidasi (meaning slave/mistress). Professor Pushpa Bhave was called a “stale nankathai” and referred to as bhavini (devdasi or prostitute) when she exhorted the terrified residents of Vasai to stand up to the “two faces of fascism – (Bhai) Thakur [a well-known don] and Thackeray”. Writing about CPI(Marxist) leader Ahilya Rangnekar and trade unionist Pushpa Mehta, Thackeray wondered how they were so active despite their “menstrual rags having long dried up”. Feminist writer Vidya Bal was described as the “hijra” of the women’s liberation movement.
Such was the man now being described as having ruled over the hearts of three generations of Shiv Sainiks for 46 years. That is untrue. Like any party, the Shiv Sena had its highs and lows. After a spectacular start in 1966, with the city burning for four days after he was arrested in 1969 (over the border row with Karnataka), the decade 1974-84 saw a low, as Thackeray disillusioned his followers by supporting Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. His workers supported Datta Samant despite their supremo’s opposition to the textile strike led by Samant. The 1984 riots helped him bounce back, but he lost control over the BMC in 1992, only to return with the 1992-93 riots.
The next stage of disillusionment came ironically, when he was in charge of the state. When the BJP-Sena wrested power from Sharad Pawar’s Congress in early 1995, the reaction among most Marathi-speaking people, cutting across classes and castes, was “our people are in power now”. By the end of their rule in 1999, voters had realised that Shiv Shahi was no different from Congress rule. Since then, the Sena has been kept out, thanks to his nephew Raj Thackeray forming his own party.
However, his five-year rule deserves attention. Coming as it did two years after the 1992-93 riots where he played a leading role, the Sena-BJP rule started off as hell for Muslims. His government scrapped the state minorities’ commission and the Urdu academy. After Saamna received a call threatening to kill Thackeray from someone claiming to be a Bangladeshi, the Sena chief threatened that the entire Muslim community would be wiped out. The Sena-BJP government passed an anti-bigamy bill and also a bill prohibiting the slaughter of cow progeny.
But Thackeray’s government also fulfilled many long-standing demands of Muslims which the Congress had never cared to, including increasing the floor space index (FSI) for mosques. The community found Sena MLAs, even those who had been in the forefront of the riots, more approachable than Congress MLAs had ever been. Also, the five-year reign of the Sena-BJP saw just one minor riot which was controlled within 48 hours. Today, a similar situation exists as did in 1995. Muslims are fed up with the Congress, especially because of the continuous targeting of its youth on terror charges. A section of them want to teach the Congress a lesson and give the Sena another chance.
However, the Sena-BJP regime established Thackeray as the ultimate censor. Even after he lost power, nervous directors would show him their films if they felt anything in their content could annoy him. Only those with a hotline to the centre could dare to have their films run despite his disapproval, as Shah Rukh Khan did with his My Name Is Khan in 2010.
Ugly and Impoverished
Bal Thackeray, like many other Marathi-speaking politicians, came from a background rich in learning and culture. In addition to being exposed to literature, music and drama, he had the advantage of being the son of an anti-caste reformist. Yet, he chose to use his learning and wit to destroy rather than create. He debased the Marathi language when he could have enriched it. As a sophisticated Marathi-speaking orator, he could have used his power over his followers to turn Mumbai, already a flourishing cosmopolitan city, into one of the world’s great metropolises. He chose to render it ugly and impoverished.