A new biography of Shiv Sena’s Bal Thackeray describes how he redefined Maharashtra’s politics forever, injecting venom into it
By Ramesh Menon
It was sometime in the mid-sixties when we realized that our house in Pune had been cross-marked on the front and back doors with chalk. We soon discovered that houses of all South Indians on that street in Rasta Peth were similarly marked. We later learnt to our horror that the marking was done at night by Shiv Sainiks with the intention of attacking these houses. The modus operandi was to storm into that street as part of a procession demanding the ouster of South Indians from Maharashtra. This was my first introduction, as a primary school student, to Sena supremo Bal Thackeray.
Journalist Sujata Anandan’s biography of Thackeray, Hindu Hriday Samrat: How the Shiv Sena Changed Mumbai Forever, makes for interesting reading, as it is full of anecdotes she gathered while reporting on the Sena for almost three decades. It traces the beginnings of the Maratha tiger, how he learnt the politics of whipping up xenophobia, how he roared and Mumbai shook and how he was desperately scared of being assa-ssinated or being jailed.
In fact, he could be quite timid, a fact that emerges from Anandan’s accounts of the early days of the Maratha don. Pushed by circumstances, he grew bigger than he had ever imagined, into a demagogue that Maharashtra had not seen. It may also never see one like him ever, though nephew Raj Thackeray who broke off with him to form the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, copies his uncle in manner and speech and is as vitriolic, if not worse.
Thackeray may have wanted South Indians, and later, North Indians, to leave Maharashtra, but ironically, his family’s roots were from Madhya Pradesh. His grandfather came from a Marathi-speaking Kayastha family there.
He began as a cartoonist for what was then an iconic paper, Free Press Journal, but left in a huff, as he suspected that a South Indian clique of journalists was out to deny him his rightful credit and a promotion. Celebrated Tamilian cartoonist RK Laxman was one of them.
Maybe, it set off another career opportunity for him, as he used his eloquence and vitriolic speeches to appeal to Marathi chauvinism and rake up both anti-South Indian and anti-Gujarati sentiment. This was easy to do, as Gujaratis were ingenious enough to take over business opportunities and South Indians were cornering all the white-collar jobs. For a while, the rage caught on, but died down. His anti-Communist, anti-outsider polices backfired, as these had absolutely no appeal outside Maharashtra, and he realized it was better to ride on the anti-Muslim plank to garner votes. It was also easier to emerge as a protector of Hindus.
Anandan traces how the Congress actively encouraged the Shiv Sena in the mid-sixties, hoping to break the growing clout of Communists in Maharashtra. Incidentally, Thackeray hated the Communists and feared one of them would assassinate him. At that time, Communists held sway over Bombay, as they controlled powerful trade unions and often held the city to ransom. Thackeray initially flirted with the Congress, but when Pramod Mahajan offered to work out an alliance with him, he smelt power.
Thackeray had his idiosyncrasies. When Mani Ratnam’s Bombay showed rioting in the city, which was an obvious reference to the rampage by the Shiv Sena, and then showcased a character like Thackeray regretting it, he attacked the film saying that he regretted nothing. He did not even allow a book by Dom Moraes on Bombay to be sold, as the celebrated editor and writer had called him short. After the Babri Masjid was demolished by Hindu fanatics, he boasted how his Sainiks had done it, though they were not around. He loved his image and did everything to drive in the point that no one could tinker with him. He was fear personified.
The book details how the Sena organized attacks on South Indian lungiwallas, ransacked their establishments and created a halo of fear. It was easy to be jingoistic, as South Indians were not only cornering good jobs because of their mastery in English, but were also very clannish. They were constantly getting relatives and friends to fill up job vacancies. To make things worse, they were not ready to learn Marathi or integrate into the local culture. Slowly, the Sena increased its presence in Mumbai; wherever it was present, fear was a shadow. The small-time mafia found a new spawning ground.
With his aggressiveness, he ensured that the Shiv Sena triggered off a nativist movement in India when similar ones in other states had failed. As Anandan says, much of the success of the Shiv Sena had to do with its timing: after a prolonged battle for their own state and integration of Bombay as its capital, (before Thackeray fought to make it Mumbai) Maharashtrians discovered that they were still ignored in their own capital city. Thackeray caught their imagination, as they constituted less than 50 per cent of the population, most of them being migrants from other parts of the state and less edu-cated than urban migrants from elsewhere.
Anandan gives a chilling account of how armed Shiv Sainiks surrounded the house of former Sena leader Chhagan Bhujbal to kill him. A terrified Bhujbal ducked into a dark corner in one of the rooms, which was not visible to anyone peeping in from the windows, and stood trembling, while they ransacked the ones they could enter. All fled before the police arrived. Here was a political party that did not brook traitors and rebels. Bhujbal enjoyed ridiculing Thackeray, as he knew that was what hurt his ego the most.
Maybe, the best days of the Sena are over, with the patriarch no more around to guide it about ways to secure power and clout. But one thing is certain after reading Anandan’s book: Maharashtra is unlikely to see another Bal Thackeray. Youngsters today are not inte-rested in xenophobia and its angularities and the Shiv Sena of the future has to go beyond narrow nativist agendas that have shackled the growth of Maharashtra. Many other sta-tes have stolen a march over it. The writing is on the wall.