Bal Thackeray: Right-wing nationalist known for his sulphurous rabble-rousing

 

Bal Thackeray, the "boss" of Bombay, was a figure both nasty and thrilling, in the manner of Indian power-brokers down the centuries. The charismatic founder of the right-wing Shiv Sena organisation, who renamed the city "Mumbai", as Marathi speakers had always called it, in 1996, saw himself as the "remote control" in charge of its government and that of the state of Maharashtra in which it lies, though he was never himself elected. The cigar-smoking, wine-bibbing former newspaper cartoonist with the large sunglasses, dyed black hair, necklace and make-up concealing his wrinkles, could get the city closed down at the mere threat of retribution for his incendiary speeches and writings.

The threat of violence was as much a part of his method of operation as it had been for Shivaji, the 17th-century leader of the once-powerful Maratha federation, who killed a Muslim envoy with a metal "tiger's claw", or the 18th-century "Maratha Machiavelli" Nana Phadnavis, who orchestrated a conspiracy against the British.

Shiv Sena could menace Bollywood film-makers and big business alike, using the threat of ruin, and giving hope to frustrated factions mainly by offering the chance, as one writer put it, "to kick someone's head in". Maratha nationalism and pride – "asmita" – were the emotions Thackeray appealed to, stirring the desires of those he called the "sons of the soil", or "bhumiputra", young men educated but with few prospects for success and prosperity. He encouraged them to blame immigrants to the Indian state of Maharashtra, which includes Mumbai, for taking jobs that he asserted ought to belong to them.

His ire was directed at south Indian Tamils working in Mumbai, Muslims, whom in a speech in 2007 he called "green poison", as well as Gujaratis, Sikhs, and people from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Shiv Sena – "Shivaji's Army" – was blamed for riots in Mumbai in 1992 and 1993 in which 900 people died. These followed the demolition of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, supposed by Hindus to be the birthplace of the god-king Rama, in December 1992 by extremist Hindu "saffron outfits" including Shiv Sena members.

Those disturbances caused the deaths of nearly 600 Muslims and almost 300 Hindus across India. Thackeray declared: "If a holy war is to begin because of me, then so be it". He advocated an India for Hindus as well as Maharashtra for Maharashtrians, and even proclaimed that there ought to be Hindu suicide squads to protect India and Hindus. Men holding allegiance to Thackeray's organisation had earlier been convicted of the murder in Mumbai in 1970 of the Communist Krishna Desai, a Maharashtra Legislative Assembly member representing the working-class Parel constituency.

It was Shiv Sena's opposition to Communism that caused the Indian National Congress to give it tacit support in its early days after Thackeray founded it in 1966, ceremonially breaking a coconut. Congress wanted to overcome the power of Mumbai's Communist trades unions. In 1975 Thackeray supported the "Emergency" declared by the Congress Party Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. Shiv Sena at last came to power in Mumbai between 1995 and 1999, together with its ally the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party.

The city's Sena/BJP government was considered to have followed contradictory policies, legitimising slum dwellings, but removing people living on pavements to make way for new roads. As happened after the 1992 and 1993 riots, lip service was paid to charging and arresting Thackeray for inciting violence, but he was immediately released.

"Thackeray's genius was giving shape to an authentically Indian Fascism," the commentator Praveen Swami wrote in The Hindu newspaper after his death. Thackeray spoke of his admiration for Hitler. Sena's patronage, Swami contends had much in common with Mumbai's other notable behind-the-scenes syndicate of power, the illegal organisation of Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar.

Thackeray made many of his pronouncements in Shiv Sena's magazine Saamna, and in later years would issue directives from his residence, Matoshree, in Mumbai's Bandra suburb, where he stayed with 24-hour protection from more than 100 police officers. Everywhere he campaigned for the use of the Marathi language, and in 1981 appeared at a hearing about the dramatist Vijay Tendulkar's 1972 play Ghashiram Kotwal which portrays the wiles of Nana Phadnavis. Thackeray made sure a paragraph was added praising this historical Maratha figure's statesmanship.

Shiv Sena had many crude slogans, such as "Vacha ani Utha" – "Read and wake" – and "Hatao lungi, bajao pungi": "remove those who wear the lungi [sarong, that is, south Indians], and celebrate the event". Thackeray, wearer of the kurta and dhoti, styled himself "hriday samrat" – "emperor of Hindu hearts" – and was often pictured seated on a gilded throne decorated with a snarling tiger's head. In his speeches he would use vicious humour and mimic Indian politicians. Some observers delighted in what they saw as his brilliant inventions, such as the Sena's Sthaniya Lokadikhar Samiti Mahasangh, or "Platform for Rights of the Locals".

Bal Keshav Thackeray was born in Pune, the son of Prabodhankar Thackeray, who campaigned in the 1950s for a united Maharashtra as newly independent India carved its regions out of the old British colonial Presidency of Bombay. "Bal" – the name means "young" or "baby" – attended Orient High School, which he left early, he said, because his parents could not afford the fees. Having doodled on the family house's walls since childhood, he made his way up using India's long-established newspaper industry, working as a cartoonist on Mumbai's Free Press Journal. In 1960 he founded his own political periodical, Marmik, and would drive about Mumbai in a battered Fiat car, stopping to climb on to its bonnet to hold forth to people in the street.

"Balasaheb" and his wife Meenatai had three sons, Bindumadhav, Jaidev and Uddhav. Bindumadhav was killed in a car crash in 1996. Thackeray's nephew, his brother's son, Raj, set himself up as a rival political influence with his own organisation, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), or Maharashtra Reconstruction Party.

Anne Keleny

Bal Keshav Thackeray, politician: born Pune, India 23 January 1926; married Meenatai (died 1995; two sons, and one son deceased); died Mumbai 17 November 2012.

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