Has Shiv Sena a future?

Print edition : March 14, 2003

The Charisma of Direct Action: Power, Politics and the Shiv Sena by Julia M. Eckert; Oxford University Press; pages 307, Rs.595.

Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray-

THIS extremely able work makes a most timely appearance. Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray has anointed his son, Uddhav, as his heir, to the disappointment of his ambitious nephew, Raj. Uddhav made his first political move on February 11, shortly after being formally elected "working president" of the Sena. He extended an olive branch to Dalits. Republican Party of India president Ramdas Athavale was not impressed by this plea for unity between "Bhim-Shakti" and "Shiv-Shakti".

In the last five years, a prominent Dalit leader, the poet Namdeo Dhasal, built up a rapport with the Sena. But many Dalits would share Athavale's view that with Sushilkumar Shinde, "a Dalit leader, as the new Chief Minister, we hope the State government will honour the feelings of our community". Shinde is, moreover, both an able administrator and an astute politician.

Another important development is that Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi and the Nationalist Congress Party president Sharad Pawar have come to realise that neither would be able to defeat the Sena-BJP alliance in the elections to the State Assembly, due in 2004, unless they sink their differences now well ahead of the polls.

The Shiv Sena's s aura of invincibility is wearing off. It is a matter of time before the Raj-Uddhav rift erupts noisily in the open.

As Professor V.M. Sirsikar wrote in the Politics of Modern Maharashtra (Orient Longman; 1995; page 189), "Whether it was the controversy over the Riddles of Hinduism (Dr. Ambedkar's controversial writings over Ram and Krishna, published by the Government of Maharashtra) or any other issue, the Shiv Sena has been extremely hostile to Dalits." Even on the issue of renaming a university. That Udhav should seek support from Dalits testifies to his desperation.

The Sena owes a lot to the Congress(I) and to opportunistic businessmen, politicians and even some intellects of Mumbai. The Congress(I) Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Vasantrao P. Naik, was chief guest at a function to launch the Shiv Sena in Mumbai on October 30, 1966. A noted industrialist and Congressman in the city was known to be an ardent supporter of the Sena in order to keep the Communist-dominated trade unions at bay. Nath Pai, the Socialist leader, thought nothing of sharing a platform with Bal Thackeray. When this writer remonstrated with a socialist of deep commitment to secularism against the Socialists' flirtation with the Sena, he was told, "Those of us who work in the field, know how to do things."

As Julia Eckert aptly puts it, the Shiv Sena is a "party, movement and gang at once". She describes its style; set-up and modus operandi in documented detail and with deep insight. The Sena used the cultural milieu and economic environment and reshaped it. The Congress "system" of old was fully replaced with a new one. If this movement based on the fascist model blind loyalty to the leader, an ideology based on hate and addiction to violation has done well in Indian democracy, it is because, like fascists, it discerned accurately the fears and needs of an insecure people, offered tangible redress and identified itself with them as to make them view the movement as their own.

It needs continuing successes as well as continuous challenge. "Without successes and their related material benefits, the movement might tire in disappointment. Without limits to its successes the movement would lose its specific justification. These uninhibiting limits present the Sena with a perpetual state of potentiality, which cannot fulfil, nor outlive itself. Violent action (against a still uncontrolled `other') saves the movement from being routinised and generates the power which, in its formal institutionalisation, subsequently makes violent action (rather) riskless."

Well before it won power in the city and later in the State, the Sena had made inroads into the apparatus of the State, especially the police. It has been pronounced dead more than once. Rajni Patel tried to get it banned during the Emergency. But Thackeray had rushed to support the Emergency no sooner than it was imposed. Indira Gandhi rejected Patel's plea, some hold, at the instance of Sanjay Gandhi.

The author begins with a minute analysis of the structure of the movement with the shakha (branch) as its unit. They are amazingly well-knit into the fabric of society. "The shakhas organise leisure activities and training in vocational skills for young people. Rooms have been made available for school studies and preparation for examinations. Shakha pramukhs offer assistance with job applications, school admissions, and other formalities, which require recommendations. Pramukhs also step in with advice and support when there are illness, births, deaths, or marriages. Sometimes funds are collected to meet emergency situations in a family; at other times sainiks stand in when there is `need'. Gata pramukhs, heading the smaller units of the Sena, usually pride themselves on their intricate knowledge of their area, their street, or chawl."

In 1997, Raj Thackeray established the Shiv Udyog Sena, to strengthen his base as the leader of the youth wing of the Sena. "He raised funds for the employment agency with, among other sources, concerts by Michael Jackson and Lata Mangeshkar and thus, simultaneously, propagated the new brand of the Sena's popular culture and its implications for a nascent generational change within the organisation."

The women's front, Mahila Aghadi, settles domestic disputes; from dowry demands to wife-beating. The technique of fund collection was exposed in a speech delivered by Diwankar Raote, former Minister for Trade and Commerce, to a meeting of 77 traders in Dadar in 1988. Secretly taped, the transcript was published in The Telegraph (October 12 and 13, 1988), which the author quotes in extenso. "You tell me what your capacity is, just as it is your right to live as per your capacity, it is my right to take from you as per your capacity. You tell me what you are going to give me. Have you come here to fool me? You should have been mortally scared to talk to me like this, of giving only Rs.5,000. Merrily you take your money back. Not a single boy of mine will come to your house to question you why you did not pay. When you're raided don't come to me on your knees. Catch hold of politicians from other parties... " This is how protection is extended. He added: "In order to serve the lives of your people in Bhiwandi, I have slaughtered Muslims taking a sword in my hand. Still you don't know Diwankar Raote. I have carried you, Gujaratis, on my shoulders... When we receive stabs on our chest, we never rely on beggars like you. The Gujarati businessmen of Thane had given us truckloads of pav (bread). They can do only that. They can't take swords in their hands, understand?

"In one riot, we have slaughtered 300-350 Muslims, and your (Gujarati) businessmen had witnessed it. What have you seen till now? You are happy here in Dadar. When the same Mohammedans will attack you and lift your women, you will remember us" (emphasis added, throughout).

Street culture pervades throughout. Thackeray's vulgar speeches reflect it. Yet, "every word uttered by Balasaheb is like a divine command for the Shiv Sainiks... ", a film producer said. The Sena's success testifies to the failure of all the three arms of the state the executive, political and administrative; the legislature; and the judiciary.

In a passage of brilliant insight, the author remarks: "In times of increasing globalisation which is defined by the increasing withdrawal of the state from its developmental promise, and the privatisation of development, liberalisation meets with a situation in which many of the state's institutions are delegitimised and ineffective due to corruption and the centralisation and stagnation of governance. Both ills find a response in the advocacy to `bypass' the state. The Shiv Sena, too, bypasses the state, supplements it and often subsumes its agencies under its auspices and organises the new world not only in an ideological manner of right to participation, but also in a practical manner. The party actively restructures the institutional settings of the city as well as their legitimations. It apparently replaces the rule of law with the rule of force."

The author worked hard in field work and interviewed a large number of persons. One wishes the author had discussed how and why leading figures in Bollywood paid obeisance to Thackeray. He has openly, repeatedly extolled violence. He congratulated "his" Sainiks for murdering Krishna Desai, a Communist MLA, whose death facilitated the Sena's acquisition of domination in a Communist stronghold.

Thackeray reveals the rationale behind the usual criticism of the "Muslim vote bank". Muslims do not, cannot vote the same way in a country as large as ours. What the Sena and the BJP seek is an intra-Hindu debate on secularism in which the minorities cannot participate and whose result they cannot influence. Thackeray bluntly said: "Why should elections in India depend on the votes of the Shahi Imam and Syed Shahabuddin?"

Violence is regarded by some as a sign of effectiveness. "The Shiv Sena, however, attests a value and legitimacy to violence which is quite different from the attempts of other parties to conceal their perpetration of violence or dissociate themselves from their hirelings. The sense which these legitimations make, even beyond the Sena's immediate followers, cannot be explained by the degree of violence present in the body politic, but has to be seen in the light of the above-mentioned discourses which the Sena connects to.

"For the Shiv Sena, there is firstly the official justification of violence, retaliation and defence. Secondly, there are the various norms and imaginations of the legitimacy of violent action: Its manliness and courage, its honesty, and directness, etc. Yet there is another legitimacy of violent action, namely that of emancipation and empowerment achieved through violent action in an everyday context." Violence is an integral part of its credo.

Police bias and the courts' leniency have contributed to making the Sena Establishment a state within a state. Thackeray can get away with anything, including incitement to murder. "The immunity awarded to Bal Thackeray by political powers rests not solely on the alleged danger or riots and mayhem which a prosecution would possibly trigger, but above all on the Sena and its politics of violent action having been rather useful to other political outfits and interest groups, namely the Congress party, as well as the industrial and business elites of Mumbai".

Julio Ribeiro recounts in his memoirs Bullet for Bullet: My Life as a Police Officer how the Congress government constantly pressed him, when he was Commissioner of Police, Mumbai, to go soft on Thackeray and the Sena.

The judiciary's attitude is nothing short of tragic. "Judicial inaction against the Shiv Sena as well as judicial bias in favour of it becomes apparent frequently in the judgements passed against Sainiks. [The scholar Thomas Blom] Hansen reports how the sentences passed for rioting in Maharashtrian villages against Sainiks and Muslim youths vastly differed in severity... Similarly, the legal procedures undertaken against those accused in the Mumbai bomb blasts of March 1993 seemed to show a stark bias; the perpetrators of atrocities in the Mumbai riots on the side of the majority community were hardly taken to justice, while those held responsible for the bomb blast of March 1993, seen by Muslims and Hindus alike as a revenge for the riots on the hands of the Muslim-led gangs, spent years in jail under the draconian Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) law. Most of them were Muslims, although the bomb blasts could never have been organised without the assistance of state officials like customs officers, who are largely Hindu by religion."

The Sena-BJP government was a colossal failure. It left an empty treasury. The Centre as well as the World Bank censured it. The Sena's shine has markedly declined. While it would be foolish to write it off, the weaknesses that have surfaced lately must not be overlooked. The organisation is intact but the issues of old draw less support than before. The author notes: "The Shiv Sena's power rests on its being a movement. Movements need issues... Issues are the reason, the legitimisation for their existence, and their appeal to followers. However, issues can be negotiated, they can even be resolved as were some of the Sena's regionalist demands. That can be the end of a movement, and it nearly was the end of the Sena when it lost most of its electoral support after its regionalist issues had been incorporated into mainstream politics. Hence, blessed is the movement that has an issue. Even better, an issue which is not resolvable; a potential perpetuum mobile of movement."

The same holds good, incidentally, for the Sangh Parivar. Can the Sena retain its confrontationist posture for much longer? "Without elaborating on the entrenched status of anti-Muslim sentiments in India and their manifold institutionalisations, it may be emphasised that what `makes sense' is not necessarily the issue. The issue legitimises the practices; the end is a means to the means. Empirical findings suggest that the motivation for participation lies as much in the specific form of organisation as a movement as in the `framing' of the issue. In fact, the frames can be changed according to circumstances."

Only recently Narendra Modi stole the Sena's thunder at a rally in Mumbai. The BJP and the Sena need each other. But a BJP driven by the RSS with increasing vigour cannot afford to be too placatory to the Sena. It is unlikely that the infrastructure of "the gang" will survive its founder. There will be a scramble for the heritage. Out of office in recent years, the Shiv Sena has been uneasy and restless. Another electoral debacle next year will be a coup de grace. All the more reason why a united front of secular parties should be forged now to defeat the Sena-BJP alliance.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor