'The General' in his labyrinth

Print edition : August 29, 1998

A LITTLE after 9.30 p.m. on January 8, 1993, journalist Yuvraj Mohite discovered just who was organising the Mumbai riots. He had arrived at Bal Thackeray's residence along with Mumbai Mayor Chandrakant Handore, and was ushered into the presence of the Shiv Sena supremo, who evidently took him for some sort of political sidekick. He heard, in the words of the Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission Report, Thackeray order "the Shiv Sainiks, Shakha Pramukhs and other activists of the Shiv Sena to attack the Muslims, to ensure that they gave tit for tat and ensure that 'not a single landya (circumcised person) would survive to give oral evidence'." Thackeray, Justice Srikrishna concluded, was "like a veteran General" who "commanded... Shiv Sainiks to retaliate by organised attacks on the Muslims."

Although the Maharashtra Government has rejected the charge, the military metaphor would have been familiar to Chief Minister Manohar Joshi. In the Shiv Sena's iconography, Thackeray is the Hindu Hridaysamrat (Emperor of the Hindu Heart), the Senapati (Commander) of its Sena.

The rise of the Senapati had inconspicuous beginnings. Thackeray began his career as a staff cartoonist at The Free Press Journal, which then had on its payroll present-day leading lights such as R.K. Laxman. His father, the well-known journalist K.S. Thackeray, had been a leading figure in the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement (SMM) which fought for the creation of the linguistic State of Maharashtra. The SMM brought together a spectrum of Left opinion, ranging from Socialists to Communists. But it also had a chauvinist element within it, one that became apparent in the latter part of the 1960s. K.S. Thackeray broke ranks with the movement over the decisive role of Communists within it.

Bal Thackeray quit his job in The Free Press Journal in 1960. While authorised history attributes this decision to Journal Editor A.B. Nair's refusal to sanction attacks on politicians like Minoo Masani and S.K. Patil, there is also another point of view on the matter. Old-timers at The Free Press Journal recall Thackeray as an unstable person with few ideological convictions and believe that his decision to leave was an emotional one without any real thought behind it.

But the legacy of the SMM and the anti-migrant resentment among lower middle-class, educated Maharashtrians provided Thackeray with the climate in which to shape a political agenda. His new Marathi-language weekly, Marmik, welded lower middle class resentments with anti-Communism and parochialism. South Indian migrants were the principal targets for attack. They were referred to as yandugunduwalas, a street parody of the rolling sound of their languages; on occasion, cruder references such as lungiwalas were deployed.

As a fallout of the 1962 war with China, Communists joined the ranks of Marmik's enemies. The late V.K. Krishna Menon, who as a South Indian and a perceived Left sympathiser concretely represented the Shiv Sena's enemy, was targeted during his electoral bids from Mumbai for his "rhinoceros"-coloured skin.

Although explicit communal polemic was rare, the journal built on deep-rooted prejudices about the conflict between Shivaji and Aurangzeb, and on one occasion criticised the Indian President's decision to fly to Mumbai to greet the Pope.

Marmik's defining moment came in 1965, when the journal began to publish lists of 1,500 corporate executives in Mumbai, purporting to show that the vast majority of them were "outsiders". These lists began with the caption: "Read this and keep quiet", an appeal that soon changed to "Read this and awaken".

"A hundred years ago in Bombay," one futuristic satire written in 1965 read, "Madrasi governors, mayors and sherriffs were appointed. Then, the Madrasi lungi was a topic of fun. Today, everybody wears a lungi."

The lists of "outsiders" were not the result of any careful investigation and offered no information on where the "outsiders" were born or how long they had lived in Mumbai. The claims, however, were unchallenged by the mainstream media at the time, and Marmik's circulation boomed. By 1966, research by sociologist Mary Katzenstein suggests, its readership ranged between 200,000 and 300,000, and it reached 40 per cent to 50 per cent of the literate Marathi-speaking population over 15 years of age.

The foundation of the Shiv Sena had now become possible. Its creation was announced in Marmik, and the announcement was followed by a string of attacks on Udipi restaurants and violence directed at South Indians and Gujaratis. Apparently, the new organisation and its leader understood the resonance of this visceral violence in the young people in the slums and people in working class areas who were pushed out of jobs.

Soon, the Shiv Sena diversified into a battle with the powerful Left unions in Mumbai's mill areas. This enterprise appears to have been supported by industrial capital, and was at no stage sought to be ended by successive Congress(I) governments. Thackeray's detractors claim that he himself was a beneficiary of the attacks on Left trade unions and the protection rackets into which the street Sena was rapidly diversifying. There is no evidence, however, of his ever having personally participated in the Shiv Sena's violent activities. Marmik, interestingly, was a regular recipient of advertisements from major business groups, notably Larsen and Toubro.

If, in the 1960s and 1970s, Thackeray frequently attacked Indira Gandhi (and Sanjay Gandhi), he buckled during the Emergency. In 1967, he told the daily Navakal: "Yes, I am a dictator. It is a Hitler that is needed in India today." His polemical attacks on Muslims were underpinned by the conviction that he would not be punished for them. "(Given) the way that Muslims (in your language, minorities) are murdering us," one typical article in 1993 addressed to Chief Minister Sudharkarrao Naik read, "if you cannot stop it, then we will have to."

The Shiv Sena carried out its threat, playing the leading role in one of independent India's worst campaigns of communal violence against Muslims. After the serial blasts in Mumbai that followed the rioting, however, Thackeray stayed conspicuously off the streets.

For a leader of the poor, Thackeray values contact with the rich. He speaks affectionately of such past mentors as A.R. Antulay and Vasantdada Patil, is surrounded by ostentatious rings of security, and makes no effort to conceal his lifestyle. On the one side is the street language used at political gatherings and in Saamna (he once described a journalist as a "whore"); on the other are the beads and baubles of status, ranging from electronic gadgets to silk clothes and cellphones.

Those whom Thackeray has claimed to be close to include Chandraswami and arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, whom he described in January 1991 as "friends" whom he "met often". The Shiv Sena chief has also gone out of his way to establish his legitimacy in popular culture, and members of his family have had interests in Bollywood. Stars ranging from Nana Patekar to Manisha Koirala have at various points paid obeisance to 'Balasaheb'.

Will the Shiv Sena survive Thackeray? The Sena supremo continues to project himself as a young man, dyeing his hair and using make-up to conceal the wrinkles inevitable in a man of 72. This is because the succession is not expected to be smooth. His nephew Raj Thackeray, who heads the party's student wing, is a strong contender. So is Udhav Thackeray, Bal Thackeray's son. The eldest son, Jaidev, appears to have no political ambitions, but his estranged wife Smita lives in the Thackeray home and is a person of influence. Newspapers began to speculate on strife in the Thackeray family after the death of his son Madhav in a traffic accident, and recent developments have amplified the gossip. There is always the possibility that the second-rung leadership in the Shiv Sena may not accept dynastic succession. As the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party Government lurches from one crisis to the other, such questions are certain to acquire an ever-sharper edge.

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