In India, Bal Thackeray exuded an influence that inspired many but was loathsome to more. His image was unmistakable: his broad-lensed spectacles, the beaded necklace around his neck, his trademark white kurta and dhoti. His words burned with xenophobia and Hindu fundamentalism: “All antinational Muslims be driven out of the country,” “Islamic terrorism is growing and Hindu terrorism is the only way to counter it,” “We need suicide-bomb squads to protect India and Hindus.” The chief of India’s extreme Hindu right-wing organization Shiv Sena, Thackeray was never shy about speaking his mind — sometimes with wit, often with bile. “He never cared about the effect of his words on other people,” says Vivek Mehetre, a longtime associate of Thackeray. “And therefore he often ended up hurting people.” And yet his hold on the Indian metropolis of Mumbai and its state of Maharashtra was legendary and unquestionable.
Crowds had been gathering around his home in the central part of the megalopolis over the two weeks of his illness, and on Saturday afternoon when news came of his death, many of the assembled broke down in tears. Police barricades went up to control the crowds. Meanwhile, an army of around 20,000 police personnel were deployed across Maharashtra to deflect any kind of commotion by his devotees. TV reports said Shiv Sena workers had forced shops to close down in certain areas of the city after the announcement. A Who’s Who of Indian politics and film is expected at his funeral on Sunday.
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The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with which his party had allied in the 1990s to form a state government in Maharashtra, canceled a scheduled dinner with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Singh called Thackeray a “consummate communicator whose stature in the politics of Maharashtra was unique.” Sushma Swaraj, a senior leader of the BJP and leader of the opposition, tweeted to say that she was “terribly pained to hear that the Lion is dead.” A Congress Party leader Milind Deora tweeted of Thackeray: “Often imitated but never duplicated.”
Born on Jan. 23, 1926, Thackeray began his career as a political cartoonist with the Free Press Journal in Mumbai, which he left in 1960 to form his own political weekly Marmik. His father Prabodhankar Thackeray was a leading figure in the Samyukta (United) Maharashtra movement in the 1950s, which advocated a separate Marathi-speaking political entity out of what was then called the state of Bombay. Inspired by his father’s ideology, the young Thackeray used Marmik to campaign against the growing influence of Gujaratis, Marwaris and south Indians who were dominating Mumbai’s trade and industry. He formed the Shiv Sena party in 1966, primarily to safeguard the rights of the indigenous Maharashtrians.
Thackeray and Shiv Sena went on to triumph in almost all Mumbai’s civic elections, ruling the city for two decades. Thackeray became part of the state government in alliance with the BJP in 1995, when Bombay was officially renamed Mumbai — a reform Thackeray championed, Mumbai being what Maharashtrian have always called the city. The Washington Post once described Thackeray as “the man who rules Bombay [Mumbai] the way Al Capone ruled Chicago — through fear and intimidation.” And although he never held any political office, he famously commented that he held the “remote control” of the state government. Thackeray realized early in his career that regionalism could give him a concentrated power that he could then emanate on a larger stage. He continuously exploited the divisions between Maharashtrian society and the rest of India to further his influence.
Most controversially, Thackeray fanned religious hatred. Even as he promoted the ideology of “Maharashtra for Maharashtrians,” he advocated an “India for Hindus.” He called Shiv Sena volunteers, who were marching toward the historic Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992, “Hindu warriors.” The resulting riots, which he was accused of inciting through his incendiary editorials, killed 575 Muslims and 275 Hindus across the country. His anti-Muslim leanings calcified after the 1993 serial blasts in Mumbai — masterminded by fugitive gangster Dawood Ibrahim to avenge the killings of Muslim people in the 1992 riots. (Mumbai is nearly 20% Muslim.)
Despite multiple arrests, Thackeray never faced any kind of legal retribution. In 1993, he said he was prepared to be arrested for inciting the post–Babri Mosque riots but was unrepentant. “If a holy war is to begin because of me,” he declared, “then so be it.” Seven years later, when he was indeed arrested in connection with the riots, Mumbai came to a standstill. He was let off as the magistrate dismissed the case because the statute of limitations had expired. In 2007, Thackeray was once again arrested for a provocative speech he made during a Shiv Sena rally, in which he referred to Muslims as “green poison,” but again was let off on bail immediately. “He was hugely popular and could rouse people into action. That created a kind of fear psychosis, and even the establishment was afraid of possible mass reaction,” says Kumar Ketkar, editor of Divya Marathi, a Marathi newspaper and a longtime critic of Thackeray’s politics. “He managed to create the impression that the city will burn, youths will be up in arms and there will be furor [if anything happened to him]. True or not, but the threat worked.”
Thackeray dabbled on smaller stages as well — including sports and Bollywood (the latter was a term he hated — even though he was a movie buff — because it is based on the old name of Mumbai). In 2009, he took on Indian cricketing superstar Sachin Tendulkar, a Marathi icon, for saying that he was an Indian before he was a Maharashtrian. In 2010, his party disrupted the screening of a Bollywood movie because its lead star, Shah Rukh Khan, had said that Pakistani cricketers should also play in the Indian Premier League. Earlier this month, he called the renewal of India-Pakistan cricketing ties a matter of “national shame.”
Mumbai was Thackeray’s muse, but his legacy to the city is questionable. There is no questioning his common touch and populist instincts. “He was the only political person who was savvy with Bollywood, cricket, artists and celebrities,” says Ketkar. “He was a great communicator, humorist [and] mimic. He enthralled the audiences.” But Ketkar adds that “actually, he had no vision, no program, no action plan or even understanding of Mumbai.” Prakash Akolkar, author of the book Jai Maharashtra, the first official history of Shiv Sena, agrees. “In the first decade he worked towards a Marathi cause,” Akolkar says, “[but] Thackeray always took up momentary issues and the party had no long-term plans or policies.” Except for hate.
— With reporting by Shashikant Sawant / Mumbai