The Firebrand Who Renamed Bombay: Bal Thackeray (1926–2012)

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DOUGLAS E. CURRAN / AFP / Getty Images

Bal Thackeray, leader of the Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena, in January 1993

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.)

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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

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40 comments
A_Thinker
A_Thinker

The only politician who spoke truth. Because of it he was worshiped by many and hated by many.

He always spoke truth. He was a great visionary. He was really unlucky to born in India, if he was born in US he could have been much popular. His main ideas, thoughts were so true that lazy Indians still couldn't agree to it. 

1. There is no place for anti nationals in India. He always said that people who live in India and support Pakistan should leave the country. He was true, so opposition and media painted him as anti-muslim.

2. People staying illegally in Mumbai should be driven out. He was 100% true in this. More than 60% of Mumbai's population lives in slums. His opposition and media painted him as anti north indians. Today Mumbai is one of the worst places to live. Mumbai and adjutant district Thane have combined population of 40 million making life as a hell.   

MaGioZal
MaGioZal

High time to make a plebiscite to see if Mumbai’s population agree to rename the city back to Bombay.

JohnDahodi
JohnDahodi

A little known Cartoonist but well known Bombay Mafia King is gone for ever. Now Mumbai will have one less goon guru (ii) one less iron fist whimsical head who was able to paralyze the life of Mumbai at his will (iii) The deadly enemy of poor Biharis, Bengalis,Tamils and MUSLIMS was roaring like a tiger to make their lives miserable injecting venom of hooliganism in the minds of millions of his blind followers. Bal Thackeray had disrupted the industrial, social and cultural life of Mumbai more often than any other leader in her history. Hope, after his departure, the roaring cruel tiger will remain silent forever.

Robert2011GB
Robert2011GB

India needs leaders Thackeray to protect the country, people and civilization from the Muslims.Indians have been living with the fear of Islam for centuries while we only saw it here on September 11.

ramsare
ramsare

Shall we collectively say: good riddance?

sremani
sremani

He is glorified thug, and what he stood for are base nativist ideas. Attacking South Indians in 60s and turning his wrath against Muslims in 90s and then moving to North Indians esp. Biharis in early 21st century. Any one who considered this two-bit goon a leader or icon, just does not have basic morals or just too afraid of speaking the truth

sucorazon20101
sucorazon20101

As Time will not cover Bal Thackeray's funeral, which closed down the city of Mumbai, the financial capital of India, as Time's editor is Zakaria, a muslim.

I have taken the liberty of posting linkls from the BBC, which covered his funeral live here in Britain.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-20383401

Kajua
Kajua

In the name of Hindu-Tuva, he preached the massacre of  minorities, he was a fanatic hypocrite his achievement is hatred and more hatred.

Samsara4747
Samsara4747

He was an apologetic hindu. The majority community must dominate. He made sure of that. He lived a full and poewrful life 86 years.Lived like a tiger.

harin76
harin76

Balasaheb was a fearless champion of Hindu rights in a country driven by a vile Islamic votebank politics. Bal had the guts and gumption to take on the votaries of communism, Islamic fundamentalists, and the anti-Hindu leftist brigade. Balasaheb was instrumental in driving the communists out of power in Maharashtra in the 1970s. Balasaheb was not popular for nothing - he understood how Hindus are discriminated in their own land, and he was able to effectively oppose it, thereby earning himself a place in the heart of millions of Hindus.

RIP Balasaheb. We will not forget you.

sucorazon20101
sucorazon20101

Bal is a hero, who took on the terrorists. 

He opened eyes of Hindus all over India, about how muslims have 3 wives and have at least 15 kids. 

He told Hindus how  islam is a danger.And Bal never cared if he went to hell or heaven, He only loved India and Indians.

But I am not sad that he has breathed his last breath, because he hasachieved what he wanted to do : Awaken Hindu masses to the dangers frommuslims and their ilk !!

Long Live Bal Thackeray's memories !! You will live for ever in hearts of millions of Hindus !!

shahg64
shahg64

Bal is burning in hell about right now.....he is pleading for a second chance, but its too late.

Bano
Bano

@Robert2011GB You stink like a hindu, how long you been here, I extends you the greetings of president on happy dewali, tanke care by, use some deodrend please.

SandeepSingh
SandeepSingh

@Robert2011GB  Spoken like a true racist and a bigot.  We Indians love all our people, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, and Jews alike.  Its a shame that bigots like you and your hero bal thakray still occupy this planet in today's day and age. Small minded people like Thakaray have always been on the wrong side of history, and they always will be. Some might call him a hero, but most will remember him as a selfish coward who thrived on others' ignorance. 

Bano
Bano

 Thanks for the sharing, looks like a dead rat, stinks like rat did they burn his glasses with him to hell, also why some people are in diapers?

sremani
sremani

@ramsare Of course we can say that, but he left an army of crazies and the dear leader has also left us with his son who will replace him and continue the mafia-esque rule.

sucorazon20101
sucorazon20101

@Kajua There comes the pakistani with multiple id's

Is it true, Mohamad used to have sex with 6 year old girls, and muslims marry their own cousins ? Of-course it is....

Change your life, read the Bible and have pork pies for breakfast.

islam sucks, and people who follow this gutter religion need to be massacred.

sucorazon20101
sucorazon20101

@shahg64 , Nope he is not !!

Killing muslim is like killing snakes.

By the way , when Bin Laden dies, Bal Thackeray's men, had pork pies on the pages of the unholy koran.

Bal is a hero, who took on the terrorists. He opened eyes of Hindus all over India, about how muslims have 3 wives and have at least 15 kids. He told Hindus how  islam is a danger.

And Bal never cared if he went to hell or heaven, He only loved India and Indians.

But I am not sad that he has breathed his last breath, because he has achieved what he wanted to do : Awaken Hindu masses to the dangers from muslims and their ilk !!

Long Live Bal Thackeray's memories !!

You will live for ever in hearts of millions of Hindus !!

Robert2011GB
Robert2011GB

You stink like a Muslim.

And I'm an American,

Robert2011GB
Robert2011GB

Singh?

 Really?

 Remember your own words then when India is Muslim.

Robert2011GB
Robert2011GB

Singh?

Really?

 Remember your own words then when India is Muslim.

sucorazon20101
sucorazon20101

@Bano  Ola bro!!

I don't know much about diapers...but I had pork pie on the pages of the koran when bin laden died.

And how is pakistan now...heard after pakistan failed as a nation, pakistani refugees can be found all over bangladesh and Nepal.....sorry about you r country and religion bano...try reading the Bible, and save your life, why live like a pig!!

Bye loser !! :)

sucorazon20101
sucorazon20101

@sremani  

sremani and ramsare.....its really funny, how all the negative comments come from 'first time' users...all these fake id's have just 'one comment'.

It's a poor pakistani by the name of Maq, who is doing it.

Keep trying....losers need some reason for living, especially from a failed state like pakistan. Chao, :)

aky2
aky2

before comenting on Muhammad's charachter read further about his cause of marying and sex relation ship to his wives. he didn't have any physical  relationship untill the girl was 13.

and by the way your pork is just as harmfull as you and your poisoned brain. instead of telling other people what to do go and wash your dirty ass which you hardly get a chance to do

rue
rue

@sucorazon20101 

Dude, you are you Hindu or Christian?  I am hoping Hindu because you have a severe lack of understanding of what Christianity entails.  You do know that Thackeray persecuted Christians too, right?

aky2
aky2

balay is burning in hell just like all other terorists should. people who coment on others like you, don't belong to any religion they are sick and mental and need help from a phychartist.

before feeding pork ton other go ahead and eat all your gods such as cows and lions and snacks probably garabage is also one of your god. actually you do belong to a garbage can.

aeges
aeges

@sucorazon20101 

your bal was a terrorist too... he was not different from the muslims you called terrorists..dont try to justify violence...all violence is terrorism...get a life...

DeviMataCh
DeviMataCh

I guess you never saw Rashterpita Gandi wearing his diaper, In the doucumented histroy of India he is considered top loser who in his last days was also very sad about historical failures, some times he would burst in to tears for his experiments in life and often would go in to Chills as was taught a very good lesson by ChuirChill. dear sucorazon 20101 word to remember for your nonfunctonal Idiotic brain is, C for Chill and C for Chuirchill, CC dont mean Cow Cola served Chilled. 

Bano
Bano

@sucorazon20101 I think you read Lord Krishna's too many times over, rape, gutter, hindu pig are words you are facinated with right Dude?. Is it the part of you raising or your school education?.

sucorazon20101
sucorazon20101

@Nimraa @sucorazon20101  

No dude, moahamad was a child rapist, which is what muslims.

How does it feel to be in bed with your cousin? I mean you are married to her aren't you? :)

Get a life, read the Bible, come out  of the gutter called islam. Don't be a pig !!

Nimraa
Nimraa

@sucorazon20101 you mean like Pandave the 5 brothers of MahaBharta  having relation ship with the wife (Draupadi) of the eldest one.

sucorazon20101
sucorazon20101

@aky2  

Nope he did not have a physical relationship, he just raped them, Now,now that ain't a relationship !!

Islam sucks, get a life, become a human being. Read the Holy Bible, and come out of the gutter of the sub-humanism that is Islam !!

sucorazon20101
sucorazon20101

@rue @sucorazon20101  really? I was born in Mumbai. Show me one instance when our community was persecuted?

It's funny, all these commentators, who have the same ip address, and just one comment in their profile. Pathetic Mak or should I say Kajua or rue akys or shahg64.........is one all but one person, a frustrated paki terrorist whose ass burns every time bad news comes out of porkistan. Shooo !!