Thackeray’s Toxic Legacy
Indian politicians, television anchors and film stars fell over one another in lavishing praise on Bal Thackeray for his personal candour and tactical shrewdness, despite his ghastly politics. But I, for one, won’t shed any tears over one of the most repulsive demagogues South Asia has produced, who infused poison into India’s body politic and comprehensively debased its democracy.
Thackeray concentrated the worst possible prejudice, intolerance, regional-linguistic chauvinism, corruption, authoritarianism, divisiveness and bigotry. He instigated murder and openly defied the state. And he got away unpunished and unrepentant.
The story of Thackeray’s success is the story of the failure of Indian democracy. Yet, shamefully, the ruling establishment bestowed state honours upon a person who worshipped fascism, practised virulent communalism, and delighted in bullying. Even for his Maharashtrian core-constituency, he was only as good as Hitler was for the German people. He all but destroyed Bombay as a cosmopolitan multicultural city.
Thackeray made his political debut at a critical juncture, as a puppet in the hands of industrialists who nurtured a pathological hatred of trade unions and the left parties, then very much in the ascendance in Bombay. Thackeray’s first targets were young union activists, especially from the South, in the engineering, chemicals and pharmaceuticals industries.
The late 1960s were a period of industrial restructuring, to accomplish which managements needed to tame assertive trade unions. The Sena became the main agency for achieving this, typically by beating up, intimidating, and even murdering, activists.
The name Shiv Sena was invented in 1966 by industrialist and Thackeray mentor Ramakrishna Bajaj. The Sena advocated a sons-of-the-soil agenda to isolate union activists. It received a degree of legitimacy from the Samyukta (unified) Maharashtra movement, which had succeeded in 1960 in securing a separate Marathi-speaking province. The movement also strengthened the cult of Shivaji, which the Sena cynically exploited.
The investor-friendly Maharashtra government colluded with the industry to help the Sena smash the unions. So blatant was this collusion under Chief Minister Vasantrao Naik that the Shiv Sena was jocularly called “Vasant Sena”. Sena goons broke strikes and set up pro-company unions with impunity. Although the Shiv Sena regarded Gujaratis, Parsis and Marwaris as “outsiders”, its ire was directed at South Indians. Businessmen in the other communities could neutralise it with bribes.
The Sena, like the MQM in Karachi, quickly mastered the art of shutting down Bombay through threats and fear of violence. Fear has always been crucial to its success.
In response to the Sena’s intimidatory tactics, the left built self-defence squads – it couldn’t rely on the police for protection. Their best-known organiser was the highly popular Communist Party of India’s legislator Krishna Desai, greatly admired for his courage and combativeness. In 1970, the Sena decided to eliminate Desai. Thugs chopped Desai into pieces.
Tens of thousands of people spontaneously joined Desai’s funeral procession to the Shivaji Park crematorium to register their disgust with the Sena. The area, where the Sena headquarters is also located, seethed with anger. Many CPI leaders and cadres demanded a campaign against the Sena’s repugnantly violent methods.
However, the CPI top leadership, under SA Dange, poured cold water over the idea. Desai’s assassins were never brought to justice. Nor was the Sena made to pay a political price. It got emboldened and infiltrated the police with its Marathi-chauvinist appeal, thus securing an additional insurance policy against prosecution.
By the 1970s, Shiv Sainiks had established elaborate protection and extortion rackets. Every seller of street food had to pay them a commission. Soon, the Sena extended its racket to the film industry. It would routinely blackmail Bollywood producers and actors by declaring their films “anti-national” and threatening to set fire to cinema houses showing them – only to withdraw the threat after being paid a hefty bribe.
The Sena claimed, and was granted, veto power over deciding which books, paintings and plays were acceptable, and whether Pakistan could play cricket in India. It became a political party, trade union, vigilante group, social movement, business enterprise and blackmailing racket rolled into one.
In the mid-1980s, the Shiv Sena won the Mumbai municipal elections, but failed to extend its influence beyond Mumbai-Thane and pockets in the coastal Konkan region. Soon, however, the Ramjanmabhoomi movement presented itself as a great opportunity. Thackeray temporarily dropped his ethnic-chauvinist Marathi-only agenda and embraced crass Hindutva.
The Babri mosque demolition, for which Thackeray falsely claimed credit, was to pay him huge dividends through the riots that followed in 1993 in Mumbai. Thackeray consciously directed the violence day after day by naming specific localities as “mini-Pakistans” in the Sena mouthpiece Saamna and ordering his followers to attack Muslims and set their homes and shops on fire. The Srikrishna commission documented the Sena’s central role in the violence at length.
The Maharashtra government, to its disgrace, failed to stop the killing and arson. Senior policemen ensured that the fire brigade would not be told about arson at Muslim-owned shops. The army was called in, but not given a clear mandate to use all means necessary to prevent violence. An army column passively watched as former Shiv Sena MP Madhukar Sarpotdar directed a mob against a Muslim basti (slum) from an open jeep, wielding loaded guns.
Thackeray got away with all this. The Bombay High Court dismissed on flimsy grounds a writ petition filed by former Chief Secretary JB D’Souza for Thackeray’s arrest and prosecution for instigating the violence. It cited nine Saamna editorials, which Thackeray didn’t disown, which leave no doubt whatever of his guilt. The Supreme Court upheld the dismissal.
The Indian state thus proved that it does not have the stomach to enforce the law, or defend the fundamental rights of its citizens, including the right to life, when dealing with a consummate bully like Thackeray. This is a terrible comment on the integrity of India’s institutions, as well as Indian society’s appetite for condoning the systematic, planned use of force against a religious group.
The Sena went on to win the 1995 Maharashtra Assembly in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Thackeray famously boasted that he exercised total power over the chief minister by “remote control”, making a mockery of democracy.
Thackeray had threatened to dump a ruinously expensive power project by the US company Enron into the Arabian Sea. But just one visit by Enron’s Rebecca Mark to his residence – no doubt lubricated with money – was enough for him to allow the project’s size to be tripled! Thackeray could be easily bought. Like all bullies, he was a coward and mortally afraid of jail.
Who, besides politicians, was responsible for the Thackeray phenomenon? And what’s the future of Uddhav’s Shiv Sena and Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena? The answer to the first question is, industrialists and film producers who capitulated to Thackeray’s blackmail, and used him to settle business rivalries. They saw nothing wrong with his violent hate-filled politics.
In the absence of Bal Thackeray’s charisma, a big question-mark hangs over the two Senas’ future. Uddhav has a loyal party following. Raj is a firebrand orator and ran a successful, violent, anti-North Indian hate campaign. Neither has a coherent platform. Chauvinist hate-mongering worked for Bal Thackeray because of circumstances at a certain conjuncture. It’s unlikely to work now.