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A charming extremist defies moderate India

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But on July 15, the now ruling Congress Party ordered Thackeray's prosecution. He was charged with violating a law disallowing the "promotion of enmity between different groups on the grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language." Specifically cited were three editorials Thackeray penned for his party organ, Samna (Confrontation) during the '93 rioting. He called for a "holy war" in one, and in another titled "They Became Like Sheep," he alluded to Muslims being shown their place in the riots.

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When the order to prosecute came, Thackeray said Bombay, if not all of India, "would burn" if he were arrested. (Later, he called for calm.)

Thackeray's ace in the hole has been a statute of limitations forbidding prosecution. This Tuesday, when he was brought to court and the city began to shut down, the local judge went far past standard procedure to invoke this statute. An appeal is under way and Thackeray could be arrested later this summer.

At an interview at his residence, Thackeray wears the saffron robes of a revered Hindu and comes across as personable and even charming, cracking jokes and famously saying, "I'm just a cartoonist" - his profession before he formed the Sena in 1966. His speech is punchy ("retaliation is my birthright"), gossipy, and he speaks of orators he admires, including Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King Jr.

"What we need is a benevolent dictator; I prefer that kind of dictatorship."

Thackeray defends himself and his party in an absolute manner, blames Muslims for starting the riots, and argues that Judge Srikrishna is biased. "No Hindus have ever started riots in India. I had no part in the riots of 1992," he says. When asked if nevertheless he regretted the violence he says, "Why should I be sorry? If the Muslims had not started this, my boys would not have come on the street."

In Bombay, Thackeray is loved and hated for a pro-Maharashtra "sons of the soil movement" that started in 1966. At the time, south Indians dominated the professional classes here, and Gujaratis and Parsis controlled the business class. Local Maharashtrians - the lower and working classes - were often treated as second-class citizens in their own city. Their language, Marathi, was considered plebian.

Thackeray set out to change that. In many ways he did, becoming a cult figure among young men who in the Sena found dignity, jobs, and family social services the state was not providing. They literally worshiped the rough and ready rhetoric of local justice that Thackeray provided.

Thackeray tried to toughen his charges. "He would say to passive Hindus, 'You are impotent, useless, weak-kneed, supine, jellyfish,' " remembers Dipankar Gupta, a political scientist in New Delhi who knows Thackeray. "He set out to create a real right wing. 'Don't strike back with talk, but with force,' is his creed."

By the mid-1960s, his creed hit the streets. The Sena first campaigned against south Indians in Bombay. By the 1970s they took on the powerful communist and trade union movements. In the 1980s, Thackeray reworked himself as a Hindu leader and found a more volatile target: the city's 15 percent Muslims, whom he still criticizes for being "anti-national."

How extreme is too extreme

Today, analysts question whether the Indian middle class - which has already internalized much of the recent Hindu revival discourse - finds Thackeray, one of its vocalizers, too extreme. Is his flamboyant, mafia-don style and open advocacy of "hitting back" too rough?

In an India Times poll, conducted among the English speaking elite, 69 percent thought Thackeray should be arrested.

This may still happen. Legal sources say the case for overturning the lower court is strong. A new case could even arise. But the inner workings of the decision are murky and more political than legal. Whether Congress Party leader Chhagan Bhujbal, a Thackeray protg turned rival, will pursue the case with zeal is unclear.

The monsoon season in Bombay may still get hotter.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society