Bal Thackeray: godfather of nativists in India's most cosmopolitan city

In death as in life, Bal Thackeray divided Mumbai. Mumbaikars shuttered shops fearing violence, while hundreds of thousands thronged the funeral today of the Shiv Sena founder. 

By , Correspondent

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    Supporters wail during the cremation of Hindu hardline Shiv Sena party leader Bal Thackeray in Mumbai, India, Sunday. Hundreds of thousands of supporters have filled the streets of Mumbai for the funeral of Bal Thackeray, a Hindu extremist leader linked to waves of mob violence against Muslims and migrant workers in India.
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The funeral of Bal Thackeray, a nativist leader who dominated the politics of Mumbai, has brought the city of nearly 20 million to a standstill. Shops widows are shuttered, movie theaters closed, and people across the metropolis are staying in their homes. But not everything is closing down out of respect: Many in Mumbai feel they have been forced into mourning. 

In life, Mr. Thackeray deployed volunteers of his right-wing Shiv Sena party as "Hindu warriors," intimidating opponents and at times stirring up communal tensions. In 1992, he called on his volunteers to join a wider right-wing Hindu effort to demolish the historic Babri Mosque, an incident that touched off deadly religious riots. At times, he argued Hindus needed suicide bombers to counter Islamic terrorism. Believed too powerful to be challenged, he was never prosecuted for any of the violent episodes involving the Shiv Sena. Over the years, he railed against non-Indian traditions like Valentine's Day, the revival of cricket matches between India and Pakistan, and the prevalence of non-local actors in Bollywood movies. 

Upon his death from a heart attack Saturday, the city immediately began shutting down out of concern that violence would erupt and 48,000 police officers were put on high alert. 

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“The power Bal Thackeray and the Shiv Sena wield across Mumbai is not about people’s support of the party as much as it’s about blackmail,” says a Mumbai-based Bollywood actor, who is Hindu and asked to remain anonymous for fear of violent repercussions. “If people did not shut their shops or went on the streets they would likely be attacked by Sena members. The party has been able to create a fear psychosis. If people do not give reverence to them and do what they say they have the ability to mobilize people to hurt you.”

But Thackeray clearly has deep springs of support, too, as the hundreds of thousands who came out to his funeral attested. While many of the city's minorities and more educated found Thackeray's tactics distasteful and oppressive, middle class and poor Marathis – members of the main ethnic group in the surrounding Maharashtra state – see him as a big brother who safeguarded their jobs from the massive influx of migrants from all over India. 

Thackeray's six-decade career began as a cartoonist. Giving voice to nativist concerns in a rapidly expanding city, Thackeray – who said he was an admirer of Hitler and dawned stylish sunglasses – gained a powerful following as he fought for the Hindu and Marathi character of the city and surrounding state. He was pivotal in the push to change the name of the city from Bombay to Mumbai. 

Over these decades, the demographics of Mumbai changed considerably: The population boomed, the economy raced ahead, and the number of people moving to the city in search of jobs and a better life grew exponentially. Despite these developments, the priorities of many Mumbaikars remain unwavering, says Yashwant Deshmukh, an Indian political analyst and elections expert.

“Mumbai is changing, but remains the same. Though people from across India have come to Mumbai in the last few decades the thinking about jobs has not changed. The fundamental politics of the Shiv Sena is giving jobs to local people from the state of Maharashtra. It’s less about religious extremism and more about the local identity.”

Mr. Deshmukh says that according to voting data he gathered during the state assembly elections in 2009, Thackeray's son and nephew would be an unstoppable political force in the region if they joined forces. However, the two men are currently dividing Thackeray's supporters, with his son Uddhav leading the Shiv Sena and his bombastic nephew Raj breaking form the family and starting his own popular party. 

“If [Mumbaikar's] ideas had really changed then Raj Thackery, would have been a flop. But he’s clearly not a flop. He’s connecting with third generation middle and lower middle class youth whose ancestors are not originally from the state but who consider themselves to be Marathis. If Raj and Uddhav's parties were not split they could win state assembly elections.”

However, many people in Mumbai don’t believe Raj or Uddhav have the best interest of the people at heart.

“The Shiv Sena and Raj Thackery just give people the perception of giving them jobs," says the Bollywood actor who has lived in Mumbai for over a decade. “They give Marathis someone else to blame for their unemployment. First, it was the south Indians, then the north Indians, and most recently Indians from the northeast. They make it OK for people here to be aggressive because they belong to a city and state rather than really trying to get a job.”

Now that the godfather of the Shiv Sena is gone, Raj and Uddhav must join together and rethink their strategy while diluting or mutating the organization's DNA, says B.V. Rao, the editor of the magazine Governance Now. 

“The mentality of this generation of Indians is different,” says Mr. Rao who worked as a journalist in Mumbai for several years. “The hate-filled tactics the Shiv Sena used in the past will no longer work. Secularism is now not so much about religion. It’s more about the secularism of opportunity. People want good jobs. That basic DNA of the country is changing. The Sena will have to expand their politics and policies to this new generation of Indian aspirations in Mumbai.”

While Rao believes the party will have to reform, experts like Deshmukh, don’t see the influence of the political party changing anytime soon. “You can come as a guest to Mumbai but it’s not your city. If you want to stay here you better follow the local sentiments of the Shiv Sena.”

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