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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Chowpatty Beach
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.
“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.