How did a quiet unassuming cartoonist at one of India’s leading newspapers transform into the fire-breathing chief of a militant political outfit? How did his essentially sons –of-the –soil movement take Mumbai by storm in the 1960os with its demands for the Marathi people’s employment rights and attacks on south Indians and the communists? How did he make the shift from an aggressive Maharashtrianism t strident Hindutva to become one of the major players in Indian Politicas? What explains his control over India’s financial capital, his capture of power in India’s industrial powerhouse, Maharashtra, and his ability to win over the minds of millions and to strike fear in so many hearts? How did he and his shiv sena establish sway over the muli-crore film industry and, with its longstanding alliance with the BJP, become a subject of intense curiosity all over India and even in Pakistan?
This book tells the complete story of Bal Thackeray and the rise, fall and split of the shiv sena. It examines Thackeray the person and his intriguing political personality,his party; militaristic methods of operation, its controversial role at major junctures, the fight between Thackeray’s nephew Raj and son Uddhav the end of an era in Maharshtra politics after his death in November 2012 and the future of the shiv sena without his imposing presence. A must –read for and understanding of contemporary Indian politics and the rise of the Hindu national phenomenon.
Vaibhav Purandare grew up in Mumbai in the 1980s and 90s, the tumultuous decades in which Bal Thackeray and his shiv sena went from being regional political players to champions of a militant Hindutva that carried their rhetoric and rage across India. He began his journalistic career with the political newsmagazine Blitz in 1993, in the early part of which Thackeray and his organization played a key role in the Mumbai riots, and has since worked with India’s leading newspapers such as The Indian Express, The Asian Age, Daily News and Analysis (DNA), Mid Day and Mumbai Mirror, apart from writing for a host of other publications. His first book, The sena story was published in 1999, when he was only twenty-three. His second book, sachinTendulkar: A Definitive Biography (Roli Books) is now into its fifth edition He is currently senior Associate Editor with the Hindustan Times, Mumbai.
Thousands of Bal Thackeray's followers had gathered at Shivaji Park, in north-central Mumbai, for the Shiv Sena's Dussehra rally on 24 October 2012. This was part of their annual ritual, the coming-together of party faithfuls for the annual address by their Senapati or chief. Thackeray had addressed his first Dussehra rally in 1966, the year in which the Shiv Sena was established, and had since held forth from the dais on this very ground every Dussehra, for 45 consecutive years, each time attracting a crowd of at least one lakh, a record of sorts.
There were some doubts about whether he'd attend this time. He had been ailing for a while and had just recently spent nine days in hospital for a gastro-intestinal ailment. Nevertheless, the Sainiks hoped he would come.
He did not.
Instead, after Thackeray's son Uddhav had spoken, there was a video-recorded message from the Sena chief which took the assembled crowd aback. The mood of the gathering turned sombre. They knew Balasaheb had been unwell, but this time, he looked utterly exhausted and even breathless. He admitted as much. 'I have physically collapsed... I'm 86 and tired. I can't even walk,' he told his followers, in whom he had bred such faith in his leadership over the past four decades, that they were willing to do anything for him.
'You looked after me all these years. Look after Uddhav and Aditya [the grandson],' he said. He expressed concern that the Shiv Sena had been broken into two in Dadar, the very part of Mumbai in which it had been formed, because of his nephew Raj's decision to break away and form his own party, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), in 2006. He said it was time to introspect why the split had happened, and urged Marathi-speaking people to unite to defeat the Congress and Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra. He also hit out at the Congress's leadership in New Delhi and the Nehru-Gandhi family in particular.
When the Shiv Sainiks quietly filed out of the park after his 25-minute talk, the overwhelming emotion was not about his politics but his health.
Bal Thackeray had always been the picture of defiance: he was always thin but never reticent, he had breathed fire even in his 70s and 80s, urging his men to violent upheavals all the time. And he abhorred showing any signs of weakness.
Now seeing him so frail and helpless moved many of them to tears. The Sena was built too closely around the personality of Bal Thackeray. What would it be without him, they wondered, even as they realised that evening that he was ready to hang up his boots. In their mind's eye, many of them pictured the Sena story that had unfolded with such drama over the decades, a story made possible by their astonishingly strong attachment to Bal Thackeray...
End of an era
On 17 November 2012 at 3:30 pm, just as this book was going to press, news broke that Bal Keshav Thackeray, the founder of the Shiv Sena and one of the most controversial and charismatic figures of Indian politics, had died of cardio-respiratory arrest. He had been suffering for months from ailments of the lungs and the pancreas.
It was the end of an era in Maharashtra politics. The turnout at his funeral was one of the largest seen in post-Independence India. Indeed, it was on the scale of those at the cremations of Mahatma Gandhi, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhai Patel and C.N. Annadurai. The size of the crowd demonstrated just how big an imprint Thackeray left upon the state and the copy.
For more than four decades, lakhs had gathered at Shivaji Park, the historic maidan in central Mumbai, to hear the Shiv Sena leader's speeches. In death, he turned out to be an even bigger crowd-puller. It ordinarily takes not more than 20 minutes to cover the 6 km distance from Matoshree, Thackeray's residence in Bandra East, to Shivaji Park, which had been chosen as the place for his cremation.
But the Shiv Sena leader's cortege took seven hours. The garlanded truck carrying Thackeray's body draped in the Indian tricolour, which left his home just after 9 am, inched forward at an impossibly slow pace. The procession stretched out for more than 2 km and many more people had lined up on the streets and on balconies along the route.
Most Indian television channels focused almost exclusively on Bal Thackeray ever since the announcement of his death had been made, with many anchors airing their old interviews with him even though they had been among his strongest critics.
Estimates of the crowd ranged from five lakh to a million, and Thackeray, in keeping with his reputation, brought the whole of Mumbai to a halt. Theatres cancelled film screenings, the police commissioner of Mumbai put off his daughter's wedding reception, and film star Dilip Kumar, one of Thackeray's oldest friends, cancelled his 90th birthday celebrations.
But: there was none of the violence and disruption usually associated with the Shiv Sena.
Apart from followers of the Sena, the mourners included thousands of ordinary citizens of Mumbai. A quiet and controlled sense of grief hung over the metropolis. When the procession reached Mahim dargah, 2 km from Matoshree, Muslim religious leaders offered a garlanded chaddar over the casket as a mark of respect; and there was a shower of flowers at four points on the route. Thackeray's body was first taken to the Shiv Sena Bhavan, the Sena's headquarters at Dadar and kept there for half an hour before being taken to the maidan.
At the packed Shivaji Park, when police band struck up a tribute and a 21-gun salute, there was complete silence.
The who's who of Indian politics was present at the funeral. L.K. Advani, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Sharad Pawar, Pawar's daughter Supriya Sule, Nitin Gadkari, Praful Patel, Maneka Gandhi, Ram Jethmalani, Shahnawaz Hussain and Rajiv Shukla had flown down Bal Thackeray and the rise of the Shiv Sena from New Delhi; the Congress chief minister of Maharashtra, Prithviraj Chavan, brought a floral wreath; and chief minister of Madhya Pradesh Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Maharashtra Governor K. Sankaranarayanan State Home Minister R.R. Patil, Maharashtra Assembly Speaker Dilip Walse-Patil, Gopinath Munde and Thackeray's one-time protege, Chhagan Bhujbal were also there. Industrial magnate Anil Ambani also attended the cremation.
Bollywood did its bit. Actor Sanjay Dutt and his sister, Lok Sabha member Priya were present, as were Amitabh Bachchan, Nana Patekar, Shreyas Talpade and Riteish Deshmukh. The previous evening, Bachchan had tweeted with feeling about how Balasaheb had been a close friend and had supported him all through his career, coming to his rescue not only by dispatching a Sena ambulance to Mumbai airport after he was injured on the sets of Coolie in 1982, but also by backing him during the Bofors controversy.
Bachchan, who had rushed to visit Thackeray at his Matoshree residence when his condition turned critical on 14 November, also wrote about how, when he had visited the Thackeray home after his wedding to Jaya Bachchan, the Sena leader and his wife Meena-tai had welcomed her in exactly the way any daughter-in-law would be welcomed into a traditional Maharashtrian home.
Musical diva Lata Mangeshkar, who was close to Thackeray, reminisced: 'When Balasaheb was there, Maharashtra was there, when he's not there, there's nothing. No one can equal what he has done for Maharashtra. We needed him to be with us for many more years.' I spoke to some women at the funeral who had been queued up for a 'darshan' of Balasaheb since 4 am. They had learnt that people would be allowed to pay their last respects to the departed leader at the maidan, and had come in very early. They said that their sense of loss was huge, as Balasaheb was a 'friend, philosopher, guide and protector'.
Talk around the maidan was of how Mumbai had seldom seen anything like this before. Lokmanya Tilak's was the only other funeral in the city that had been held, not in a crematorium, but in a public place (Girgaum Chowpatty) because of the huge following he had.
The Sena chiefs estranged son, Jaidev, too accompanied the rest of the family: Uddhav and his wife Rashmi, their sons Aditya and Tejas; daughter-in-law Smita, Jaidev's estranged wife, and her two sons, Rahul and Aishwarya; Raj Thackeray, his wife Sharmila and their son Amit; the two children of Thackeray's eldest son Bindumadhav, Nihar and Neha; and Bal Thackeray's sister Sanjeevani Karandikar.
Along with members of the family, Thackeray's doctor, pulmonologist Jalil Parkar a Muslim in whom Bal's theory of hard¬line Hindutva had reposed complete faith for years - was given pride of"place at the funeral. So also was Thackeray's Man Friday for more than two decades, a young Nepali called Thapa. The pyre was placed beneath Shivaji's statue, at the exact spot from where Thackeray had addressed his rallies.
When Uddhav lit it, chants of 'Balasaheb Amar Rahe rent the air and both Uddhav and Raj, could not hold back their tears.
Separated by politics, grief had brought them together. Reportedly, the reunion was only temporary: there was speculation on why Raj was not on the garlanded truck bearing his uncle's body, and how he had decided to walk ahead of the cortege before taking his car home. He is said to have then watched the rest of the funeral procession on television at his home, situated next to Shivaji Park, before turning up for the cremation in the evening.
Bal Thackeray had never held any official position. And yet, he was honoured with a ceremonial state funeral. This bore testimony to the fact that even though his politics had been criticized as divisive since the Sena's inception in 1966, the state government acknowledged his status as a mass leader.
but controversy would not leave Bal Thackeray alone, even after his passing.
Two days before his death, rumours about his deteriorating condition had spread like wildfire. Mumbai had been on tenterhooks and had virtually shut down. Thousands of Shiv Sainiks had rushed to Matoshree to find out how he was, forcing the government to increase security and even call in the riot control police. And yet, there was no medical bulletin. Instead, the Sena leaders kept streaming in and out of Matoshree and reassuring the crowd outside that he was 'stable' and on the mend. Even the state government seemed to be in the dark.
At the funeral, the Sainiks recalled the agony of that week when they had no reliable information, and wondered whether anyone had considered how distressed they were by the uncertainty.
Just a day after the funeral and the remarkable composure displayed by them, some Sainiks seemingly returned to their old selves.
In Palghar, 87 km from Mumbai, two girls were arrested.
Their crime? Posting a comment on a social networking site J criticizing the shutdown of Mumbai following Thackeray's death. A Sena functionary filed a complaint and the girls, barely out of college, were arrested on charges of'hurting religious sentiments'.
Their arrest was promptly followed by the Sainiks vandalizing a clinic belonging to an uncle of one of the girls.
The social media erupted with outrage. Some prominent legal experts like the Press Council of India chief, Justice Markandey Katju, slammed the police for misusing the law on 'hurting religious sentiments', while others demanded that the section of the IT Act, under which the arrests were made, be revamped.
Even as this controversy raged, another one arose over the demand made by the Shiv Sena to build a memorial for Bal Thackeray at the cremation spot.
The Maharashtra government sounded positive, saying the demand would be hard to ignore given the 'unprecedented emotional outpouring', but there were legal hurdles. (The Bombay High Court had to decide on whether the Park was a recreation ground or a public playground, for it is only on the latter that constructions are allowed.) Local residents' associations meanwhile firmly opposed the idea.
Bal Thackeray's death also triggered speculation about how the Shiv Sena would fare without his imposing presence, what shape it would take and whether the warring cousins would come together, or would they drift further apart.
To lakhs of Shiv Sainiks, all of this only served to reinforce the image of the departed leader. In life, he had been their hero. In their grief-stricken eyes, death lent Thackeray a near-mythical stature.
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