The Shiv Sena chief gave voice to a Nazi impulse in Indian politics — one that poses an ever-growing threat to our Republic
“Fascism”, wrote the great Marxist intellectual Antonio Gramsci, in a treatise Balasaheb Keshav Thackeray likely never read but demonstrated a robust grasp of through his lifetime, “has presented itself as the anti-party; has opened its gates to all applicants; has with its promise of impunity enabled a formless multitude to cover over the savage outpourings of passions, hatreds and desires with a varnish of vague and nebulous political ideals. Fascism has thus become a question of social mores: it has become identified with the barbaric and anti-social psychology of certain strata of the Italian people which have not yet been modified by a new tradition, by education, by living together in a well-ordered and well-administered state”.
Ever since Thackeray’s passing, many of India’s most influential voices have joined in the kind of lamentation normally reserved for saints and movie stars. Ajay Devgn described him as “a man of vision”; Ram Gopal Varma as “the true epitome of power”. Amitabh Bachchan “admired his grit”; Lata Mangeshkar felt “orphaned”. Even President Pranab Mukherjee felt compelled to describe Thackeray’s death as an “irreparable loss”. The harshest word grovelling television reporters seemed able to summon was “divisive”.
It is tempting to attribute this nauseous chorus to fear or obsequiousness. Yet, there is a deeper pathology at work. In 1967, Thackeray told the newspaper Navakal: “It is a Hitler that is needed in India today”. This is the legacy India’s reliably anti-republican elite has joined in mourning.
Thackeray will be remembered for many things, including the savage communal violence of 1992-1993. He was not, however, the inventor of such mass killing, nor its most able practitioner. Instead, Thackeray’s genius was giving shape to an authentically Indian Fascism.
His fascism was a utopian enterprise — but not in the commonly-understood sense. The Left, a powerful force in the world where Thackeray’s project was born, held out the prospect of a new, egalitarian world. The Congress held the keys to a more mundane, but perhaps more real, earthly paradise: the small-time municipal racket; even the greater ones that led to apartments on Marine Drive. Thackeray’s Shiv Sena wore many veneers: in its time, it was anti-south Indian, anti-north Indian, anti-Muslim. It offered no kind of paradise, though. It seduced mainly by promising the opportunity to kick someone’s head in.
Nostalgic accounts of Mumbai in the 1960s and 1970s represent it as a cultural melting pot; a place of opportunity. It was also a living hell. Half of Mumbai’s population, S. Geetha and Madhura Swaminathan recorded in 1995, is packed into slums that occupy only 6 per cent of its land-area. Three-quarters of girls, and more than two-thirds of boys, are undernourished. Three-quarters of the city’s formal housing stock, Mike Davies has noted, consisted of one-room tenements where households of six people or more were crammed “in 15 square meters; the latrine is usually shared with six other families”.
From the 1970s, Girangaon — Mumbai’s “village of factories” — entered a state of terminal decline, further aiding the Sena project. In 1982, when trade union leader Datta Samant led the great textile strike, over 240,000 people worked in Girangaon. Inside of a decade, few of them had jobs. The land on which the mills stood had become fabulously expensive, and owners simply allowed their enterprises to turn terminally ill until the government allowed them to sell.
Thackeray mined gold in these sewers — building a politics that gave voice to the rage of educated young men without prospects, and offering violence as liberation. It mattered little to the rank and file Shiv Sena cadre precisely who the targets of their rage were: south Indian and Gujarati small-business owners; Left-wing trade union activists; Muslims; north Indian economic migrants.
The intimate relationship between Mr. Bachchan and Thackeray is thus no surprise. In the 1975 Yash Chopra-directed hit Deewar, Mr. Bachchan rejects his trade-union heritage, and rebels by turning to crime. He is killed, in the end, by his good-cop brother. The Shiv Sena was a product of precisely this zeitgeist; its recruits cheered, like so many other young Indians, for the Bad Mr. Bachchan.
Like the mafia of Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar — which, it ought to be remembered, flourished in the same Mumbai — the Sena offered patronage, profit and power. Its core business, though, was the provision of masculinity. There are no great Sena-run schools, hospitals or charities; good works were not part of its language.
The fascist threat
Fascism, Gramsci understood, was the excrement of a dysfunctional polity: its consequence, not its cause. Liberal India’s great failure has been its effort to seek accommodation with fascism: neither Thackeray’s movie-industry fans, nor Mr. Mukherjee are, after all, ideological reactionaries. The Congress, the epicentre of liberal Indian political culture, has consistently compromised with communalism; indeed, it is no coincidence that it benignly presided over Thackeray’s rise, all the way to carnage in 1992-1993 and after.
This historic failure has been mitigated by the country’s enormous diversity. The fascisms of Thackeray, of Kashmiri Islamists, of Khalistanis, of Bihar’s Ranvir Sena: all these remained provincial, or municipal. Even the great rise of Hindutva fascism in 1992-1993 eventually crashed in the face of Indian electoral diversity.
Yet, we cannot take this success for granted. Fascism is a politics of the young: it is no coincidence that Thackeray, until almost the end, dyed his hair and wore make-up to conceal his wrinkles. From now until 2026, youth populations will continue to rise in some of India’s most fragile polities — among them, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Maharashtra, and Jammu & Kashmir.
In a path-breaking 1968 essay, Herbert Moller noted how the emergence of children born between 1900 and 1914 on the job market — “a cohort”, he noted, “more numerous than any earlier ones” — helped propel the Nazi rise in Germany. Historian Paul Madden, in a 1983 study of the early membership of the Nazi party, found that it “was a young, overwhelmingly masculine movement which drew a disproportionately large percentage of its membership from the lower middle class and from the Mittelstand [small businesses]”.
For years now, as economic change has made it ever-harder for masses of people to build lives of dignity and civic participation, we have seen the inexorable rise of an as-yet inchoate youth reaction. From the gangs of violent predators who have raped women in Haryana, to the young Hindu and Muslim bigots who have spearheaded the recent waves of communal violence, street politics is ever more driven by a dysfunctional masculinity. Thackeray’s successes in tapping this generation’s rage will, without doubt, be drawn on in years to come by other purveyors of violence.
India desperately needs a political project that makes possible another, progressive masculinity, built around new visions for everything from culture, the family and economic justice. No vanguard for such a project, though, is yet in sight.