Leader who brought ethnic politics to Mumbai melting pot

With his brand of rather vicious humour and fondness for mimicry, Bal Thackeray (1926-2012) forged a bond with his followers, speaking to people in a language they could understand.

November 17, 2012 05:40 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 10:54 pm IST - Mumbai

Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray. File Photo: Vivek Bendre

Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray. File Photo: Vivek Bendre

Bal Thackeray, the man who could bring Mumbai and the entire State of Maharashtra to a standstill by a single command and whose ethnic and communal rhetoric added a strain of perpetual menace to an already fraught metropolis, died on Saturday, November 17. He was 86.

Never one to mince his words, he once famously described himself as the “remote control” of the first Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party government in Maharashtra in 1995. Two months ago, as the illness to which he eventually succumbed spread, he told Saamna somewhat mirthfully that he didn’t have the remote control for age in his hands.

Ever since Thackeray founded the Shiv Sena, or ‘Army of Shivaji,’ in June 19, 1966, it has set the tone for politics in the State. With his brand of rather vicious humour and fondness for mimicry, he forged a bond with his followers, speaking to people in a language they could understand. Exhorted by his father Prabodhankar Thackeray, young Bal formed the Sena as a social organisation. Its aim: to take care of the Marathi manoos, who were ostensibly slighted in their own State by the steady stream of migrants who flocked to the prosperous region.

Sons of the soil

The secret of his early rise lay in the Sena’s trade unions, which befriended employers and destroyed a once-strong labour movement in Mumbai. So successful was the Thackeray package that the Sena’s aggressive brand of regional politics has been adopted by the fledgling Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) in toto. Many progressive stalwarts from the State including Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Mahatma Phule and Savitri Phule and Shahu Maharaj had led pioneering struggles for social equality and justice. The Shiv Sena reduced all that to simple demands for regional prominence and a preference given to sons of the soil.

It is a politics that has sustained itself over the years in Mumbai, nourished by issues of increasing migration, poor civic amenities and lack of jobs for local people. With its avowed distance from class and caste politics, despite most of its leaders belonging to the upper castes, the Sena drew its strength from Marathi migrants from the Konkan, who formed the party’s base.

The pipe-smoking, beer-loving self-styled Hindu hriday samrat (‘emperor of Hindu hearts’) was born on January 23, 1926 in Pune into a Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu (CKP) family. Later, young Thackeray’s keen interest and skill in drawing got him a job briefly at the Free Press Journal , where he worked with the likes of R.K. Laxman. In 1960, he quit and started a weekly, Marmik , even before the Sena was formed. This he did with his brother, Srikant, father of Raj Thackeray. Marmik is still published. His column, ‘Vacha ani Thand Basa’ (read and keep quiet), became a hit, and he later changed the title to Vacha ani Utha (read and rise).

The Maharashtra State was carved out of the Bombay Presidency, and after a bitter struggle Bombay city was included in it. That was the first major battle which reflected the asmita, or pride, of Marathi-speaking people. Prabodhankar played a major role and his writings in the fortnightly Prabodhan, which earned him his nickname, were widely read. It was he who suggested the name Shiv Sena for his son’s new organisation.

The elder Thackeray, who was a socialist and opposed the caste system, was anti-Communist. He passed on the trait to his son. The Sena’s launch was not ostentatious. Bal Thackeray broke a coconut and spoke on the occasion, before a few people. It was a simple start to what would become a dreaded outfit in later years. The stated rationale of the party was to ensure justice to the Marathi people, who were feeling sidelined by the large Gujarati and South Indian population in the city. While Raj Thackeray today vents his ire against North Indians, it was the migrants from the South that annoyed the Shiv Sena. South Indian and Udupi hotels became the first targets of hatred, and the new Shiv Sainiks, were a ready force to tackle the next enemy.

Use of violence

Thackeray was known more as a cartoonist and writer than as a politician in the initial stages. He was an admirer of Adolf Hitler, whom he referred to in one interview as an artist. After the formation of the party, its first violent initiation led to the Army being called out in 1969 during prolonged riots over the Maharashtra-Karnataka border dispute. From then on, there was no looking back. The border dispute continues to fester, and the Sena has vigorously backed the right of the Marathi-speaking areas in Karnataka to be merged with Maharashtra. Though Thackeray hated politics and famously referred to it as a “ringworm infection,” the Sena had willy-nilly become a political party. Studies at that time showed how Marathi-speaking people were not getting jobs due to migrants, and there was a genuine grouse which the Sena readily took up. But jobs for locals also meant the Sena targeting labour unions from the Left, and breaking them. The murder of Krishna Desai, a Communist Party leader in Parel, sent a chill of terror through the city and the party succeeded in setting up Sena unions everywhere, often supported by employers who were only too glad to have someone on their side.

Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Ashok Dhawale, in an article in the April-June 2002 issue of The Marxist , wrote: “In December 1967, the CPI headquarters of Mumbai at Dalvi Building in Parel, which is situated in the very midst of the textile area, was savagely attacked by SS hoodlums and almost destroyed. Organised attempts were made to break up Communist public meetings and several leaders and activists of both the CPI and the CPI(M) were physically assaulted. The climax was reached on June 6, 1970, when armed goondas of the SS murdered the sitting MLA of the CPI, Krishna Desai. Krishna Desai was a popular and militant mass leader in the textile belt and had been elected municipal corporator four times before he was elected to the state assembly in 1967. This was the first major political assassination in Mumbai since Independence, and it sent shock waves through the city and State. The leadership of the entire opposition along with thousands of incensed workers, marched in Krishna Desai’s funeral procession. Opposition leaders directly accused the Shiv Sena and the Congress State government in general, and Bal Thackeray and Vasantrao Naik in particular, of being hand in glove in the perpetration of this heinous crime.”

Cultural policing

Apart from taking up the cause of Marathi-speaking youth, the Sena constituted itself as a self-appointed culture police later in its history and targeted Valentine’s Day celebrations, Pakistani artists and writers, among others. However, in a much-publicised event, pop icon Michael Jackson did a concert to raise funds for the Shiv Udyog Sena in 1996 and visited the Thackeray residence. He even used the toilet there — much to the family’s delight.

Given the Sena’s political clout and muscle, Bal Thackeray found that Bollywood was not exempt from his charms or uses. He afforded protection, friendship and support to individuals and groups when needed and there was hardly any film personality, big or small, who did not pay obeisance to him at his residence at crucial moments in their career. One exception was the Communist actor A.K. Hangal. In 1999, Thackeray’s bonhomie with Dilip Kumar ended when he asked the legendary actor to return Pakistan’s highest civilian award, the Nishan e Imtiaz, following the Kargil war, and Kumar refused. Congress MP Sunil Dutt had to approach Thackeray to get Sainiks to back off from disrupting the screenings of his son Sanjay’s film Khalnayak . Thackeray softened his stand and Sanjay, then accused under the provisions of the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) in relation to the March 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts, managed to get bail in the Supreme Court after 16 months in jail.

A few years ago, the Sena chief praised the secular values of Salman Khan’s father Salim for defying mullahs and celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi every year by bringing home an idol. Salman’s mother Sushila Charak (Salma) is a Hindu. Thackeray reportedly previewed director Ram Gopal Verma’s celluloid hagiography Sarkar, loosely based on his life, and before that in 1995 created a controversy over Mani Ratnam’s Bombay , based on the communal riots in Mumbai. Fear was the key the Sena had with its abilities to disrupt film screenings and cause huge and instant losses.

Tacit Congress help

The growth of the Sena could not have been possible without the tacit support of the Congress, its ally for some years. Chief Ministers Vasantrao Naik and Vasantdada Patil allowed the Sena to run amok to derive political advantage. Both had good relations with the Sena and used it as a tool to scotch the growth of the trade union movement in the city. The Sena’s Sthaniya Lokadhikar Samiti was formed in 1972 to generate jobs. The trade union wing, the Bharatiya Kamgar Sena, was a rival to the unions in public sector undertakings and banks, and in the service industry. Its main plank was to fight for jobs for the local people. The Sena established a network of shakhas in the city on the lines of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

Later, Thackeray supported the Emergency and Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay in a bid to ensure that he would not be jailed. His support for the Congress continued at various times, with the party breaking ranks with the National Democratic Alliance and backing Pratibha Patil for President. In 2012, Pranab Mukherjee visited Thackeray to seek his support — which was given with alacrity.

Married with three sons, Thackeray mourned his eldest, Bindumadhav, in a car crash in 1996. His wife Meenatai passed away in 1995. His son Jaidev remained estranged from him.

Thackeray’s stand against the Mandal Commission report led to one of his closest lieutenants, Chhagan Bhujbal, parting ways in 1991. This was only a precursor. Thackeray’s preference for his son Uddhav to lead the party led to others like Narayan Rane and later his nephew Raj Thackeray breaking away. The MNS, formed by Raj in 2006, decisively cut into the Marathi vote and helped the Congress in the 2009 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in the State.

Thackeray endeared himself to his millions of supporters. They looked up to him as a messiah. Here was a man who articulated their deepest frustrations, who protected them against “outsiders,” and whose army was willing to take to the streets for them. There was an emotional bonding between him and the crowds, who loudly appreciated his broadsides full of innuendo, and his mimicking of popular politicians. People looked forward to his annual Dussehra rallies at Shivaji Park. When in 2008, ill-health prevented him from holding forth in his usual style, the large crowd held its breath as Thackeray rambled on his favourite topics, prompted occasionally by his son Uddhav and Manohar Joshi.

Communal politics

Thackeray’s Hindutva politics began at the Durgadi temple/mosque dispute in the late 1960s. It was manifested in the communal riots of Bhiwandi, Jalgaon and Mahad in 1970. The Justice Madan Commission blamed the Sena and other saffron outfits for the riots. The victory of Ramesh Prabhoo in the Vile Parle byelection in 1987 on a Hindutva plank, was a first for the party. It was a political line that would lead to Thackeray being debarred from voting for six years, but he continued to defend it saying it was in his blood.

Hindutva would take the Sena to victory in the 1995 Assembly polls for the first time, a feat it has not managed to repeat. Flush with its triumph after the post-Babri Masjid demolition communal riots, Bal Thackeray and his party even rejected the grave findings of the Justice Srikrishna Commission inquiry report into the communal carnage in Mumbai in December 1992 and January 1993. Using Saamna , a daily it launched in 1990, the Sena unleashed mayhem in the city for two months and nearly a thousand people lost their lives. Thackeray said in a TV interview that he was not a riot master, and added that he had only defended Hindus. But Justice Srikrishna minced no words when he spoke of the second phase of the riots: “From 8 January 1993, at least there is no doubt that the Shiv Sena and Shiv Sainiks took the lead in organising attacks on Muslims and their properties under the guidance of several leaders of the Shiv Sena from the level of the shakha pramukh to the Shiv Sena pramukh Bal Thackeray who like [a] veteran General, commanded his loyal Shiv Sainiks to retaliate by organised attacks against Muslims.”

Though acquitted in one matter, the eight or nine cases against Thackeray and his newspaper for inflammatory writings were not pursued. Not by the Sena-BJP regime which he controlled by remote control. Nor indeed by the Congress-NCP government which followed.

Uncertain legacy

In a party which never had internal elections and in which only one man’s word was law, things were bound to deteriorate. Thackeray now leaves behind a crisis-ridden outfit that will find it difficult to replace his larger-than-life persona. His reticent son Uddhav, the heir, is cast in a very different mould. He is not authoritarian though he cleverly led the Sena to victory in the Mumbai civic polls for the fourth time in 2012.

The worst blow to Thackeray perhaps was the departure of his nephew Raj in 2006, and his success in dividing the Marathi vote in the 15th Lok Sabha elections in Mumbai and Thane, helping the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party win. Before the 2012 polls to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, Thackeray in a TV interview wished for his son and nephew to be re-united. On July 16, 2012, Uddhav, who went for a test to Lilavati Hospital, had an unexpected visitor in Raj, who was summoned by his uncle. In a further show of camaraderie, Raj drove his cousin back home and visited him again after an angioplasty was performed a few days later.

There was much debate, fed by the media, on the possible re-unification of the two Senas. Just before his death, Thackeray orchestrated a reunion in the family, even if it was not a political one. And that must have given him some solace. He leaves behind a time-tested formula for electoral gains in Mumbai and the State, but one his nephew Raj and the MNS may profit from even more than his own party.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.