A Demagogue Freezes Mumbai for the Last Time

Finally, after ailing for several years, the maverick politician Bal Thackeray passed away in Mumbai on Nov. 17 at the age of 86, bringing the city to a grinding halt.

For three decades, he had enjoyed the power, when piqued or provoked (and this was often), to bring to a standstill the city of Bombay, which he succeeded in renaming Mumbai. In 1966, he set up the Shiv Sena (literally, "the Army of Shiva"), a political party with a nativist ideology and the spirit of a vigilante squad. He stayed the course until he finally won power in state elections in Maharashtra in 1995.

Yet he held a certain contempt for the spirit and procedures of democracy, and never took up a post in government, preferring instead to rule by "remote control" -- his own phrase -- through a proxy chief minister. He liked to present himself as a Godfather-type figure, one working not in the underworld but in the clear light of day, in a godman's saffron robes (but with his sunglasses on at all hours), a source of forbidding power who had to be consulted or propitiated by everyone who wanted to set up house in India's financial capital.

In his youth he worked as a cartoonist, mocking those in power. When he grew to power himself, he became a demagogue: charismatic, bellicose, jaundiced and intolerant, a specialist in persuasive unreason (he openly admired Adolf Hitler, and the initials of his own party were SS) and a scourge of minorities, particularly Muslims. His life in politics was a steady accumulation of chauvinisms of language and religion, beginning with an espousal of the cause of "the Maratha manoos" (the Marathi-speaking native of Mumbai left bereft by "outsiders," or the economic migrants to the city) and progressing in the 1980s and 1990s to Hindutva, the idea that Hinduism in India needed to become more self-aware, politically organized and martial. He was blissfully oblivious to contradictions in his own personality: His weakness for an Anglicized spelling of his last name (usually Thakre in India, but in his case "Thackeray," after the British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray) was satirized by Salman Rushdie in his novel "The Moor's Last Sigh," where he appears as "Raman Fielding."

It was entirely symbolic of the spirit of Thackeray's life as a public figure that while half a million grieving followers attended his funeral, millions of other denizens of Mumbai didn't dare leave home, both out of fear of violence on the streets and because many public services had been shut down. The silence of condolence was inseparable from the silence of fear.

The Hindu reported the news with a lead sentence of stumbling syntax:

Signalling the end of an era in Maharashtra politics, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray breathed his last around 3.30 p.m. on Saturday at his residence ‘Matoshree’ here after days of uncertainty over his health condition.

There is a kind of poetic truth in the image of a dying but arrogant patriarch indicating, with his last gesture, that an era has come to an end. Meanwhile, in the best Indian tradition of not speaking ill of the dead, dozens of public figures in Mumbai and across the country came out to offer emollient tributes to Thackeray's vision, resolve, candor and personal warmth, eliding his many irresponsible acts. These included not just hate speech, but also responsibility for actual bloodshed and murder, as during the religious riots in Bombay of 1992-93, when Shiv Sainiks smoked out and slaughtered many innocent Muslims on Thackeray's instructions.

A typical tribute that exemplified this airbrushing tendency came from the prominent journalist and poet Pritish Nandy, who wrote in the Hindustan Times about "the real Thackeray" behind the bluster, and offered a defense of the Sena's love of violence with a striking non sequitur:

Our friendship grew. Years later, when the press boycotted him after one of the Sena's usual rampages, I stood by him. My argument was quite simple. When you are in journalism and you want to stand for the truth, be prepared for the consequences. It's part of your job. As an Editor, I had many defamation cases against me. Death threats too. But that came with the turf. Many times Thackeray offered to send his people to protect me against angry chief ministers, underworld thugs, criminals and politicians I had exposed. I always refused and he loved the fact that I did. Thackeray liked the fearless.

He also liked people who did not seek favours. There were always two Thackerays. One, the politician, angry, demanding, making outrageous comments on everyone and everything around him. The other was the real Thackeray, a warm, witty man always ready to crack a naughty joke or sit with you and chat for hours over a frugal meal or some warm beer or, in later years, over equally warm Chantilly.

He hated red wine...

Ah, how impressive and principled was that aversion to red wine. A newspaper editor himself, Nandy was apparently protected by his personal friendship with Thackeray from "one of the Sena's usual rampages" in the offices of newspapers that had published something critical of the Sena  -- even as Thackeray himself insisted on the right to criticize anything he liked and in this way, earned for himself the reputation of being "fearless." Many of the tributes to Thackeray similarly achieved their tone of respect at the cost of disrespect to the truth, or the concession that violence is permissible as a mode of expression in a democracy.

Even the prime minister's office decided to deliver some angled condolences by declaring Thackeray "a consummate communicator," whatever that meant. This persistent obituarial genuflection was noted by the writer Rohit Chopra in a crushing piece called "Bal Thackeray's Poisonous Legacies":

The world of Indian mediapersons, the political establishment, and the charmed circle of Indian celebrities have been expressing their shock and grief even as they have been marveling at Thackeray’s greatness. In perfect concert with one another, these three incestuously interconnected sectors of Indian society...are colluding in a massive act of amnesia. The holy trinity of Indian elites is refusing to address Bal Thackeray’s culpability in the deaths of Hindus and Muslims in the 1992-1993 riots in Bombay, the lengthy record of Shiv Sena violence and threats against Tamilians, Gujaratis, and UPites, the Sena’s collusion with industrialists to break the backs of mill workers and unions in Bombay in the 1970s, the degradation of the political culture of Maharashtra and Mumbai, and the general destruction of the city’s cosmopolitan culture.

When these fundamental, defining aspects of Bal Thackeray’s life and career are acknowledged by commentators, they are immediately balanced -- according to some spurious notion of journalistic objectivity, I suspect -- by paeans to his personal charisma, political acumen, ability to gauge the pulse of the people, and so on. Or they are subsumed within larger narratives that efface or mitigate the violence. (He was good and bad / He was an enigma / He was sweet to me / He was a bundle of contradictions or a complex figure). ...

This is the real legacy of Bal Thackeray. To make political violence so routine that it ceases to outrage. To make the strategy of scapegoating and targeting particular ethnic, religious, or political groups part of the calculus of everyday politics. To make fear and intimidation a legitimate, accepted part of political leadership. And to constantly remind any potential critic, in media or otherwise, of the threat of violent reprisal for saying something that Thackeray and his thugs might not appreciate. ...

It is a disgrace that Bombay is shut today. It is a disgrace that Thackeray is being wrapped in the national tricolor. It is a disgrace that he is being given state honors in his death. And it is a disgrace that none of our political leaders, celebrities, or media personalities seem to think any of this is a disgrace. And that if they do they are terrified of saying so.

Or as Nikhil Wagle, a journalist who stood up to the Sena and was persistently harassed by Thackeray's men, and on more than one occasion attacked physically, said in an interview:

Minus the terror, the Sena is nothing. What separates them from other political parties is this ability to inspire terror.... From 1966 till now the Marathi media has lent support to the Shiv Sena at every step....The general attitude in the media is that they try to cover these shortcomings by claiming that their job is to report, not to criticise. Of course, it is no surprise that they are not attacked; if you start of by being scared where is the need to attack you?

Aroon Tikekar, a scholar specializing in the history of Mumbai and one of the most respected voices in the city's Marathi-language press, questioned Thackeray's advocacy of the Maratha cause, arguing that the politician's language of entitlement and coercion was a hindrance to genuine progress in the realm of Marathi politics and culture:

A reason why generations of youngsters felt attracted to him was that he told them not to read. Thackeray pooh-poohed all social, political and economic theories and told his followers those were useless. He kept the youngsters' vision confined to the Marathi issue in which, no doubt, he considerably succeeded. However, in the ultimate analysis, the result had been the stunted intellectual and cultural growth of the Marathi community. These followers were emotionally charged, but that's about it. How would Thackeray escape the charge that he de-intellectualised the Marathi community and insulated it from others? In the 19th century, Marathis were known to be hard-working, god-fearing, honest, sincere, and had respect for scholarship. Under Thackeray they became the opposite.

If there was some tendency of Thackeray's that seemed worth encouraging, it was that his insistence on having his way all the time was ultimately self-defeating, even among a cadre as committed and worshipful as the Shiv Sena. Early in his 70s, as his strength waned, Thackeray shot himself in the foot by insisting that the party be run by his son, Uddhav Thackeray. A host of prominent leaders who had led the Sena to power in Bombay left the party, greatly weakening it, even as the younger Thackeray made faltering attempts to replicate his father's bluster and bile. Meanwhile, the person within the party who most resembled the senior Thackeray, his nephew Raj Thackeray, left in a huff. He started an imitation of the Shiv Sena, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, which gradually made inroads into the Sena's constituency in Bombay and Maharashtra. Mumbaikars, for long used to thinking of themselves as the most cosmopolitan of Indians, happy to live and let live, now have to deal with two parties trying to outdo each other with petty chauvinism and rabble-rousing about insiders and outsiders.

And what of the testimony and the convictions of the millions of Indians, some of them Marathi-speaking but many not, who looked up to Thackeray, saw him as a defender of "Hindu pride," endorsed his strong-arm tactics, and wept bitterly at his funeral? Shouldn't their opinions be respected, too? It's worth placing their sentiments within the history of the many regional potentates in almost seven decades of Indian democracy, and the devotion and reverence that such figures -- from the late actor-politician MG Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu to the hysterical Mamata Banerjee in present-day Bengal -- inspire in their supporters.

The psychological character of this kind of relationship is very different from what voters evince for their representatives in mature democracies, and resembles instead the old protector-and-protected, patron-and-subject world of Indian feudalism. When the supreme power of such a world passes away it's very common to hear people say, as they repeatedly did after Thackeray's death, that they have been "orphaned."

Whatever the merits of such a relationship, it's clear that it's not conducive to democratic debate or dissent; whenever a citizenry is willing to invest such enormous faith in a person, there is sure to be someone happy to claim it and exploit it. Mumbai, whose storied history encompasses many worlds and civilizations other than Marathi, will never on paper be Bombay again. But with the demise of the ferocious and divisive figure who for almost half a century persistently held it hostage, it suddenly has the room to be once again the welcoming, open-handed city it was at its best.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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