Death is always a somber occasion. Civility constrains one in having a completely critical look on someone’s life in the immediacy of his demise. These occasions are generally reserved for a much kinder look and ignoring or underplaying the negative or controversial aspects of departed soul.
But Bala Saheb Thackeray was never known for holding back and always spoke his mind and in the same spirit of his I would like to analyze his life.
A person who was adored and reviled in extremes had no place for reason or respect for law of the land in his scheme of things. He always successfully managed to give an impression of a person who lived by his own set of laws.
Thackeray started his career as a cartoonist with Free Press Journal in 1950’s in the then Bombay (where he had perhaps the biggest ever cartoonist of India R K Laxman as his colleague). Later he transformed himself gradually as a voice for Marathi Manoos who felt left behind in jobs, business and in general in fair share of fruits of a thriving megapolis which was later named by Thackeray’s party led government as Mumbai.
He formed Shiv Sena in 1966 on Dussehra day in the famous Shiva Ji park in the Mumbai’s pre dominantly Marathi locality Dadar. Thereon it was a consistent rise in his followings and standing in Maharashtra's politics which peaked in formation of a coalition government in mid ‘90s in which Thackeray’s party Shiv Sena was a senior partner.
Early in his life he realized the sense of aggrieve in middle and lower class Maharashtrians of being left out in their own state and by shrewdly playing on that he turned it in to a very potent tool for his career advancement. Threat, intimidation and lumpenization were hallmark of his career. He always needed a bogey to rally his followers against. It started with South Indians in the mid ‘60s referred as ‘lungi walas’ who were getting all the jobs in Bombay. Then it shifted for a while against Gujaratis and Marwaris for cornering all the businesses.
By ‘80s, Muslims became his target and his party’s track record in organizing worst ever communal riots in Mumbai in early ‘90s is no secret. The riots itself were the sequel of demolition of Babri mosque in which Thackeray’s party played a key role. Riots were followed by retaliatory bomb blasts and in some sense Mumbai still has not fully overcome the chain reactions those events triggered.
In recent times he had been bitterly competing with his own estranged nephew in outdoing each other in targeting North Indians especially people from UP and Bihar.
Bal Thackeray always proclaimed to espouse the cause of Maharashtra and Maharashtrians. There is no denying he had a special place in the heart of many Maharashtrians (or even a small band of admirers outside Maharashtra). I am a Bihari who has lived in Mumbai for around half a decade roughly the same period when Sena was in power there. During my stay and work in Mumbai I have made lifelong friends. Mumbai being a truly cosmopolitan place my friend list from there has people from many groups including Marathi speaking people.
During my stay I have lived as paying guest with middle class Marathi families. I have very fond memories of those times and people. I always found Marathis as genuinely good people. I have noticed on several occasions Maharashtrians being invariably first to vacate their seat for an elderly person in Mumbai local trains. On every such occasion my respect for the community has gone higher.
I also empathize with the angst of Marathis on not being proportionate beneficiary of great success story that the great city of Mumbai has always been. The grouse of a section of Marathis on this count is understandable. However it is greatly doubtful that politics of Thackeray benefited Marathis in real terms of enhanced educational, entrepreneurial or livelihood opportunities. Thackeray’s ability to terrorize "others" was some kind of a collective catharsis for his followers. Whether that uplifted life in any real sense for his followers is anybody’s guess. But in life many a times emotive aspects rule over more sober considerations and that could explain his immense popularity.
Bal Thackeray could not have been the phenomenon that he was without the covert patronage he received from successive Congress governments starting from Vasant Rao Naik. Thackeray was used by Congress to neutralize and finish stranglehold of left forces on Mumbai’s working classes. Successive governments in Maharashtra shamefully and deliberately abdicated their basic duty to enforce the law of the land. The mutually symbiotic relationship between Congress and Thackeray grew through sixties and seventies. This allowed Thackeray to build an image of a tiger who can get away with anything. It was a shameful story of relentless pummeling of every tenet of law by the man and his cadres and governments looking the other way or conniving for petty political gains. Congress uncorked the bottle and a tiny genie in ‘60s earned enough notoriety and biting power to devour Congress electorally by mid ‘90s by forming a government.
Thackeray's life was a bundle of contradictions. He now bitterly opposes Congress but he was a creation of Congress and a great admirer of Mrs. Indira Gandhi. He praised her obsequiously to avoid his arrest during emergency. In fact he organized a bundh in Mumbai when Mrs. Indira Gandhi was arrested in late ‘70s. He organized worst ever riots against Muslims but had once allied in very early phase of his career for a brief period with Muslim league! He and his cadre deplored Valentine’s Day and influence of western culture on youth but organized Michael Jackson’s show in Mumbai! These to me were not a tiger like traits.
No human being’s life can be only seen in black and white and Thackeray can’t be an exception. There are many stories of his legendary personal friendship with prominent personalities from film and political world. It reflected in endless stream of visitors who flocked to Matoshri (Thackeray residence in Mumbai) when he was battling for life in preceding days to end. However it is difficult to make out how many were genuine friendship and how many were driven by desire to be on right books of the Thackerays to avoid any trouble with them thanks to an effete administration. It is, however, undeniable that he was amongst very few leaders left today in India whose one call could bring hundreds of thousands on street and trigger in to action.
When I saw many tearful faces on TV, I had not even an iota of doubt that the tears were genuine. I could visualize many an aggrieved followers skipping night meal on 17th November his day of demise. Such tremendous following is worthy of respect but I wish that sense of grief was broad based not sectarian. In the end, I can only pray that his soul rests in peace and let the city on which he had an overarching presence also live in peace!