NEW DELHI // Bal Thackeray, one of India’s most divisive and controversial politicians, died yesterday at the age of 86.
A cartoonist by trade, he founded the Shiv Sena party in 1966 to keep south Indian migrants out of Maharashtra State and to halt the spread of Islam. Thackeray was blamed for inciting tensions between Hindu and Muslim communities during the 1992 to 1993 Mumbai riots in which more than 900 people died. He was never charged with any crime.
“He was a consummate communicator whose stature in the politics of Maharashtra was unique,” said the prime minister, Manmohan Singh.
Thackeray had been critically ill, suffering from pancreatic disease and respiratory problems. He died of cardiac arrest. When word of his condition became public, Mumbai had been tense, anticipating riots and violence from Shiv Sena mobs, according to police.
Yesterday, after the news of Thackeray’s death emerged, 20,000 police were deployed across the city.
Sanjay Raut, a Shiv Sena member of parliament, appealed to his party’s followers to “maintain calm and remain peaceful”. His funeral and cremation will take place today.
The fearful climate was, in a way, in keeping with Thackeray’s legacy as a Mumbai politician. Violence, or the threat of violence, was considered one of his political tools.
The Shiv Sena has vandalised the art of MF Husain, threatened Pakistani artists and cricketers planning to tour Mumbai, and beaten up young couples on Valentine’s Day. It has attacked cinema halls screening films that fell foul of its tastes and shops for not putting up signboards bearing the Marathi script.
The most shameful wound inflicted by Thackeray’s politics was the Shiv Sena’s wave of rioting against Muslims in December 1992 and January 1993. The riots came shortly after a backlash against the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya by Hindu fundamentalist groups.
A commission of inquiry found that Thackeray, “like a veteran general, commanded his loyal Shiv Sainiks to retaliate by organised attacks against Muslims … The attacks … were mounted with military precision, with lists of establishments and voters’ lists in hand”.
He denied being anti-Muslim but said he was fiercely opposed to those who were pro-Pakistan.
Before entering politics, Thackeray, known for his speaking skills and nicknamed “The Tiger” because of his fearlessness and readiness to take on opponents, was a cartoonist for Mumbai’s Free Press Journal.
But even at that stage, however, he was using his art to rail against non-Marathis.
He claimed often to admire Adolf Hitler, saying that “he was a wonderful organiser and orator. I feel that he and I have several things in common”. Later, he distanced himself from these statements, saying “Hitler did very cruel and ugly things”.
The Shiv Sena was successful in organising the poorer sections of Mumbai. In return, these people were drafted as party foot-soldiers.
The party often won municipal elections, but Thackeray never became the chief minister of Maharashtra, preferring to work behind the scenes. Between 1995 and 1999, when the Shiv Sena did align with the
Bharatiya Janata Party to form a coalition state government, he claimed that he ran that government “by remote control”.
Atreyee Sen, a lecturer in contemporary religion at the University of Manchester and author of Shiv Sena Women: Violence and Communalism in a Bombay Slum, said Thackeray led “one of the most significant urban political movements in India”. Although he had little status outside Maharashtra, Ms Sen said, Thackeray was canny enough to court Mumbai’s actors and entrepreneurs, drawing them into his sphere of influence.
Although he took to wearing the saffron robes and rudraksh beads of a Hindu holy man, Thackeray, gaunt, with large spectacles and a carefully groomed beard, was known to enjoy his beer – warm – and his pipes of tobacco.
Although the Shiv Sena ranted often against the intrusion of western culture into India, Thackeray flew the pop superstar, Michael Jackson, to Mumbai for a concert in 1996, in aid of a Shiv Sena charity.
Thackeray leaves behind a Shiv Sena in crisis. His son, Uddhav, considered his heir apparent, is not thought to be a forceful leader, and his nephew Raj Thackeray who leads a spin-off party, may now attract many of the Shiv Sena’s members to his own organisation, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.
Meanwhile, Ms Sen said, migrants to Mumbai “will always negotiate the city with a sense of trepidation. The Shiv Sena, under the leadership of Thackeray, has permanently damaged the cosmopolitan reputation of modern Mumbai”.
* With additional reporting from the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse