A Death in Mumbai
Posted on 1-December-2012
Bal Keshav Thackeray, reverentially called Bala Saheb Thackeray by his followers and numerous admirers of strangely mixed colours, died in Mumbai on 17th November this year.The next day when his body was taken in a large, slow moving procession to the centrally located Shivaji Park and later to his cremation, the city of Mumbai came to a halt, ostensibly to express grief, but in reality under pressure from his followers or out of fear for the lives and property of people not "honouring the memory of Thackeray" at the hands of his followers. The government of the state of Maharashtra arranged for a state funeral for Thackeray, a gesture usually reserved for people who had held positions of eminence in government, rendered great service to society or to people who had attained exceptional success in the arts or the sciences. As if to underline the point that Bal Keshav Thackeray was above criticism the Maharashtra police arrested and a magistrate sentenced two young women, one of whom had said on her face book page that a city that just kept moving no matter who lived or died shut down for the death of this one man, a city in which not even a minute's silence was observed in the memory of those who had given their lives in the cause of India's freedom, while the second woman had simply expressed her agreement with the first. The medical clinic of the uncle of the first woman was vandalised by Thackeray's followers. Maharashtra's politicians, irrespective of their professed ideological stances thought it best to pander to Thackeray's followers. Those in government were woken up to what must have been for them minor niceties such as the illegality of the arrest and sentencing of the two women or to an even less important nicety such as the suppression of freedom of speech and expression, by the President of the Press Council of India, himself a retired judge of the Supreme Court of India.
Bal Thackeray rose to prominence in Mumbai politics in the decade of the 1960's by railing against South Indians and Gujaratis working in Mumbai and inciting Marathi youth against them. His aim was to frighten South Indians and Gujaratis out of Mumbai, in which he partially succeeded at least for a time. He also talked of Maharashtrian pride. Shivaji, a seventeenth century Maratha leader who did much to weaken moghul authority in the region was built up as an icon of past Maharashtrian and Hindu glory. A sub-text to this glorification of Shivaji was a glorification of militant Hinduism confronting Muslim political authority--an attitude from which looking at Muslims as enemies of Hindus was only one step away. Soon he attracted a following in Maharashtra of semi-literate people, not particularly respectful of law or of norms of civilised behaviour, with an inchoate sense of grievance against an undefined other, ready to be mobilised against any individual or group whom the leader chose to call an enemy. Thackeray's army of followers, named the Shiv Sena or the Shiva Army--the Shiva in the name could either be the Hindu god, Shiva, or the 17th century Maratha leader Shivaji--when mobilised loomed menacingly even when it was not violent. It could and often did turn violent. Its tactics were those of physical coercion and in time it developed the capacity to close down Mumbai or any other place in Maharashtra it chose. The habit of moral suasion is alien to it just as it is impervious to reasoned argument of those who may not agree with its methods and with its objectives.
In the five or so decades of the existence of Shiv Sena Thackeray or his son and nephew have on different occasions stirred violence and agitation against Muslims and more recently against people from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar working and living in Maharashtra. They have forced the cancellation of a cricket match in Mumbai between India and Pakistan. They have imposed the change of name of the city from Bombay to Mumbai, unnecessarily giving a religious colour to their demand by referring to a newly created Hindu goddess Mumba Devi,--Mumba Devi in all probabilty came on the scene much after Bombay became a British built city-- forgetting that the difference between Bombay and Mumbai is exactly like the difference between Constantinople and Istanbul or that between Alexandria and El Iskandariya. They have organised demonstrations and stirred up violence on the publication of a serious work of historical scholarship just because it presented a picture of Shivaji that differed from the image the Shiv Sena and its leader cherish. It is difficult to think of anything good done by Thackeray and Shiv Sena. Quite to the contrary, they have for the past five decades practised a kind of politics which is corrosive and divisive, a kind of politics worthy of not only condemnation by all those who desire the growth of healthy politics in India, but also of ostracism in the same way as the National Front in France or the Neo Nazis in Germany are shunned by mainstream political parties. In India the opposite has happened. The Bharatiya Janata Party entered into a coalition with Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and in the federal government in Delhi when it was in power in the federal government between 1998 and 2004. Maharashtrian politicians of the Indian National Congress and of the Nationalist Congress Party--both of which profess policies in direct antithesis of whatever Thackeray said or practised--have treated Thackeray and Shiv Sena benignly when they have not on the sly cooperated with them.
Speak nothing if not good of the dead is a worthy norm of good behaviour. This is the strongest reason why when Bal Thackeray died, criticism of his politics and of his practice was muted in the country even though at least some, like me, would have been tempted to shout out loudly: "Good riddance!" Not only criticism of Thackeray was absent among politicians but many, most prominently leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, indulged in full-throated, yet completely undeserved, praise. Even more disappointing was the description by the President of India of Thackeray's passing as an irreparable loss to the nation. The Vice-Pressident, the Prime Minister and the President of the Indian National Congress joined the chorus of mourners. Decorum perhaps would have demanded that the President, the Vice-President, the Prime Minister and the President of the Indian National Congress say nothing against Thackeray at the moment of his death, but they could have signalled their disapproval by withholding all comment--the former two as presumed upholders of the highest norms of public behaviour and the latter two as the highest ranking leaders of a political party which has always professed values which are the direct opposite of what Thackeray stood for. When a citizen of Mumbai caves in to pressures from Shiv Sena and shouts "Long live Bala Saheb" he as likely as not does so out of fear, for the danger for him is proximate. Messrs. Pranab Mukherjee, Hamid Ansari and Manmohan Singh and Mrs. Sonia Gandhi have all the insulation they could possibly need from pressures from Shiv Sena. If they still chose not to indicate by their silence their disapproval of Bal Keshav Thackeray, the only explanation can be that they value political expediency more than principles. If they do not uphold principles, more can hardly be expected of lesser politicians. Poor Aung San Suu Kyi must be ignorant of the current state of politics in India, or else she would not have wasted her breath warning us of the dangers of politics without principles. And poor, old, forgotten Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi spoke in vain when he listed politics without principles as one of seven social sins.