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Thackeray’s toxic legacy
By Praful Bidwai
Let our politicians, television anchors and film stars fall over one another in lavishing praise on Bal Thackeray for his personal candour, political shrewdness, acute tactical sense, whatever. Let more people join Mr LK Advani in bemoaning the departure of a man they regard as a great patriot.

But I, for one, will not shed any tears over the death of one of the most repulsive demagogues India has ever produced, who infused enormous amounts of poison into its body politic and comprehensively debased its democracy.

Thackeray’s politics concentrated the worst possible prejudice, intolerance, regional-linguistic chauvinism, corruption, authoritarianism, divisiveness and communal bigotry. He instigated murder and openly defied the state through his goon squads. And he got away unpunished and unrepentant.

The story of Thackeray’s success is the story of the failure of Indian democracy. We must hang our heads in shame at the tributes, including state honours, that the ruling establishment is bestowing on a rascal who worshipped fascism, practised virulent communalism, delighted in bullying, and all but destroyed Bombay as a cosmopolitan multi-cultural city. Even for his Maharashtrian core-constituency, he was only as good as Hitler was for the German people.

Thackeray made his political debut at a critical juncture in Indian history, as a puppet in the hands of industrialists who nurtured a pathological hatred of trade unions and the Left parties, then very much in the ascendant in Bombay. Thackeray’s first targets were young union activists, especially from the South, who were prominent in the engineering, chemicals and pharmaceuticals industries.

The late 1960s were a period of industrial restructuring, to accomplish which managements needed to tame the increasingly assertive trade unions. The Sena became the main agency for achieving this, typically by physically harassing, beating up and intimidating, and even murdering, union and Left activists especially in Central Bombay, the city’s industrial hub, with a high concentration of working class people.

The Shiv Sena, a name invented in 1966 by industry magnate and Thackeray’s mentor Ramakrishna Bajaj, was instrumental in isolating these activists through the sons-of-the-soil agenda, besides physical attacks. The Sena received a degree of legitimacy from the Samyukta (unified) Maharashtra movement, which succeeded in 1960 in securing a separate linguistic province carved out of the bilingual Bombay state. The movement also strengthened the cult of Shivaji, which the Sena cynically exploited, adding militant symbols like the tiger to it.

The Maharashtra government, eager to be investor-friendly, colluded with industry interests to promote the Sena and help it smash the unions. So blatant was this collusion under Congress Chief Minister Vasantrao Naik, and so close was Thackeray to him, that the Shiv Sena was jocularly called

“Vasant Sena”. Sena goons were given a free run to break strikes and set up pro-company client unions. Although the Shiv Sena regarded Gujaratis, Parsis and Marwaris as “outsiders”, its ire was primarily directed at South Indians. Businessmen in these other communities could neutralise the Sena’s opposition with bribes.

Indulged by the state, the Shiv Sena quickly mastered the art of shutting down Bombay through the use or threat of use of force, and by building on fear. Fear has always been a crucial element in the Sena’s success. And it has carefully cultivated numerous ways of inducing fear and terror.

In response to the Sena’s tactics of physical intimidation and attack, the Left tried to build self-defence squads—not least because it couldn’t rely on the police to protect its members. The best-known among those who took this initiative was the highly popular Communist Party of India MLA Krishna Desai, greatly admired for his courage and combativeness. In 1970, the Sena leadership decided to eliminate Desai. Thugs armed with swords and knives chopped Desai into pieces.

Tens of thousands of people spontaneously joined Desai’s funeral procession to the Shivaji Park crematorium to register their disgust with the Sena’s politics of assassination and to warn it of retaliation. The area, where the Sena headquarters is also located, seethed with anger. Many CPI leaders and cadres demanded a systematic campaign against the Sena’s repugnantly violent methods.

However, the CPI top leadership, under the ever-so-moderate SA Dange, vetoed the idea. Desai’s assassins were never brought to justice. Nor was the Sena made to pay a political price. It got emboldened to become more aggressive. It infiltrated the police with its Marathi-chauvinist appeal, thus secured an additional insurance policy for itself against prosecution.

By the late 1970s, Shiv Sainiks had established elaborate protection and extortion rackets. Every seller of street foods like vada pav had to pay a commission to the Sena. Soon, the Sena extended its protection racket to the film industry. It would routinely blackmail Bollywood producers and actors by declaring their films “anti-national” and threatening to boycott them or set fire to cinema houses showing them—only to withdraw the threat after being paid a hefty bribe.

The Sena claimed, and was often granted, veto power over deciding which books, paintings and plays were acceptable, and whether Pakistan could play a cricket match in India. It became a political party, trade union, vigilante group, social movement, business enterprise, blackmailing racket and real estate broker rolled into one.

In the mid-1980s, the Shiv Sena won the Mumbai municipal elections, but failed to extend its influence beyond Mumbai-Thane and pockets in the coastal Konkan region despite trying. Soon, however, the Ramjanmabhoomi movement presented itself as a great opportunity. Thackeray temporarily dropped his ethnic-chauvinist Marathi-only agenda and embraced crass Hindutva.

The demolition of the Babri mosque, for which the Sena chief boastfully but falsely claimed credit, was to pay his party huge dividends through the organised violence that followed in 1993 in Mumbai. Thackeray consciously directed the violence day after day by naming specific localities as “mini-Pakistans” in the Sena mouthpiece Saamna and ordering his followers to attack Muslims there and set their homes and shops on fire. The Srikrishna commission inquiry into the riots documented the Shiv Sena’s central role at length—all the way from the Shakha Pramukhs to Thackeray.

The Maharashtra government, to its eternal disgrace, failed to stop the killing and arson. Senior policemen ensured that the fire brigade would not be told about arson at shops owned by Muslims.

The army was called in, but not given a clear mandate to use all means necessary to prevent violence. Thus, an army column merely stood by as former Shiv Sena MP Madhukar Sarpotdar directed a mob against a Muslim bustee from an open jeep, while wielding loaded guns.

Thackeray got away with all this. The Bombay High Court dismissed on flimsy grounds a writ petition filed by former Chief Secretary JB D’Souza for Thackeray’s arrest and prosecution for instigating the violence. It cited nine Saamna editorials, which Thackeray didn’t disown, which leave no doubt whatever of his guilt. Later, the Supreme Court upheld the dismissal too.

The Indian state thus proved that it does not have the stomach to enforce the law of the land, or defend the fundamental rights of its citizens, including the right to life, when dealing with a consummate bully like Thackeray. This is a terrible comment on the quality and integrity of our democratic institutions, as well as Indian society’s appetite for condoning not just hate-based communal politics, but the systematic or planned use of force against a religious minority.

Strengthened by this success, the Sena went on to win the 1995 Maharashtra Assembly in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party. It extensively abused state power. Thackeray famously boasted that he exercised total power over the Chief Minister by “remote control”, making a mockery of democracy.

Thackeray had threatened to dump the ruinously expensive Enron power project into the Arabian Sea. But just one visit by Enron’s Rebecca Mark to Thackeray’s residence—no doubt lubricated with dollops of money—was enough for him to allow the project’s size to be tripled!

Contrary to propaganda, Thackeray could be easily bought. Like all bullies, he was a coward. He was mortally afraid of being arrested and jailed.

Two questions arise. Who, apart from politicians, was responsible for the Thackeray phenomenon? And what is the likely future of Uddhav’s Shiv Sena and Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena after the supremo’s death? The answer to the first is, industrialists and film producers who caved in to Thackeray’s blackmail, and used him to smash unions or settle business rivalries. They saw nothing wrong with his violent hate-filled politics, and therefore indulged him. It’s only the rare businessman who resisted Thackeray.

In the absence of Bal Thackeray’s charisma and iron hand, a big question-mark hangs over the two Senas’ future. Uddhav has a strong organisational sense and loyal party following. Raj is a firebrand orator and ran a successful, if violent, anti-North Indian hate campaign. But neither has a coherent platform to offer.

Chauvinist hate-mongering and communal prejudice worked for Bal Thackeray because of specific circumstances at a particular conjuncture, and because of the personality cult around him. They are unlikely to work now.

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News Updated at : Sunday, November 25, 2012
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