In life and death, Thackeray proved a great crowd puller
SOMETIMES giants have no idea of their strength. Balasaheb Thackeray, the Shiv Sena leader, who passed away last month, was certainly one of them. He was a big crowd-puller in his lifetime but I doubt whether he ever imagined he would be a bigger crowd-puller when dead, and would draw more mourners than Nehru, and perhaps even Mahatma Gandhi. And there was not a single dry eye in the crowd.
This is not how it all began, way back in the 1950’s, when he worked as a cartoonist, along with RK Laxman, in a Bombay daily, travelled by bus, as did all of us in those days, and ate his lunch in a dhaba not far from the Bombay Stock Exchange in Dalal Street. This is where I first met him, and although we did not exactly become friends, we came to know each other well and even exchanged gossip about politicians. Soon we parted ways and did not meet until about ten years later, when we found ourselves in Flora Fountain at the height of a movement for the inclusion of Belgaum in Maharashtra. I had no idea then that he would be a mass leader in two years time, addressing huge crowds in Shivaji Park, where he lived. The transformation of a cartoonist into a mass leader was one of those twists of fate neither he nor those of us who followed his career never quite got the hang of.
Thackeray arrived on the scene at the right time. Maharashtrians, or the Marathis as I prefer to call them, were a depressed and demoralised lot at the time, looking for a leader, any leader who would give them hope, if nothing else. Their beloved city, Bombay or Mumbai, was slowly passing into the hands of outsiders. As Mumbai kept growing, more and more people from adjoining states began taking over activities which had earlier been monopolised by Marathis. The Congress had always been opposed to the formation of Maharashtra and had no use for Marathis. Nor did Delhi. The Marathis felt that they had no one to look up to, and would always be drawers of water and hewers of wood. And then came a young man called Bal Thackeray, not quite thirty, and with a tongue acid enough to burn through the thickest skin.
He did or tried to do what Chhatrapati Shivaji had done in the face of the onslaught of the Moghul three hundred years before, which means Muslims, on Maharashtra. And he also did what Lokmanya Tilak had done when not just Maharashtra but the whole of India lay totally paralysed at the feet of the British after the War of Independence in 1857. In Thackeray the Marathis found a larger-than-life figure in their own midst, a man who spoke their language and their idiom and told them, in so many words, that he was their man, and they were his men, if only they trusted him as he trusted them, and together they would fight the common “enemy”, whoever and wherever he was.
They said that he was an opportunist and changed his colours when it suited him. First, he opposed the southerners who were taking over the businesses and jobs of Marathis, and then he turned his ire on Muslims whom Nehru & Co. protected. When he had laid them low, he turned his attention towards migrants from the north, who arrived in Mumbai in trainloads and almost took over the city, or so he believed. Then he suddenly began speaking about Hindutva, which underlay the guiding philosophy of Shivaji and Tilak, and with that he attained an all-India status as a leader, something he never really coveted. He was, first and foremost, a Marathi, and the Marathis made him into a supreme leader.
Thackeray’s tactics were very simple. He would be his own man, and no one, not even his followers, could tell him what to do. It was said that he had been helped in the initial stages by the Congress, and was in fact doing their dirty work for them. Thackeray never denied that he had received assistance from the Congress, but he was doing what he always wanted to do, and if others helped him, so be it. His Sena clashed with the Communists, who at one time controlled the textile labour of Bombay, and over the years succeeded in destroying them. He destroyed the Socialists too, who, at one time, dominated Marathi politics. Thackeray had no friends, only enemies, until he made an alliance with the BJP, which continues to this day.
But no matter what he did, and how he did, the Marathi manoos (man) was the love of his life. He was prepared to do anything for him, or her, whether he or she was a film actor in Bollywood or a tailor in Pune or a mill worker in Parel. Any Marathi could meet him with his or her grievance and go right up to him in his house in Bandra and ask for favours, and he would help them. It is said that he used his goons to settle the scores and he never denied that he did not.
He had no use for democracy or for such things as truth and non-violence. He had, of course, no use for either Gandhi or Nehru, and was scathing about the Gandhi family, even in public, though he had supported the Emergency and had glowing words for Indira Gandhi. His party, Shiv Sena, had no constitution, except a couple of sentences scribbled on a piece of paper, and his word was final. He selected his chief ministers and mayors and sacked them when they lost his confidence. He was a king and king-maker rolled into one. He had no hesitation in saying that he admired Hitler, but it was not the dictator he admired so much as his sense of discipline and order. This is what he admired in a nation’s life, and if you imposed it, as Indira Gandhi did try to do through the Emergency, he was not too queasy about it. But his loyalty was always to the nation and did not matter what the nation did or did not. The nation was always supreme, even if you felt, as in the case of Hitler, that you were using it for your own private purposes, or for personal power.
He hated Pakistan – but not individual Pakistanis – not because Pakistan was a Muslim country, but because the Pakistanis had betrayed India. In the case of Muslims, it was not their faith that troubled him; he believed that they had betrayed India, and those who remained back in India after Partition would also betray India, given an opportunity. Muslims were undependable and so were the so-called secularists who supported them. For him, human rights were a big joke when it came to dealing with those who betrayed the country, and even those who did not outwardly betray the country but helped others in betraying it. The nation, which meant India, always came first, and everything else, came way down in the list.
Thackeray was not always a fervent Hindutva man. But he seemed to have realised, towards the end of his career, that what troubles the great country is not its so-called diversity – which, incidentally he did not believe in – but the fact that the Hindus themselves often behaved like cowards and had no faith in their own destiny. This used to be the main theme of Thackeray’s discourses which attracted lakhs of his devotees every year when he spoke to them on the day of the Vijayadashmi. For him, Hindutva was the essence of India’s soul and therefore the essence of India’s nationhood, and when you denied it, as Nehru tried to do it and so did western-educated Macaulay’s children masquerading as progressives, you not only did India great injustice but struck at the very centre of India’s identity as a nation. There could be no India without Hindus and no Hindus without Hindutva.
All our troubles, he used to say, flow from this one great falsehood – the imposition of an unjust order on a simple, innocent Hindu society that is not allowed to follow its own destiny. His hatred of Congress, his distrust of Muslims, his hatred of Pakistan, stemmed from this single truth, which he stressed again and again in his speeches – not too many of them, even when he was younger – his editorials and, of course, his pep talks to his beloved Shiv Sainiks, whom he likened to Shivaji’s soldiers, those simple peasants who fought alongside him in the ravines and mountains of what soon became Maharashtra, and who brought the great Mughul, Aurangzeb, to heel, and so unhinged the Mughul empire that it collapsed, until the Peshwas, who followed in the footsteps of Shivaji, gave it a coup de grace and destroyed it for ever.