The first time I attended a press conference of Bal Thackeray was in 1988. I was senior correspondent at the India Today magazine. Thackeray had threatened the boycott of Sikh-owned businesses, unless the city’s Sikhs did something to stop Khalistani violence.
We went to the Ritz Hotel near Churchgate, and had expected the announcement of a truce of sorts, as we saw prominent Sikh businessmen and politicians arrive. It turned unpleasant quickly when Thackeray converted the news conference into an inquisition, pointedly asking the Sikhs what they had done to stop terrorism in Punjab. The Sikh leaders were taken aback. They tried to explain the obvious—that they had no links, nor any control over the militants. But Thackeray kept up the pressure. Go to the Golden Temple and tell the extremists to stop violence, he told Mumbai’s Sikhs, his face sardonic and deadpan, betraying no emotion.
The implication, that the city’s Sikhs had some authority over the militants, or that they were responsible for what other Sikhs did elsewhere, was preposterous. But being outrageous was his style: to browbeat the other, to force him into surrender and to secure submission. I asked Thackeray: How would you react if Marathi shopkeepers in Belgaum were held to account for attacks on Kannada-speakers in Maharashtra? A couple of reporters from Marathi dailies asked me abruptly to keep quiet, and Thackeray asked: “Who is that funny fellow?” Two journalists—Bharat Kumar Raut and Ashok Jain—diffused matters. Meanwhile, the Sikhs asked for time to reflect; Thackeray gave them a short deadline.
A few days later, the Sikhs requested Thackeray to come with them to Amritsar, and they would together appeal to the extremists. Thackeray was smart—he would have none of it. (Another time, he similarly turned down a call to go to Kashmir). He quickly moved to another controversy. Like businessmen, movie stars and politicians, the Sikhs accepted his unelected authority, mainly because of Shiv Sena’s destructive potential, which commanded attention based on fear.
The same fear was at the heart of the arrest of two young women in Palghar on Monday. Later released on bail, one of them expressed her frustration over the informal bandh that accompanied Thackeray’s funeral on Facebook, and her friend liked what she said. They were charged under laws that go way beyond constitutional restrictions on free speech. It was a clear abuse of power, but it served its purpose, of silencing criticism.
And yet, many of the hundreds of thousands who turned out on Sunday for Thackeray’s funeral didn’t do so out of fear. Many (including Muslims) were genuinely grief-stricken. The part of the city which lies south of Haji Ali (or, for that matter, the Sea Link), which many of its inhabitants continue to call Bombay (as against Thackeray’s preference Mumbai, now the city’s official name) finds it hard to understand Thackeray’s hold over the Marathi mind. Observing the violence, they think Thackeray’s support came mainly from the lumpen. But educated, middle-class families too felt he spoke for them, even if his crude vocabulary often made them cringe. Many Marathis bristled when their men and women were stereotyped as clerks at Mantralaya or nationalized banks. Theirs is the culture of Pu La Deshpande, Jayant Narlikar, Bhimsen Joshi, Vijay Tendulkar, Durga Khote and Kishori Amonkar, but in a city where no single language or culture dominates. Marathi was hardly marginalized in Mumbai, but some of the cosmopolitan elite, “the outsiders”, looked down upon the language and its culture.
Thackeray stiffened the Marathi spine, but by demanding that billboards be written in Marathi, terrifying Hindi-speaking cab drivers, threatening Gujarati and Marwari seths, frightening south Indians at Udupi restaurants and humiliating and intimidating Muslims. Many have died in violence unleashed by Shiv Sainiks over the years.
Politicians did little to restrain him. Once in 1989, Murli Deora, then member of Parliament from my constituency—South Bombay—had invited the city’s business leaders and journalists to meet Shankarrao Chavan, at that time finance minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet. Some of Thackeray’s recent speeches against Muslims were considered incendiary. Many demanded his arrest. That evening, I was the only one to defend Thackeray’s right to speak, while disagreeing with his politics. Suppress his voice, I said, and you send him underground, making him more seductive. “No, no,” Chavan told me, his eyes widening as he spoke. “This is very dangerous speech, it must be stopped.” A few days later, when I met Thackeray for an interview and asked him about his possible arrest, he looked at me, a faint smile on his lips, and said: “Nobody will arrest me.” And nobody did.
Everyone needed him. The Congress, to divide opponents; the Bharatiya Janata Party, to consolidate the Hindu vote; businesses, to ensure industrial peace; movie stars, so that their films would get released without any problem; property owners, to evict recalcitrant tenants.
The vulnerable became the scapegoats. Most politicians acquiesced, undermining many groups. Most of us watched, only a few dared to speak up.