Bal Thackeray

Barbarism’s mall Thackeray
Democracy’s fall Thackeray
Money Monsters pay him to play tall Thackeray
Asking Mussolini’s opinion in his lovely drawl Thackeray
Bal Thackeray! Bal Thackeray! Bal Thackeray! Bal Thackeray!

Nagarjun (Shield of Barbarism, June 1970)

As in his life, even in death, Bal Thackeray (1926-2012) elicited what he had perfected over the years – instilling fear in the common masses. The entire city of Mumbai came to standstill on November the 18th, for his funeral procession as his Shiv Sainiks – the organised group of cadres and supporters whom he had led in the political outfit called the Shiv Sena, were involved in attacking a hospital because the owner’s niece happened to comment on Facebook about the logic of complete bandh (shut down). It was a befitting tribute by his followers to the person who had perfected the art of hate and violence. Equally supportive was the Mumbai police who issued a statement for the common people to step out only in case of emergencies and help maintain peace and calm in the city in view of the tragedy. The Mumbai police has been sympathetic to Thackeray and his cadres; in fact a saying went ‘We (the Mumbai policemen) are Shiv Sainiks under our uniforms.’

The Maharashtra state government, also left no stone unturned to make the funeral a success for the man who had till his last remained committed to the establishment in general and the ruling Congress party in particular. When he had formed his Shiv Sena as an ‘apolitical’ organisation, it was patronised by the then Chief Minister Vasantrao Naik, home minister Balasaheb Desai, future chief ministers Vasantdada Patil,  A.R. Antulay and other Congress bigwigs, earning the Shiv Sena the sobriquet of ‘Vasant Sena’. He became the man whom the political ruling class and the bourgeoisie relied upon for their own survival, be it to crush the working class movement of the textile mill workers led by the Communist Party or the anti-minority, anti-dalit sentiment to help the ruling Congress maintain its stranglehold on the state polity. The stature of Thackeray and relevance of his Shiv Sena would not have endured for so long had it not been safeguarded by successive governments in Maharashtra.

Bal Keshav Thackeray was a product of the ruling class, who remained committed to it till the end. He carefully chose his enemies and faithfully carried out the diktats told to him about his targets. He became adept in camouflaging the orders of the bourgeoisie while masking them under a chauvinist and sectarian veneer. He started his tirade against the mostly lowly paid white collared working people from South India, in 1960. This catapulted him into the limelight in Maharashtra and this helped him to become the preferred prop of the then ruling Congress party, who started patronising him to break the growing clout of the working class movement. Thackeray with his divisive cartoons in the Marmik, the weekly that he launched with his brother soon caught the imagination of the educated lower and middle class Marathi population, who were provided with the simplistic answer to all their problems. Like Hitler, who blamed Jews and Communists for all the ills plaguing Germany, Thackeray blamed the South Indians. One remembers his then slogan ‘Pungi Bajao, Lungi Bhagao’ (Play the flute and kick out the South Indians) and his mocking of the South Indian languages by terming them Yendugendu wallahs. Though the South Indian population in Mumbai only constituted about 9 per cent as compared to the Gujaratis who constituted around 14 per cent, yet Thackeray never came in confrontation with the Gujaratis, as they were the ones who held the key to business and finance. Like his idol Hitler, he also never dared to touch the bourgeoisie; in fact one of India’s top industrialists of the time Ramakishan Bajaj was his close friend and mentor.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s the Shiv Sena and Thackeray changed its enemy, the South Indians no longer constituted the major enemy. It was the Communists, who at that time held sway in the working class movement of India and in the large working class of the Bombay textile mills from the pre-independence period. In fact the Bombay trade unions had penned several glorious chapters in the annals of the Indian Communist and working class movement by their militant agitation and struggle. Led by the luminary communist leadership the Girni Kamgar Union was one of the torch bearers of the working class movement, which not only were influential in trade union but took an active and radical stand on the political events of the country as well. One may note the active role played by the workers of the Bombay textile in the freedom struggle and even after independence.

The Congress leadership and the textile mill owners wanted to break the unions and in any way possible decimate the growing working class movement. In Thackeray they found a perfect helpmeet. Bal Thackeray had declared his aim was the emasculation of the Communists who according to him were not at all Indian. In this project he found the rich and powerful as a natural ally. The then Congress leadership was worried about the growing strength of the working class movement, and so were the business magnates that on one the one hand were reeling under recession and the deteriorating state of the economy and on the other hand the militant trade unions under the Communists. Around 75% of the workers in textile mills belonged to the communist union at one time, and without breaking the stronghold of the communists the plans of Congress and the bourgeoisie would never succeed. Rahul Bajaj the chairman of Bajaj industries and champion of industrialists mentioned: ‘My late uncle Ramakrishna Bajaj was a good friend of Balasaheb. When parliamentary elections were taking place, both Balasaheb and my uncle were anti-Communist. Though the ideology of the Congress and the Shiv Sena was not common, they maintained a good rapport’ (The Economic Times, November 19, 2012).

So, an all out war against the Communists and the trade unionists was declared by the Shiv Sena. What followed were street fights between the militant communist workers and the state supported cadres of the fascist Shiv Sena. The Worli street fights which lasted for months became famous. In fact initially the communist workers were even successful in breaking the Shiv Sainik shakhas and beating those who attended it.

Krishna Desai, the leader of the textile workers who had gained prominence due to his militant politics in favour of the working class, was amongst the first few political activists, who saw what the Sena was up to. To counter the Shiv Sena’s violence he propagated the working class’s own action, and formed the Lok Sewa Dal (LSD) a militant left wing youth movement, which was to act as the Red Guard and take the Shiv Sena cadre head on. Desai was the only Communist leader capable of preventing the Shiv Sena from building a base among Marathi-speaking youth in the mill area.

But by that time, the CPI which was guiding the union and to whom Krishna Desai belonged was in the full grip of revisionism. The leadership had long shunned radical Marxism in favour of a capitulationist, conformist and conciliatory attitude towards the bourgeoisie and the Indian state. The party led by the arch revisionist Dange and having ideologues like Mohit Sen, had removed every iota of radicalism and militancy from the CPI and its various organs for courting favour from the ruling establishment. In fact they had become more loyal to Indira Gandhi than several Congressmen as the events that unfolded in the mid 1970s showed.

As a result of such a docile policy CPI leadership posited more faith on the ‘rule of law’ and the ‘rule of democracy’ than on building and solidifying the strength of working class in confronting fascist onslaughts. It was the time when after the revisionist Twentieth Party Congress of the CPSU the CPI had declared its policy of peaceful and parliamentary advance to socialism. Later stripped of these ideological trappings it became the bedrock of successive left front governments in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. For some of this period the CPI (M) continued to adhere to the programme and tactical line of 1951. (Vijay Singh, ‘Some Strategies of Indian Communists after 1947’ The peaceful path had stripped the Communists of radicalism and militancy. The revisionist policy of Khrushchev the world over was gaining ground much to the delight of the bourgeoisie and to the chagrin of the revolutionary communist and working class movement who were increasingly becoming impotent to face the onslaught of the right wingers and the bourgeoisie. As a result the communist movement was becoming marginalised and weakened in the national polity.

The pattern was repeated in Bombay where the CPI refused to provide any support to Desai and his Lok Sewa Dal. Then Desai himself started arranging funds and organised the LSD knowing fully well, that he was the target of the Shiv Sena.

<> The sequence of attack on Krishna Desai has been succinctly described by Gyan Prakash in his book Mumbai Fables:

‘According to his family members, the (Shiv) Sena had physically attacked (Krishna) Desai during the 1967 election campaign. He escaped with his life by using his briefcase as a shield. Apparently, Desai knew he was a target. A feared trade unionist and a political leader with deep roots in the neighbourhood, Desai stood between the Sena and the Girgangaon. Anticipating an attack, he decided to send his family away to safety to his village in Ratnagiri. As for himself, he planned to go underground and take the fight to the Sena.

‘On June 5, 1970, Desai, as usual surrounded by Anil Karnik and others, was winding down for the day in his one-room hutment. His wife had laid out the dinner. Desai took off his shirt and was about to sit down to eat when he was summoned. His party associates wanted to discuss the next day’s planned Lok Seva Dal camping trip. Telling his wife and Karnik that he would be back shortly, Desai walked a few hundred yards down the winding lane to the office of a rice mill.

‘A mentally challenged man from his neighbourhood interrupted Desai’s conversation with his comrades in the office, informing him that some workers wanted to meet him. The assembled group looked out towards the open field that faced the rice mill office. The power was off, and it was raining lightly. At the head of the narrow lane that led out from the field, the silhouettes of a few men were visible. Desai called out to ask who they were. A voice shouted “Jai Bharat” (Hail to India) in response. Desai’s young comrade Prakash Patkar walked towards them. As he neared the group, Patkar saw a few men standing by a car. One of the assembled men had a gupti, a long-bladed weapon tucked under his shirt. Patkar shouted out a warning to Desai, who rushed instantly to his side. Patkar was stabbed. Within seconds, Desai was surrounded and stabbed in the back, with his liver slashed. Having achieved their purpose, the attackers vanished into the darkness. Miraculously, Desai walked to the nearby house of a friend, who rushed him to the hospital, but he succumbed to the fatal wound.’ (Gyan Prakash, ‘Mumbai Fables’, Princeton University Press, 2010, p. 246)

As mentioned by Vishwanath Khatate, ‘I was fully aware of the political situation in the 1970s and analysed it in my own terms. Had we not eliminated Desai, he would have got saheb killed’. (Now, party’s rot pains him, DNA January 29, 2009 Shiv Sainiks Vishwanath Khatate, Ashok Kulkarni and Dileep Hate, were sentenced to 14 years imprisonment for the murder.

The news of Desai’s murder, incited the workers who gathered in thousands raising anti-Thackeray and anti-Sena slogans, and they were ready to avenge the assassination. Gyan Prakash in his book ‘Mumbai Fables’ mentions that in Shivaji Park, where the funeral procession of Desai took, was full of agitated workers. Many CPI leaders demanded a campaign against the Sena's violence. However, the CPI general secretary S.A. Dange vetoed the idea. Desai's assassins were not brought to justice (Praful Bidwai, Thackeray's toxic legacy The revisionist leadership resorted to the tactic of appealing to the state and showing faith in the ‘law of the land’. The workers had to disperse, but with them that very day also saw the end of militancy and working class assertion, that continues till date in Mumbai.

The assassination of Desai and the meek attitude shown by the CPI leadership was the turning point in the fight between the Communists and the fascists. Bal Thackeray was emboldened by his victory and went on with his programme of disrupting the working class movement. His trade union Bharatiya Kamgar Sena (BKS), which he had formed in 1968, now ensured a complete control on the workers, and a peaceful work environment much to the delight of the capitalists who now were free to do what they wanted. After his death Rahul Bajaj recalled Thackeray’s help in sorting out a workers-related issue at his manufacturing facility.

In the by-election that took place, Shiv Sena candidate Vaman Mahadik defeated Krishna Desai’s widow Sarojini Desai and entered in the state assembly for the first time. If Bal Thackeray and Shiv Sena was a product of Congress and the industrialists, the revisionist rot that had set in the Communist movement helped him to consolidate his position and emerge as the person who would rule and devastate the city of Mumbai and the state of Maharashtra for the next four decades.

After the humbling of the red flag, Thackeray and the Shiv Sena embarked on a long career of humiliating, bullying and terrorising the Dalits, the Muslims and the north Indian Biharis and UPwallas.

The ruling Congress once again required the service of Shiv Sena, this time to contain the growing dalit movement led by the radical Dalit Panthers. The Dalit Panther’s influence was rapidly growing in the country and was challenging the hegemony on Dalit polity which was till then dominated by the Republican Party of India (RPI) and the Congress. By the 1970s the RPI had disintegrated into several factions and had entered into a state of terminal decline. The various factions had lost touch with the community and had almost stopped taking up the dalit cause. This disintegration and decline of RPI caused discontent among the Dalits particularly among the educated youth. This led to the formation of Dalit Panthers movement.

The ideology of the Panthers, embodied in their texts and practices, synthesises threads of Buddhist and Marxist philosophies. (Janet A. Contursi, Political Theology: Text and Practice in a Dalit Panther Community, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 52, No. 2 (May, 1993)). The most fundamental factor responsible for the rise of the Dalit Panther movement was the repression and terror under which the oppressed Scheduled Castes continued to live in the rural areas. The Dalits were in the minority all over the country, more so in villages. Caste Hindus, therefore, found it easy to exploit them and also to harass their women folk. (Sanjay Paswan, Pramanshi Jaideva, Encyclopaedia of Dalits in India: Movements, Gyan Publishing House, 2002, p. 20).

To the Panthers, the term Dalit meant members of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, Neo-Buddhists, the working class, the landless and poor farmers, women and all those who are being exploited politically, the weaker economically and neglected in the name of religion (Ibid, pp. 319-20).

The Panthers threatened the Congress’ cosy relations with the directionless RPI factions. In 1974 a by-election for the Bombay South-Central Lok Sabha seat was held where the RPI leaders had supported the Congress candidate Ramrao Adhik. The Panthers had opposed the candidature of Adhik and asked the Dalits not to support the RPI leaders backing Congress. The Sena to teach a lesson to Dalits attacked the Bombay Development Department chawl in Worli, which was the Panthers stronghold. The Sena claimed that the leaders of Dalit Panthers had denigrated Hindu Gods in their speeches. The riot lasted for a week and the murder of Dalit Panther activist, Bhagwat Jadhav. This murder like that of Krishna Desai further emboldened the Sena to murder its adversaries with impunity, an art which they used frequently. 

This rot had another dimension to it. The Congress could not undertake to check the influence of the Panthers as it would have alienated its large Dalit and liberal supporters. For Sena the scenario was different. Thackeray knew that the militant section of Dalits would never support it. By targeting the Panthers as anti-Hindus meant consolidating a large section of upper caste Hindus and also the section opposing the Ambedkarite Dalits, the latter including a large number of the non-Mahar Dalit community. This was the first instance of a political and social engineering to be undertaken at a sub-caste level. This dividend paid off for the Sena as in years to follow it was able to attract significant number of non Ambedkarite Dalit groups along with consolidating its hold on the upper caste Hindus.

Thackeray continued with his anti-Ambedkar stance till the end. In 1978 he openly opposed the renaming of the Marathwada University at Aurangabad after Babasaheb Ambedkar. Thackeray had then said ‘People do not have flour at home and they demand a university’. The Sena not only opposed the renaming but in the unrest that followed it indulged in mass scale violence against the dalits that left about 5,000 people homeless.

The Shiv Sena continued to victimise the Ambedkarite dalits, particularly in the areas of Marathwada and Vidarbha, with the active support of upper caste Hindus and the feudal elements, who despised the growing social and political assertion of the Dalits. For instance on 11 August 1991, two brothers who were from Mahar community were beaten to death in a mob attack in Gothala village in Latur district by the Shiv Saniks. The role that Thackeray and his Shiv Sena played has been widely analysed and is too well-known to be narrated here. But what needs to be remembered is that when the BJP-Sena coalition government was formed, one of its first acts was to withdraw over 1,100 cases on Dalits.

He kept on denigrating Ambedkar and humiliating the dalits, opposing them wherever they asserted themselves and physically eliminating then when they posed a danger to the hegemony of the upper caste or the existing feudal class in the backward areas of Maharashtra. Yet the dalit leadership had degenerated to such an extent that they kow-towed to him in the name of ‘gaining political power for the community’. Ramdas Athvale, Namdeo Dhasal – one of the founders of Dalit Panthers and Jogendra Kawade, all sang paeans to him. While Thackeray and his cohorts kept on insulting Ambedkar and the Dalits, even to extent of raising question on the character of Bhimabai (Ambedkar’s mother), and calling Ambedkar a stooge of the Nizam and a pumpkin wearing spectacles, the Dalit leaders kept quiet and longed for Thackeray’s company. Political power comes with price!

Even after spitting all the venom, by the mid- 1980s the Shiv Sena and Thackeray, became marginalised. The Sena had not been able to expand considerably outside the Mumbai-Thane belt, and the role of Thackeray was confined to being a nuisance of Maharashtra politics, a fringe actor whose best was over and the only part he and his organisation could play was of helping the Congress which indulged in extortion, land grab, mafia activity and keeping a check on the working class or Dalits by acting as the militia of the Congress or the industrialists.

Sena and Thackeray got a lease of life in the mid 1980s when the situation in the country got charged communally in the wake of the deteriorating economic situation and the RSS inflaming communal passions. Capitalising on events like the Meenakshipuram conversions, terrorism in Punjab and Kashmir, Christian missionary activities in the north-east and so on, the VHP began to make direct appeals for Hindu consolidation to meet these challenges. Ganga Jal yatras were taken out across the country and the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute was deliberately raked up.  The communal cauldron was being stirred up by the saffron brigade. (Ashok Dhawale, Rise and Fall of Shiv Sena: The Campaign of Violence and Hatred violen...&name=Ashok+Dhawale&cat=filter&showads=1)

Thackeray capitalised on the growing communal situation. The Sena orchestrated the grisly Bhiwandi, Kalyan, Thane and Mumbai riots in which it as instrumental in massacring at least 258 Muslims and injuring thousands of them. This was done in May 1984. The pretext of this incident was that Bal Thackeray had made some derogatory comment on prophet Muhammad which was printed in Urdu press. A Congress MLA by name of A.R.Khan organised a large muslim protest in which his photo was garlanded with shoes. This was enough to infuriate the Sena who took to streets indulging in mayhem against the minority community. The most ghastly of the massacre took place in Ansari Baug at Bhiwandi. It has been proved that the entire operation was undertaken by the Shiv Saniks at the order of Thackeray, yet no action was taken against them. The preparation for this event was going on for almost two months yet the state administration did nothing to prevent the marauding Sena, in fact the role of the police was questioned as it was reported to be indulging into helping the Sainiks. The Mumbai police claimed ‘We are Shiv Sainiks under our uniforms.’ The city’s police commissioner, Julio Rebeiro, had to ask: ‘I want to know who is ruling this city – the administration or the Shiv Sena? When orders were given clearly to use force and beat the Shiv Sainiks who are going around ordering shops to close, the local police failed to do so’ (Indian Express, 30 June 1984).

But the case of Thane during the 1984 riots was revealing. A local Bharatiya Janata Party leader said after the riots that of the 57 persons killed in Thane, 55 had been Muslims, and two others had been killed for sheltering Muslims. There was no retaliation by Muslims in Thane. As the former Sena mayor and later Member of Parliament put it:  Thokaichey hotey, thokle (we decided to hammer them and we did). Even Muslim Shiv Sainiks, as well as those old-timers who were so integrated with their Marathi-speaking neighbours that you could not tell them apart, were not spared. (Jyoti Punwani, Bal Thackeray, A Politics of Violence, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XLVII No. 47-48, December 1, 2012).

The riots paid handsome dividends for the Sena as it was able to win the Mumbai’s Municipal Corporation for the first time ably assisted by the Congress Chief Minister Vasantdada Patil who exonerated Thackeray from all crime. The demand for judicial investigation was also rejected. However the Shiv Sena shakha pramukh  Madhukar Sarpotdar was arrested under the National Security Act along with the underworld dons Haji Mastan and Karim Lala. All the three of them were released a few days after the riot when Sena helped Congress elect its nominee as the speaker of Maharashtra assembly.

The 1984 riots were the prelude to much larger pogrom that the Sena was to undertake in 1992-93. The Justice B N Srikrishna Commission indicted Thackeray with the words, ‘like a veteran general, (he) commanded his loyal Shiv Sainiks to retaliate by organised attacks against Muslims’. By then Thackeray had become experienced and bold enough in minority baiting. It did not require any help from outside. Samana the daily he launched in 1989, was his organ of hate, where he was spewing venom day in and day out against the muslims castigating them as anti-national fanatics. Statements like ‘[muslims reside in] mohallas in which flowed streams of treason and poison’ or the celebration in the newspaper of the burning of mosques by ‘patriotic youth in this dharmyuddh, mosques which have become store houses of unauthorised arms’. The pages of this newspaper are replete with such slanders against the muslims.

The Shiv Sainiks continued their pogrom unabated.

In January 1993, Shiv Sainiks were charged with stripping, burning and mutilating Muslim women, stoning unarmed muslim men to death, and then burning their bodies to chants of ‘Jai Sri Ram’. Eyewitnesses told the Srikrishna Commission that they did not spare even handicapped boys. After all this, they got the best Sena lawyers to defend them. (Jyoti Punwani, op.cit.)

The Sena had utilised riots to increase its stronghold. After the 1984 riots they won the Bombay Municipal Corporation, subsequent riots saw their influence increasing in other cities and areas of Maharashtra like Nasik, Nanded, Augangabad and finally the 1992-93 riots catapulted it to the state power in 1995.

Once in power Sena was no different from the previous Congress governments. It reneged on all its promises and was seen to be equally corrupt and nepotist. By 1999 the people of the state were disillusioned by the son of the soil, summarily rejecting them in 2000 polls. Since then Thackeray and the Sena were out of power doing what they were best at, spewing hatred against one and all.


Thackeray made the snarling tiger his party’s emblem and always portrayed himself as the Hindu’s commander, yet when one looks at his reactions to pressure, the clay feet became evident. Thackeray during the emergency initially criticised it, but when Indira Gandhi took cognisance of his position, he backtracked and started singing paeans of praise to it. He not only eulogised Indira Gandhi but also her son Sanjay Gandhi. During the entire period of emergency he and his Sena went completely docile, raising no contentious issues or doing any agitations lest it infuriate Indira or Sanjay Gandhi. It is believed that he took this stand as the prospect of long jail term terrified him. Thackeray had gone to jail briefly once in 1969 which was enough to terrify him to do anything to avoid it.

Similarly when in 1993 bombs (the attacks were coordinated by Dawood Ibrahim the underworld mafia of Mumbai) went off outside the Shiv Sena's office in Mumbai, Thackeray opted for a conciliatory approach.

When he died a natural death everyone from the politicians to the film personalities to the industrialists went over one another in praising the man, but this was a man who epitomised and institutionalised chauvinism, corruption and divisiveness for his own selfish interest. He instigated and more than once is believed to have ordered the liquidation of people of the common masses and his opponents yet due to the contradictions of the ruling class he went unpunished. The Communists were best placed to oppose the growth of communalism and the rise of Shiv Sena, but then revisionism had taken its toll.

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