Mumbai on Edge With Shiv Sena Founder Bal Thackeray Ill

As Bal Thackeray, founder of one of India’s most violent political groups, lies on his death bed, Mumbai is silent in fear. By Dilip D’Souza.

AP Photo

In August 2001, a politician in Thane, the sprawling city northeast of Mumbai, died in the Singhania hospital there. His name was Anand Dighe. He must have been some kind of popular figure in Thane, because when the city got news of his death, a crowd of his supporters "spontaneously" expressed the "grief."

What form did this expression take?

Well, they looted and burned a garment store nearby. They siphoned out the fuel from several parked ambulances, then overturned them and set them on fire, along with 30 cars and three buses. They beat up several journalists, though two particularly intrepid ones escaped the thrashing by feigning death. (This is true.) As if all this wasn’t nauseating enough, they attacked the hospital and went after its nurses. No, it’s worse still. They went after its patients. One, suffering from renal failure, had been in the ICU bed next to Dighe. He had to rouse himself and run for his life through the hospital, hiding with the terrified nurses behind locked doors. “I had given up hope,” his son told the press later. “I thought I would lose my father.”

He survived, but what was lost instead was the hospital. Severely damaged by this outpouring of “grief,” it closed down for good some weeks later.

Imagine the city of Baltimore losing a major hospital because a politician died there.

Many of us Mumbai residents have Dighe on our minds today, Friday

November 16. Because the big chief of his party, the Shiv Sena, went on life support two days ago. Bal Thackeray’s health has been declining for weeks, but two nights ago it suddenly grew much worse. To such an extent that the talk when I woke on Thursday morning—corner store owner, garbage collector, plenty like that—was that he had died. As I write this, he hasn’t died, but remains “critical.”

So we wonder: If the death of a relatively minor party functionary like Dighe set off the 2001 mayhem, what will the death of the party patriarch cause the faithful to do?

Thackeray founded the Shiv Sena (“Army of Shivaji,” the heroic medieval warrior-king of Maharashtra) in the 1960s, on the rhetoric of “Maharashtra for Maharashtrians.” Over the years, cleaving to that rhetoric, they have attacked a number of different targets: South Indians, people from the state of Gujarat, Muslims, North Indians. Most damningly, an official inquiry found them guilty of perpetrating much of the violence that set Mumbai aflame in December 1992 and January 1993. Thackeray, it said, “like a veteran general, commanded his loyal Shiv Sainiks to retaliate by organized attacks against Muslims.”

So yes, what will the death of this veteran general cause his loyal men to do?

Though actually we already have some answers. Through the night, the faithful gathered around Thackeray’s home. They vandalized a TV broadcast van. They attacked photographers and journalists, calling them “vultures” (which might raise the question, what are they?). They broke apart a police post. In parts of the city, they threw stones. When the actor Amitabh Bachchan arrived to visit Thackeray, they manhandled him, tearing his clothes and injuring him; he had to be treated inside the house by Thackeray’s own doctors. One TV reporter spoke of “sporadic incidents of vandalism by [supporters] aggrieved by the condition of Thackeray.” One news report spoke of “the air of terror that hung outside [Thackeray’s home].”

This was no exaggeration: Thackeray’s son, Uddhav, himself made a midnight appearance outside the home to ask supporters to maintain peace and not indulge in violence. By daybreak, over 1,000 police and paramilitary men had moved into place to prevent more trouble.

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Across Mumbai, people have stayed home. Streets are empty, public transport is virtually nonexistent. Shiv Sena supporters have forced shops to close down; some closed down anyway, anticipating such force; and the cherry on top was that the police actually asked some other shop owners to close.

Imagine the city of London shutting down because a politician is on life support. Yes: this much in Mumbai because Thackeray is in that state. What will his supporters do later?

Yet the astonishing thing is that reports like these are music to the ears of the Shiv Sena. Here’s proof of our supremo’s hold over Mumbai, they think. This is our power, our glory: we can shut down a city of 15 million just like that. And so many cops! All over the place! He’s such an important man!

Now there’s no denying the hold Thackeray has over millions of minds in Maharashtra, the state of which Mumbai is the capital. From the time in the mid-’60s when he founded his party, he tapped into something elemental and deep in the psyche of many Maharashtrians, a subject worthy of study by itself. Your jobs are being taken away by outsiders, he said. Our language and culture are being eroded, he said. We Maharashtrians are being reduced to second-class citizens on our own soil, he said, and nobody respects us any more.

Many of his fans will tell you that he restored a wounded Maharashtrian pride with such rhetoric.

No doubt there’s some truth here. For one example, Mumbai is likely the one state capital in the country where, if you step off a plane, you won’t immediately hear the state language, Marathi. That is because the city is a polyglot melting pot, but even so, it is a shame that more of us who live here don’t speak the local language, one with a beauty and vibrancy all its own.

Yet you wonder. In the mid-60s, the Shiv Sena spoke of the erosion of

Marathi. In the mid-60s, they spoke of outsiders taking away jobs. This was what brought them their fervent support. But nearly half a century later, they speak of the same things. Which must raise the question: in all these years, what have they done to halt the erosion of Marathi, to give jobs to unemployed Maharashtrians?

What have they done to bolster that Maharashtrian pride? What have they done to restore an apparently lost respect?

Nearly rhetorical questions themselves, of course. “Nearly,” because

Shiv Sena supporters will answer them by pointing to the ranks of policemen outside Thackeray’s home, by reveling in their power to shut down a city.

And yet: they will never see it this way, but in forcing shops to shut down, for example, Thackeray’s supporters unwittingly lay bare his true legacy. Which is violence and mayhem, continuing hatred, and a quivering xenophobia. Which is that the Shiv Sena, at nearly half a century, is forced to demand and enforce something they think is respect, instead of earning the real thing, willingly offered.

It’s that simple.

How then can they earn the real thing? Here’s just one suggestion.

Offer quality, cheap, and plentiful classes in Marathi. Watch how a language is revived. There’s a legacy worth savoring.

The vandalism? Spare us. It earns contempt.