On Sunday, a 21-gun salute signalled the first state funeral Mumbai had held since 1920. The previous time this grand ceremony was used in India’s largest city, it was to mark the death of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a founder of the country’s independence movement. This time, the guns were fired for a far more divisive figure whose influence transformed the face of Mumbai – and by extension of India – dramatically over the last 40 years.
Bal Thackeray, the founder of the radical Hindu-nationalist Shiv Sena movement, never held political office himself, but his actions fundamentally changed the shape of politics, the quality of day-to-day life, and even the name of this city of more than 20 million.
Born in 1926 in the city of Pune, Mr. Thackeray first attracted political notice with this cartoons in the weekly newspaper Marmik. Using provocative images and colloquial Marathi (the most popular of many languages spoken in Mumbai, and the tongue of its surrounding province of Maharashtra), he struck a chord among self-identified Maharashtrians with a “sons of soil,” philosophy asking why these members of the city’s linguistic majority were not economically successful in a state created for them through political negotiation in post-independence India.
Realizing the popularity of his ideas, he went on to found the Shiv Sena (literally warriors of Shivaji, a famed seventeenth-century Marathi warrior) in 1966. At first the political ideologues of the Sena blamed their troubles on South Indians, specifically those who came to Mumbai from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. According to Shiv Sena ideology not only did these Tamil speakers take jobs away from native Maharashtrians but they diluted local culture by encouraging education in English and Tamil.
For the next several years the Sena followed a turbulent path, winning victories in municipal elections, agitating for Marathi rights, and then almost disappearing from the political scene because of the party’s role in the long-running Mumbai textile strike.
However, in 1984 Mr. Thackeray rejuvenated the party, and gave it its modern face, by denouncing Indian Muslims in his annual address at Shivaji Park. These remarks signalled the party’s shift to promoting Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism. He built new political power on Shiv Sena’s argument that India was a Hindu country and religious minorities could remain in India only if they accepted Hindu dominance.
A specific target of Hindu nationalist politicians were Indian Muslims, described by Hindutva followers as anti-Indian by virtue of their religion. At the national level, this message was being circulated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which governed India in a coalition from 1998 to 2004, and received considerable popular support across northern India. By arguing that Muslims in India were working against national interests, Thackeray tied the Sena’s political future to Hindu nationalism and the BJP and Shiv Sena established an uneasy political alliance.
Bal Thackeray remained the party’s revered leader, reaching almost mythic status among the grassroots activists who refer to themselves as sainiks (warriors). Through his fiery speeches he provided the inspiration for the militant message of the Shiv Sena; a militancy represented in the party’s symbol, a tiger.
Many political observers blame Mr. Thackeray’s provocative columns published in the Sena’s paper Saamna and his militant public addresses for contributing to the rise of sectarian violence. It was his role in encouraging his followers to attack Muslims during the 1992-93 Hindu-Muslim riots following the destruction of the Babri Mosque by Hindu nationalists – riots that claimed some 900 lives – that drew the most controversy in political circles.
Hindu nationalism enabled the party to control the Mumbai municipal government for most of the past three decades. And after the 1995 elections, the Shiv Sena presided over a coalition that controlled the Maharashtra state legislature. The party’s leadership used this political opportunity to rename the city Mumbai, after the city’s patron deity the Hindu goddess Mumbadevi. Bal Thackeray argued that “Bombay” was a legacy of British colonialism while Mumbai acknowledged the city’s true Hindu Marathi identity.
Whether or not one agreed with his political ideology, there is no doubt that Bal Thackeray by founding the Shiv Sena captured and reflected the political mood of a large section of the Maharashtrian populace who felt their identity needed to be protected. Further, even his political detractors acknowledge his ready wit and public speaking skills. His brand of Hindu nationalism continues to be an important component of the political mosaic of not only Mumbai and Maharashtra but also contemporary India.
Sikata Banerjee, a professor of Women’s Studies and associate dean of Humanities at the University of Victoria, is the author of 'Warriors in Politics: Hindu Nationalism, Violence and the Shiv Sena in India and other works on nationalist politics in India.