For India’s Democracy – Bal Thackeray’s Legacy Spells Doom, While Shaheen’s Courage Holds Out Hope

The events that followed the death of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray raise questions about the health of India’s democracy. Thackeray – whose political career of four and a half decades was one of calculated hate-mongering, and who built the Shiv Sena around an agenda of vicious communal and regional-chauvinist violence, was given an official state funeral by the Maharashtra Government. He was wrapped in the national tricolour, and received a 12-gun salute. The President of India praised his work for the ‘ordinary man’, and the Prime Minister, likewise, praised him for his efforts on behalf of Maharashtra. A few days before Thackeray’s death, Digvijaya Singh, the designated propagandist for Congress’s secular posturing, said Thackeray was a “fighter” all his life and would also “fight” his illness. Laloo and Nitish alike expressed grief at the passing of the Bihar—basher. In death, therefore, Bal Thackeray achieved the success of having his brand of fascist politics endorsed in precisely the terms he sought – as equivalent with ‘nationalism’ and Maharashtra’s pride. His funeral was a virtual Who’s Who of film and cricket stars.

The Congress government of the late 1960s promoted Thackeray and the Shiv Sena as an (ultimately successful) ploy to destabilise and decimate Mumbai’s powerful working class movement. The Shiv Sena made its political debut in 1967 by burning down the CPI’s legendary Girni Kamgar Union office, followed by the assassination of popular Trade Union leader and CPI’s sitting MLA Krishna Desai in 1970. Thackeray congratulated the Sainiks for that assassination, declaring that it should serve as a warning to the ‘Lal Bhais’ (Red Comrades). In the by-election that followed, the Shiv Sena defeated the CPI, and elected the first-ever Shiv Sena MLA. So, the first targets of the Shiv Sena’s bloody campaign of fascist terror were the Red unions and working class militancy. The Shiv Sena, which began life as the Congress’ muscle against the working class, then emerged as a force in its own right.

It was a time when the mighty mills of Mumbai were being closed down, to pave the way for a textile industry dominated by private corporate players like Dhirubai Ambani. The Shiv Sena, having waged war on and defeated the Left-led trade union movement with the backing of the Congress Government, then proceeded to divide the working class by mobilising Marathi workers on a son-of-the-soil plank against the migrant workers. The Shiv Sena tested out its son-of-the-soil plank with violent attacks on Kannadiga workers in 1969. (It is ironic that today, the BJP and Sangh Parivar are trying to recreate the same Shiv Sena type of son-of-the-soil politics in Karnataka, mobilising Kannadiga workers against the other migrants!)

The Marathi manoos political plank resonated mainly in the metropolis of Mumbai. The Shiv Sena acquired a wider base only when it adopted a virulent communal politics masquerading as nationalism, targeting the Muslim minority. Thackeray made no secret of his admiration for Hitler’s fascist politics. The crowds at Thackeray’s funeral indicated the hegemony his brand of fascist politics achieved in Mumbai: a hegemony that has destroyed the life-spirit of the city that once called upon people from all over the whole country to sing ‘Ye hai Bombay meri jaan’ (This is Bombay my love).

The corporate media, top TV anchors and print columnists, all abandoned any measure of rational or honest assessment, valorising Thackeray as a Marathi and Hindu hero. A story released by ANI said, “Social issues such as immigration and communalism were of particular interest to him in the context of national well being and welfare”. So, the communal pogrom of Mumbai 1992-93, and organised violence against migrants, have been sanitised to become innocuous sounding “social issues of immigration and communalism” and examples of “national well being and welfare”!

But the media’s rosy remix of Thackeray’s legacy got a jarring reality check. A young woman, 21-year-old Shaheed Dhada, dared to declare that the Emperor wore no clothes. In a post on Facebook, she said “With all respect, every day, thousands of people die, but still the world moves on. Just due to one politician died a natural death, everyone just goes bonkers. They should know, we are resilient by force, not by choice. When was the last time, did anyone showed some respect or even a two-minute silence for Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Azad, Sukhdev or any of the people because of whom we are free-living Indians? Respect is earned, given, and definitely not forced. Today, Mumbai shuts down due to fear, not due to respect.” Her friend Renu ‘liked’ the post. Within half an hour the police (in a Congress-ruled state!) were at her door, and both young women were arrested, to be released later on bail. A Shiv Sena mob vandalised Shaheen’s uncle’s dental clinic. The fact that Shaheen is a Muslim who dared to express a critical opinion of Thackeray’s funeral was enough to mark her as a fit target for Shiv Sena’s reign of terror.

Congress governments and their police never arrested Thackeray (or his nephew Raj Thackeray) for publicly spouting vitriol and whipping up violence against Muslims and Biharis. But a Congress government rushed to arrest two 21-year-old women for expressing an opinion!

Following a national uproar, the Congress Governments at the Centre and in Maharashtra have promised to punish police officers responsible for the arrest. But even as the Maharashtra Government had to retreat from the arrest with embarrassment, senior Congress leaders like Harish Rawat and Abhishek Manu Singhvi, instead of apologising for this outrageous assault on civil liberties which befits a totalitarian state rather than the ‘world’s largest democracy’, advised people to be ‘careful and cautious’ about what they say and when, on an occasion of the death of a man of Thackeray’s ‘stature’!

Yet again, the ‘secular’ Congress, the much-vaunted Indian free media, and other proud democratic institutions have given us little cause for hope, in the face of the fascist brand of politics. But the ray of hope does come from young Shaheen and Renu – whose courage exposed the real content of Thackeray’s legacy, and forced the media and ruling class to change the discourse surrounding Thackeray’s death.

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