The year 1956 was of great tumult for Western India. The Government had just created the great bilingual Bombay State, which included most of what now constitutes as Maharashtra and Gujarat. The idea of the Bombay State had support in New Delhi, where Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel were hesitant to divide the country along linguistic lines, and in Bombay itself, where city elites like JRD Tata were concerned that a pure Marathi state may drown out the cosmopolitan nature of Bombay city. However, the idea had no traction among large sections of both Marathi and Gujarati societies which were in uproar. And so began a four year long struggle of strikes, violence and vandalism, which finally resulted in creation of Maharashtra and Gujarat in 1960, after several people had died in the protests.
It was in these turbulent times that Bal Thackeray began his career as a cartoonist. He was son of KS Thackeray, a progressive Marathi leader of 1930s, who gave him a fervent hatred for communism and a caustic tongue in legacy. Thackeray’s early cartoons, published in the English daily Free Press Journal, suggest mind of a well-read young man concerned about international issues like world peace, Middle East crisis and the European discrimination against third-world countries.
In 1960 Thackeray started Marmik, a Marathi magazine of his own, which was well-received in Mumbai for its hostile attitude towards communism. But the magazine really took off after 1964, when it broached upon the “outsider” issue and invented the concept of Marathi Manoos. It had been four years since the creation of Maharashtra but the Marathi people in Mumbai were seeing no change in the socio-economic conditions, especially on the job front where they faced stiff competition from South Indians, Gujaratis and Parsis. Accordingly, issues raised in Marmik found tremendous resonance among them.
When Thackeray started Shiv Sena in 1966, he had no political connection, funding or resources, save the fan following he had generated from the magazine. But he quickly found support from the ruling Congress, which was facing stiff competition from many including former Nehru ally Krishna Menon. And so began a decades-long alliance between Congress and Shiv Sena, where the Sena was used as the tool for Congress to shore up its right-wing bases.
Shiv Sena had begun with the Marathi identity issue, but it had nowhere to go in that direction. Its demand of 80% job reservation for the Marathis was as unrealistic then as it is today. Thackeray quickly realized this and made his first pivot. By early 70s, the “outsider problem” had been put on the backburner and fight against communists became Shiv Sena’s first order of business. Shiv Sena began infiltrating and then taking over hordes of labour unions that existed in Mumbai, forming a cooperative relationship with the industrialists in the process.
Thackeray also started giving Sena a violent image, with attacks on Udupi restaurants and alleged involvement in murders of prominent communists. Shiv Sena branches – shakhas – were opened in every community, designed to assume the role of community’s hub. Primary function of the shakha was not political but as a job exchange, where young Marathis could find connections for employment. This way Sena could integrate itself further into Marathi fabric.
By the beginning of 1980s, Sena was in trouble. Congress had all but hijacked its Marathi identity issues, playing on them better than Sena could. Meanwhile, communism was losing its force in Maharashtra, taking away another target from Thackeray’s sights. And so he made the second pivot, reinventing Sena into the Hindutva party. In 1980s and early 90s, Sena saturated Maharashtra with communal rhetoric and openly claimed to have participated in several anti-Muslim riots. This coincided with the rise of BJP in the country and the two parties quickly formed a partnership. Hindutva was also a topic of wider appeal than anti-communism or regionalism, and for the first time Shiv Sena started growing outside Mumbai as well.
However, by 1995 when Shiv Sena-BJP combine came to power in Maharashtra for the first time, tide of Hindutva was already ebbing, giving way to the concerns over liberalization. Meanwhile, the Shiv Sena was facing other challenges, not just from other political parties, but also from criminal organizations. Most notably, the underworld don Arun Gawli, created the Akhil Bartiya Sena (ABS), which began encroaching on Sena’s turf of collecting “protection money”/donations from the local businessmen. Many of ABS leaders were killed in police encounters, during Shiv Sena-BJP rule in Maharashtra.
As a ruling party, Shiv Sena did try to reinvent itself once more, going for beautification of Mumabi as its primary objective. But this was a weak plank, rejected by the voters in the very next election. Under these pressures, Thackeray was undoubtedly planning his third pivot, this time back to “outsiders” but targeting Bhaiyyas from UP and Bihar instead of Madrasis. But his nephew, Raj Thackeray jumped the gun, stealing the issue for his newly-formed MNS. And so Shiv Sena, drifted into a weaker position, having to compete on its home turf.
In his last years, Thackeray had lost much of his strength. One imagines, death of his wife and first son in 1990s, split with his protégé nephew and old age must have taken their toll. But maybe, it was also the sea change that had come in Mumbai in the last fifty years. Today’s issues of economic liberalization, terrorism and Valentine’s Day were a world apart from the 60’s problems of South Indian encroachment of jobs and communism. Thackeray was, at least at in his youth, a fervent believer of the ideologies he espoused.
One can’t help but wonder what he thought of the fact that his only legacy is his title “the man who could shut down Mumbai on a whim.”
Sources: Eckert, Julia M, The Charisma of Direct Action, Oxford University Press, 2003; Katzenstein, Mary F, Origins of Nativism, Asian Survey, April 1973; Katzenstein et al., The Rebirth of Shiv Sena, The Journal of Asian Studies, May 1997; Lele, Jayant, Safforonization of Shiv Sena, Economic and Political Weekly, June 1995; Guha, Ramchandra, India after Gandhi, MacMillan, London, 2007