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.
EMS (left) with Nehru in 1957
The political crisis that unfolded in Kerala exactly a decade after independence was probably (one of the) first true litmus test for the Indian democracy- a test that the country certainly did not pass. It was a political clash involving violence, ideologies, populism, religion and ethnicities in which no actor was blameless, a political theatre that has been repeated innumerable times since. It is also a personal story, one of leaders – all of whom with the best of intentions – struggling with forces bigger than themselves.
In 1957, the Communist Party of India won Kerala’s assembly elections by a slim majority, forming the first communist state government in the country. At the height of Cold War (five years to Cuban Missile Crisis), this generated tremendous interest from around the world as one of the first democratically-elected communist governments. There were concerns within India as well including New Delhi.
However, Jawaharlal Nehru, having just returned as Prime Minister in the second national elections, had no qualms. While he saw Indian communists as out of step with contemporary India, he was willing to give the new democratically-elected state government a chance. He was further reassured by the communist party’s promise to act within the constitutional bounds.