Two days after Bal Thackeray’s death on November 17, it was obvious that his toxic legacy would continue to haunt Mumbai, proving unrealistic the hope that his passing could serve as a moment of catharsis for this scarred, if resilient, city. Thackeray might well himself have scripted the events that followed his death. Even while the Shiv Sena insisted that it had not called a bandh, the city voluntarily shut down in fear of the anticipated wrath of the party. On November 19, the Mumbai police, at the behest of Sena leader Bhushan Sankhe, arrested a 21-year-old Muslim girl, Shaheen Dhada, for a Facebook post in which she questioned the right of the Sena to force the city shut and drew attention to the contradiction in threatening people into showing respect. They also arrested her friend Rini Srinivasan for responding to Dhada’s post with a ‘Like’ on the site.
Business as usual, as anyone who has lived in Mumbai would know. And yet, if one were to take at face value the reactions of Indian mediapersons, politicians and celebrities to Thackeray’s death—public, conspicuously visible even, performances of grief alloyed with generous lashings of love—one might be forgiven for believing that they were talking about an entirely different person altogether.
Indeed, in their response to Thackeray’s death, these three incestuously interconnected sectors of Indian society have been guilty of colluding in a massive act of amnesia. They have steadfastly refused to address the lengthy record of Shiv Sena violence and threats against Tamilians, Gujaratis and UPites, the Sena’s collusion with industrialists to break the backs of mill workers and unions in Bombay in the 1970s, the degradation of the political culture of Mumbai and Maharashtra, and the general destruction of the city’s cosmopolitan culture. When these less savoury aspects of Thackeray’s life and career have been acknowledged by commentators, they have been typically balanced—according to some spurious notion of journalistic objectivity, one suspects—by paeans to his personal charisma, commitment to Marathi pride, political acumen, ability to gauge the pulse of the people, and so on. Or they have been subsumed within larger narratives that efface or mitigate the violence or humanise Thackeray. (He was good and bad / He was an enigma / He was sweet to me / He loved beer / He was a bundle of contradictions).
The Indian media prides itself on its independence, its critical eye, its ability to speak truth to power. Indian celebrities fancy themselves as socially responsible intellectuals. Its politicians routinely remind the world of the glorious vibrancy and dynamism of the “world’s largest democracy”. But neither the conventions of in-house obituary boilerplate nor the pithy wisdom of the tweets emanating from the finest minds in Indian journalism, celebrityhood and politics have spoken in any honest way about Thackeray’s role in one of the most disgraceful episodes in independent India’s history—the pogrom against Bombay’s Muslim communities in 1992 and 1993. When they have pointed to Thackeray’s involvement, they have refused to ask the difficult but obvious questions that follow; about justice, rights, accountability and rule of law, but also about tolerance, coexistence and our responsibility to our fellow citizens and fellow human beings.
This is Thackeray’s real legacy. To make political violence so routine that it ceases to outrage. To make the strategy of scapegoating and targeting particular ethnic, religious or political groups part of the calculus of everyday politics. To make fear and intimidation a legitimate part of political leadership. And to constantly remind potential critics, media or otherwise, of the threat of violent reprisal for saying something Thackeray and his thugs might not appreciate. No less a part of his legacy is the fact that the political establishment, the celebrities and the mediapersons, who fawned over him when he was alive as much as they have done at the moment of his death, appear to have quiescently accepted all of this.
In recent years, observers on the political situation in Maharashtra have sometimes described the Shiv Sena as a spent force, one that was condemned to lose its long-term political battles because there appeared to be no coherent objective that it was fighting for. But in all these here mentioned (and other) poisonous and alarmingly permanent ways, there can be no doubt that Bal Thackeray won.
Mumbai returns to “normal” after the bandh, several articles in newspapers noted, compelling us to ask what constitutes the “new normal” in civic life in the city. Interestingly, many of the people who had shed virtual tears for Thackeray on Twitter have also expressed outrage at the Sena’s persecution of Shaheen Dhada and Rini Srinivasan. This either suggests an insincerity in their tributes to Thackeray or points to an astounding inability to make simple inferences about his noxious impact on Mumbai’s political culture. Or it may indicate a remarkable Gandhian ability to see the good in the founder of a party that responds to the mildest criticism with political intimidation and brute violence.
The free pass afforded to Bal Thackeray also tells us something about the pathologies of Indian life, which produced and made Bal Thackeray possible: pathologies shared across those who identify themselves as secular and those who rant against pseudo-secularists; pathologies that unite the south Bombay whisky-drinking, rugby-playing, Bombay Gym types with the Dadar Hindu colony sons-of-the-soil; pathologies that allow diasporic Hindu nationalists in Silicon Valley and Shiv Sena footsoldiers alike to believe that they are the victims of a secret cabal of Muslims, Marxists and Macaulayites. Thackeray did not, then, come out of nowhere. He was not the creation simply of disaffected subaltern Maharashtrian communities or of middle-class Maharashtrian communities who felt outsiders had snatched what was their due. He represented something central to Indian political society—not an essentialist, ahistorical tendency but a historically produced capacity for using violence as a form of political reason, the absence of a coherent vision of solidarity that could respect similarity and difference, and the many deep failures of post-colonial India that our exceptionalist pieties about Indian tolerance, coexistence and secularism often obscure. In seeking to redefine Mumbai as the property of the Thackeray family, Shiv Sena and Maharashtrians, Thackeray simply presented an extreme version of the claims of cultural sovereignty and ownership common to Indian political discourse, from the local to the national level.
The list of those who have participated in laundering Bal Thackeray’s legacy is a veritable who’s who of contemporary Indian political, social and cultural life; from the prime minister and president to editors and anchors at mainstream Indian news organisations. The mix of equivocation, willed forgetting and silence that has characterised the elite’s responses to Thackeray’s life bears ominous implications for Indian democracy. It authorises a version of public memory in which the idea of Thackeray as a heroic, if misguided, nationalist obscures the genocidal violence and suffering inflicted upon the victims of the 1992-1993 riots. It represents an act of symbolic violence, made all the more painful by the fact that elected representatives of the state have participated in Thackeray’s deification. The complicity of officials in refusing to prosecute Thackeray for his role in the 1992-1993 communal riots, for instance, is echoed in the willingness of state authorities to grant Thackeray a state funeral.
On November 21, Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, the sole captured and only surviving member of the terrorists who attacked Mumbai on November 26, 2008, was hanged to death. Afterwards, an article on the Reuters website notes Salman Khurshid, minister for external affairs, as stating that the “law of the land” was followed through the entire process, presumably referring to the trial, conviction and execution. Khurshid goes on to say, “This is a signal to the whole world that there is rule of law in the country. Everyone is treated the same and everything was done in a transparent manner.” The countless people terrorised by Thackeray and his thugs over the decades may well disagree with that sentiment.
(Rohit Chopra is assistant professor of Communication, Santa Clara University, USA. He blogs at Chapati Mystery as Sanyasi.)
Apropos Rohit Chopra’s piece We are all Thackerays (Dec 3), to focus on provincial divisiveness alone to define Thackeray’s brand of politics would be a mistake. For, his was less a political party than a gang of hooligans run by a hate-monger. That’s living proof that India’s democracy will never really have rule of law or public life devoid of identity politics.
Dipto C., New York
Really, Outlook, publishing such sub-optimal stuff from convoluted bloggers like Rohit Chopra is beneath you. Is this the ‘toxic legacy’ we have to live with from now on?
Shreenivas S., Bangalore
Rohit Chopra’s column (We Are All Thackerays) was written with compelling clarity and objectivity. A small problem though. The routine characterisation of Mumbai as ‘resilient’ and ‘scarred’ is tired, and rings false. What kind of resilience are we talking about? The kind Gaza or Beirut have shown? Or is this just another name for willed amnesia and the urge to ‘move on’?
It’s interesting to look back and see how Thackeray could abuse heads of state one day, and seek alliances with them the next. His opponents had no alternative but to take it on the chin.
J.S. Acharya, Hyderabad
Written with clarity and objectivity which is compelling. There is one small problem though: the routine characterisation of Mumbai as 'scarred' and 'resilient' is tired and rather false. What kind of 'resilience' is being admired? Is it the kind that Gaza or Beirut have shown? Or is it just another name for willed amnesia and urge to 'move on'?
Good last paragraph!
It will be wrong to focus only on provincial divisiveness to define Thackeray's brand of politics. Thackeray was a hate monger who ran a outfit that resembles more a gang of hooligans and less a political party. Interestingly, in India's most multi-cultural city of Mumbai Thackeray could reign for six decades preaching anti-migrant hatred as more and more migrants continued to thrive there as well.
The government took measures to curb Kashmiri and Khalistani separatism and the secessionist movements in the North East and Assam. But Shiv Sena's hate-filled agenda of demonizing non-Marathis were never challenged. Law enforcement authorities were given a free hand to eliminate crime gangs of Mumbai. Dons like Dawood Ibrahim had to flee Mumbai. Yet nobody dared to act against Thackeray for Sena's involvement in hate attacks, communal riots and vandalism. More importantly, he enjoyed impugnity in spite of the fact that only 5 years in the last six decades Sena ever came to power in Maharasthtra. Mumbai's rich and the powerful, the celebrities and business people were in awe to a personality who crafted his own law and order. The huge gathering of mourners at his funeral and the reaction of politicians across parties point out that the divisive politics was endorsed by many.
Actually Thackeray was the living proof that India's democracy could never produce the rule of law nor discourage identity politics .
"Identity politics" is at the very root of the crisis in India today. Ethnic groups, language groups, lineage groups, territorial clusters of castes, religioius groups and scores of other such identities have resulted in making India not a nation, but a cluster of identity groups. Politicians exploit these fissures in order to create fo themselve temporary numerical advantage and win the elections. The Marathi Manoos, the Tamizhan, the Bhadralok, the Telugu Bidda etc are all volatile identities waiting to be ignited to violence.
THERE IS NOT AN OUNCE OF DIFFERENCE BTW THE SONS OF SOIL THEORY OF BALASAHEB THACKERAY AND THE ARTICLE 370 OF INDIAN CONSTITUTION..
So, the ills of creating a Thackeray (who died recently) directly stems from the Constitutional Law that allowed one state in India to give special privileges to itself to prevent outsiders from settling..
Are not all people of India equal? So if Article 370 applies to J&K alone is it not a open challenge to principle of equity?
Thackeray and his Marathi Manoos is just the symptoms, the root cause is there in our own Nehru Defined constitution that made one state superior, that made one language alone as National language.
YOU SOW WHAT YOU REAP... Thackeray is gone but there will be more such people. And the next Thackeray may not be ready to accomodate with ruling establishment .
We at Outlookindia.com welcome feedback and your comments, including scathing criticism
1. Scathing, passionate, even angry critiques are welcome, but please do not indulge in abuse and invective. Our Primary concern is to keep the debate civil. We urge our users to try and express their disagreements without being disagreeable. Personal attacks are not welcome. No ad hominem please.
2. Please do not post the same message again and again in the same or different threads
3. Please keep your responses confined to the subject matter of the article you are responding to. Please note that our comments section is not a general free-for-all but for feedback to articles/blogs posted on the site
4. Our endeavour is to keep these forums unmoderated and unexpurgated. But if any of the above three conditions are violated, we reserve the right to delete any comment that we deem objectionable and also to withdraw posting privileges from the abuser. Please also note that hate-speech is punishable by law and in extreme circumstances, we may be forced to take legal action by tracing the IP addresses of the poster.
5. If someone is being abusive or personal, or generally being a troll or a flame-baiter, please do not descend to their level. The best response to such posters is to ignore them and send us a message at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT
6. Please do not copy and paste copyrighted material. If you do think that an article elsewhere has relevance to the point you wish to make, please only quote what is considered fair-use and provide a link to the article under question.
7. There is no particular outlookindia.com line on any subject. The views expressed in our opinion section are those of the author concerned and not that of all of outlookindia.com or all its authors.
8. Please also note that you are solely responsible for the comments posted by you on the site. The comments could be deleted or edited entirely at our discretion if we find them objectionable. However, the mere fact of their existence on our site does not mean that we necessarily approve of their contents. In short, the onus of responsibility for the comments remains solely with the authors thereof. Outlookindia.com or any of its group publications, may, however, retains the right to publish any of these comments, with or without editing, in any medium whatsoever. It is therefore in your own interest to be careful before posting.
9.Outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for how any search engine -- such as Google, Bing etc -- caches or displays these comments. Please note that you are solely responsible for posting these comments and it is a privilege being granted to our registered users which can be withdrawn in case of abuse. To reiterate:
a. Comments once posted can only be deleted at the discretion of outlookindia.com
b. The comments reflect the views of the authors and not of outlookindia.com
c. outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for the way search engines cache or display these comments
d. Please therefore take due caution before you post any comments as your words could potentially be used against you
10. We have an online thread for our comments policy:
You are welcome to post your suggestions here or in case you have a specific issue, to directly email us at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT