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.)