Some decades ago, when the Shiv Sena—led by its founder and unapologetic Hindutva mascot Bal Thackeray—issued warnings to shopkeepers in Mumbai to change their signboards from English to Marathi, few paid heed. Some days later, the verbal warnings took on a violent shape when lathi-wielding Shiv Sainiks took to the streets and vandalised the signboards. Even shops owned by Maharashtrians were not spared as they sported English signboards. In the years since then, the party’s promotional agenda for Marathi has been marred by violence. Old-timers who lived through the era, when the Shiv Sena’s “only Marathi language in Mumbai” agenda had become its central theme, say that the party had not moved any further. “Though the party had steadfastly held on to the Marathi agenda, the leaders have not followed it in their own lives. The children of all the leaders have studied in expensive English-medium schools and colleges. Emulating them, the cadre too sent their children to English-medium schools. So essentially, it was a half-hearted attempt to impose Marathi on the non-Marathi speaking people,” says a historian who has closely followed the development of the party over the years.
Despite the tough posturing by the Shiv Sena and the violent agitations, senior leaders of the party confess that the Marathi language is on a downward spiral. “I have been with the party for decades. My wife was firm that our children would not study in a Marathi-medium school. My grandchildren live abroad and have no connect with Marathi,” a senior party member tells Outlook requesting anonymity. The children of the incumbent Shiv Sena chief and chief minister Uddhav Thackeray, the children of his siblings, including the ones of his cousin Raj Thackeray—the chief of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena—all studied in top English-medium institutions run by Jesuit priests, even as the party was imposing its Marathi-only diktat.