July 24, 2021
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Ek Tha Tiger

Death and Bal Keshav Thackeray

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Ek Tha Tiger
Ek Tha Tiger

We have reasons to be grateful that Bal. K. Thackeray has died, a normal, natural death. Several of those whom he admired, didn’t. Adolf Hitler, the fellow ‘artist’ he often invoked, killed himself, his mistress and his dog. Indira Gandhi, and her son Sanjay, the mother and son firm of despots that Bal Thackeray endorsed, didn’t go gently into the night either. Sanjay Gandhi, the ‘bold young man’ whom Thackeray recognized as a fellow spirit, came spiralling down in his own airplane, demonstrating that the indifferent sky does occasionally listen  to the prayers of the earth to alleviate its burden. Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv both fell to the forces that their own ruling dispensation had nurtured, Khalistani zealots and the LTTE.  Bal Thackeray was lucky to have lived as long as he did, sipping his lukewarm beer, spitting out his bile. Very lucky. As for us, we are fortunate that Thackeray did not get to go down as a Maratha martyr, just as a lapsed cartoonist, a would-be caudillo and a has-been demagogue.

Had it been otherwise, had Thackeray been stopped mid-stride by a bomb or a bullet in much the same way as he had personally authorized the culling of many other lives, the city once known as Bombay would not have been  the way it is today—relieved to be back on its feet, and reasonably at peace with itself. And no one on television, especially on Times Now, would have had the marvellous opportunity to sing paeans on the day of the state funeral  (for someone, who, had he have made his career across the western border, they would not have hesitated to condemn as a  ‘non-state actor’ of the script of state sponsored terror) to how ‘nice’, and disciplined, the Sainiks had been, generally speaking.

Arnab Goswami’s enthusiastic eulogies to Bal Thackeray  the day before (segueing so perfectly to the really dignified muzak on the soundtrack) unfortunately left him with a slightly sore throat yesterday evening when he had to (rightly) take on Rahul Nervekar of the Shiv Sena on the unfortunate party-pooping embarrassment of the matter of two young women (a ‘Facebook poster’ and her friend, ‘the liker’) who had to be arrested  and then let out on bail by the police force of Palghar in Thane, Maharashtra, for daring to suggest that “just due to one politician died a natural death, everybody goes bonkers…today, Mumbai shuts down due to fear, not due to respect”.

How terrible it must be to eulogize the master at one moment, and then upbraid the disciple the next, for following faithfully in the precepts laid down by the master. It is the flawless straddling and negotiation of profound existential dilemmas such as these that makes Arnab Goswami and people like him in our midst such intellectual giants.

As we know by now, the clinic of an uncle of one of the young women was vandalized and patients had to be evacuated to make way for the sadness of Shiv Sainiks. The two women have posted bail for fifteen thousand rupees each and as of now, they still have to report each Wednesday to the police station so that the Maharashtra Police can ‘investigate’ their conduct.

Otherwise, this was such a lovely funeral. As family oriented as a Yash Chopra farewell, with film stars in attendance and Lataji and Amitji and  Sushmaji and Jijajis and Salijis and Netajis of various descriptions doing what they do best, offering 'bhavpoorn shraddhanjalis' (‘heartfelt homage’) at regular intervals.

I say ‘otherwise’, because November funerals have a way of going wrong. Horribly wrong. Those of us who have lived through the consequences of the repeated airing of the 'khoon ka badla khoon se lenge' (‘blood for blood’ ) slogans on television when Indira Gandhi’s bullet riddled body lay in state in Teen Murti Bhavan in Delhi on the 1st of November (a day after she had been shot) 1984 know to what extent grieving Gandhian congressmen could go to mourn their dear leader. A great tree fell, the ground shook, and a few thousand Sikhs were dispensed with in Delhi. Nothing really happened to the loyal riotous mourners, and the ruling party got the sympathy vote. Except for the fact that H.K.L. Bhagat, mourner-in-chief, and pogrom architect, apparently went mad in his declining years, and would be spotted stark naked, followed by his security detail, ranting to himself. The curse of some Trilokpuri widow might have found its mark. The curse of Naroda Patiya and Best Bakery might yet some day catch up with the man who said he had only followed  his ‘marg-darshak’ Thackeray’s inspiring footsteps to get to where he is today. I sincerely hope so. I hope it delivers an appropriately naked and pathetic form of dementia when its time comes.

Imagine what price Bombay might have had to pay for the grief of angry Shiv Sainiks, had the inevitability of the demise of the Hindu Hruday Samrat  / ‘Emperor of Hindu Hearts’ (Mark 1) not been as predictable, banal and medicated as it turned out to be in the end. Those who live by the sword, have a tendency to die by the sword. Thackeray lived by the sword, but thankfully, died on the ventilator.

Death and Bal Keshav Thackeray go back a long way. I doubt if any other Indian politician has the record of publicly handing out as many death threats as Bal Thackeray did in the course of his career. He made death threats in his speeches, interviews and his editorials. He called for war, for murder, for suicide squads, for retaliatory terrorism, for hanging, day in and day out, not covertly, but overtly. And there has been not a single instance when any of his exhortations to violence (judicial or extra-judicial) has ever had any legal consequences for him.

The first political assassination in Bombay, an event that changed the course of the city, was the targeted killing of the popular and militant Communist trade union activist and sitting MLA, Krishna Desai in June 1970 by the Shiv Sena. It was this killing, and the previous incidence of arson (1967) in which the Shiv Sena burned the CPI led office of the Girni Kamgar Union that acted as symbolic markers of the Congress patronized rise of the Shiv Sena in Bombay politics. At that time, the Shiv Sena, acted as the private militia of the Maharashtra Congress chieftains Vasantrao Naik and Vasantdada Patil, who were eager to please their clients—the respectable industrialists of Bombay who were getting increasingly impatient with a restive and resistant working class. So much so that the Shiv Sena earned for itself the ill deserved sobriquet of ‘Vasant Sena’ (which brings dishonour not to the Shiv Sena, but to the memory of Vasantasena, the elegant and large-hearted courtesan of Sudraka’s Sanskrit play Mricchakatikam). The Shiv Sena did in Bombay then what the bouncers and goons of Congress ruled Gurgaon and Manesar do in Haryana now. They kept the industrial peace for greedy and rapacious managements through a reign of terror.

In a public meeting at the Robert Money High School in 1970, soon after the killing of Krishna Desai, Bal Thackeray congratulated ‘his’ boys for the deed, and said that the event should be a warning to all ‘Lal Bhais’ (Reds) for what was to follow if Bombay did not yield to the supremacy of the Shiv Sena. [For details of this incident see the section titled 'Killing for a Cause : Shiv Sena's Striking Power on page 91 in Dipankar Gupta's 'Between Ethnicity and Communalism: The Significance of the Nation-State' in Religion, Violence and Political Mobilisation in South Asia edited by Ravinder Kaur, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2005]. He then went on to campaign in the by-election that occurred due to Desai’s death against his widow, the CPI candidate. And the first Shiv Sainik MLA, Vamanrao Mahadik entered the Maharashtra assembly, over the dead body of Krishna Desai, courtesy Bal K. Thackeray.

Emboldened by the impunity he enjoyed in the wake of Krishna Desai’s killing, Thackeray embarked on a long career of calling for murder and deportation and enjoying the death or humiliation of others, be they Communists, Trade Union activists, Dalits, Muslims, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Kashmiris, North Indians (his previous ire against what he called yandu-gundu South Indians seemed to have mellowed over time, though the first riot that the Shiv Sena organized, against Kannadigas, in February 1969, did leave 59 people dead in its wake). He openly advocated terrorism when he called for ‘suicide squads’ to redeem Hindu honour, and exulted in the orgy of blood letting that took place in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

To be treated to pious eulogies and calls for decorum while dealing with the memory of the departed Thackeray on television is to understand that for our elites, one should not speak ill of the dead even when the person in question never played by that same rule. The famous Marathi pride that Bal Thackeray, according to our television pundits, was able to foster (his one ‘great’ contribution), seems to be nothing other than the egregious arrogance of the schoolyard bully, whose only way of bolstering his own self-esteem is to enjoy abusing others. Like every schoolyard bully, Thackeray was basically a coward, cowing to the greater might of Sanjay Gandhi and Adolf Hitler whenever inspired to do so and behaving with reasonableness, courtesy and good humour towards captains of industry and finance, whenever necessary. Having broken the back of working class militancy the city, not even once in his long career did Thackeray ever call out the Shiv Sena’s famous muscle power on to the streets for the rights of Mumbai’s poor and marginalized. It was always, always against the poor, against marginalized communities, against immigrants, against workers (the Shiv Sena did not, for instance, intimidate mill owners into submission during the textile strike, though ostensibly, they lent the workers their inconsistent and token support). Or, it was for some self-declared notion of what the dignity of being Marathi and/or Hindu meant.

The idea that Thackeray and his goons ruled Bombay because of fear is somewhat misplaced. Yes, the terror that they exercised on the ground did have its chilling effect, but more importantly, they were allowed, even encouraged to exercise that power by Bombay’s political, industrial and financial elite. They had no reason to fear Thackeray, because ultimately, the Shiv Sena and Thackeray always acted in their interest. In the end, he became one of them, but it is always important to remember that he began as their reliable enforcer, the bouncer at the door to their party. No government, Congress, NCP or otherwise, ever took him on, (despite for instance the findings of the Shri Krishna Commission on his incendiary role in the Mumbai Riots of 1992) not because they were afraid of him or his capacity to rule the streets (governments in India have acted with promptness on the streets whenever they have felt the need to, and with great lethality and disproportionate force—they faced a march of more than a million people in Srinagar in 1989 with bullets, leaving hundreds dead in what has become famous as the Gawakadal Massacre, they have bombed a city like Aizawl in 1966 into submission using air power, they commandeered entire divisions of the Army to move into the Golden Temple in Amritsar when they felt the need to). The truth is, they did not take Thackeray and the Shiv Sena on, even when they were a direct threat to urban peace, not because they could not, but because they did not want to. He was way too useful, handing out threats and thugging it out in Mumbai so that they and their order prevailed.

In a widely reported bouquet of fulsome eulogies, captains of industry, finance, film and public relations, paid their respects to Thackeray. Mukesh Ambani, Chairman, Reliance Industries said ‘our country has lost a great leader’. Deepak Parekh, chairman, HDFC Bank spoke of how his eloquence (read foul language) and his charisma (read bullying) made him a legend, because he was after all, a ‘pro-industry’ visionary. Rahul Bajaj, Chairman of Bajaj Auto tellingly recalled how despite ideological differences, he had good relations with him, especially as he had ‘helped in sorting out a workers-related issue in his manufacturing facility’. Anand Mahindra, Chairman, Mahindra and Mahindra tweeted about how the citizens of this state will ‘miss their champion’. Niranjan Hiranandani and Rahul Bajaj both spoke fondly of his ‘sense of humour’. Suhel Seth said that ‘whatever his politics…his nationalism and zeal could never be questioned.’

Bollywood film stars, the ornaments of the ruling class, were not far behind their masters. Amitabh Bacchan, offered his eulogy to a man who basically ran his relationship with the film industry in the form of an elaborate protection racket. Lata Mangeshkar said he made Mumbai great. Shahrukh Khan regretted not resolving his differences with him. Riteish Deshmukh called him a hero. Tweet after nauseating tweet spoke of the cosiness between filmdom and fascism.

All this, apparently, because he was, as several television commentators said, ‘a straightforward man, a man who spoke what he thought, did what he believed’. Since when was straightforwardness a virtue when it comes to the projection of evil?

In a television interview given to Rajeev Shukla, 16 years ago (re-run recently), at the height of his powers, Thackeray assents to the description ‘I am the Hitler’ of Maharashtra, rubbishes democracy, extols the virtues of dictatorship and says that if he were prime minister he would ‘saaf karo Kashmir’ (‘clean up Kashmir’) and wipe out every Bangladeshi from India. He is not drunk, he is not mentally unsound. He is in full control of everything he is saying and thinking, and I for one am very glad that his ambition to be the ‘Hitler’ of India did not come to fruition. The schoolyard bully never got to leave his corner of the pitch.

I believe the correct term for this sensibility is not straightforwardness but arrogance, born of a sense of impunity that comes to a man who knows that those who really rule let him rule. Behind every schoolyard bully, there are way bigger bullies, watching his back. The only difference between them and their front man is a degree of fake civility. Their language is smoother.

Much has been said about the 2.5 million who came out to pay him homage. Bombay/Mumbai has a population of something close to 12.5 million, and if approximately one sixth of that population is persuaded by the Shiv Sena to shed tears, it does not indicate to me an overwhelming surge of grief. Perhaps a large number of the 10 million, or five-sixths of the city, who chose not to come out on to the street were relieved that they would not have to wake up on some random morning to hear the latest fatwa from Matoshree? Perhaps, when some people invoke the Ek tha Tiger (‘Once there was a Tiger’) motif in response to Thackeray’s passing, parsing both the Shiv Sena’s mascot and Salman Khan’s recent hit in one swift move, it is not unreasonable to read a careful stress on the 'tha’—the ‘has been’ in their utterance. The passing of a predator can bring relief to the prey.

The death of tyrants (when they die in harness) is usually followed by carefully stage managed and orchestrated scenes of public displays of grief. The deaths of Stalin, Ayatollah Khomeini and more recently of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung in North Korea were all occasions of great public demonstrations of sorrow. Pyongyang has a population of three million and approximately one and a half million (half the city) reportedly turned up to weep at the ‘dear leader’s’ funeral. Does that mean that North Korea’s ‘dear leader’ is even more dear (by ten and one-eighth times) to the people of Pyongyang than the Hindu Hruday Samrat is to the people of Mumbai. Whatever be the arithmetic, the YouTube uploads of Pyongyang citizens breaking down about the departure of their ‘dear leader’ evoke the same emotions in me as the ones I have experienced at the lachrymose excesses reported from Mumbai on our television screens.

I am not denying that an element of spontaneity may animate such occasions, but is that enough reason to consider the deceased and their actions above board, or the grief, to use an understatement, somewhat overblown? Or is it instead reason to give serious thought as to why and under what conditions can millions of people give their actual consent to their own dehumanization in the name of the fiction of an identity or the tang of mythical greatness or manifest destiny? I am not asking us to dismiss the emotions that were so visible in the farewell to Thackeray. I am asking us all to think very seriously about  the nature of the profound emptiness in  the lives of people that makes it possible for them to identify, almost filially, with a man who in his outspoken disdain for democratic values (despite how ‘directly he did or did not make eye contact with the masses’) in reality held ordinary people in the greatest contempt. The ‘Marathi Manoos’ he invoked had nothing of the extraordinary liberality, openness and free thinking spirit that marked Marathi culture’s tryst with modernity. Instead, it squandered the rich inheritance and greatness of Agarkar,  Ranade, Phule, Ramabai, Ambedkar, the two Kosambis, Dalwai, Vijay Tendulkar and Pu. La. Deshpande into a meaningless posture of empty macho defiance at anything remotely resembling the life of the mind in its own environment. In retrospect, Bal Thackeray, by urging Marathi men (and it was largely men) to elbow their way into being the prize fighters in Mumbai’s gladiatorial circus on the basis of muscle power alone made sure that they effectively subverted Marathi culture’s capacity to respond with intelligence to a changing world. No one has done more to harm what it means to be Marathi in recent times. Marathi pride cannot come from Marathi signboards, statues, protection rackets in employment and cosmetic nomenclatural changes. It can only come from a healthy culture of debate and open ended thinking—something that Maharasthra once led this country in, and now, like Bengal, has now lost almost entirely, due to the politics of populism.

Yesterday evening, like many other people on Facebook, I re-posted what was apparently posted by one of the two young women of Palghar, Thane, and called for others to do so as well, out of solidarity. The status update (which is not exactly what the young woman Shaheen Dhada had written—see here for her precise words), simply said, “People like Bal Thackeray are born and die daily and one should not observe a bandh for that”. It went viral within moments. While I endorse the sentiment that underlies this statement I have to make my disagreement with at least one of its presumptions clear. Yes, people like Bal Thackeray die daily and one should not observe a bandh for that. But no, people like Bal Thackeray, are thankfully, not born daily. (And Shaheen Dhada, we must remember, does not say so either.)

I hope that no one like Bal Thackeray, or his favourite artist, Adolf Hitler, is ever born again.

Ek tha Tiger (Once there Was A Tiger) is way preferable to Lo, Ek Aur Tiger (Lo, Once Again a Tiger.).

First published on Kafila

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