Who was Bal Thackeray and why did Mumbai come to a standstill this weekend?

November 19, 2012

Bal Thackeray, a Hindu extremist leader, died Nov. 17, 2012, after being critically ill for the past few days. (EPA)

(See more photos from Thackeray's funeral procession in Mumbai.)

When Bal Thackeray, a one-time cartoonist turned Hindu fundamentalist leader of India, died on Saturday, the entire city of Mumbai came to a standstill. Over a million people came out to watch the procession, thousands of police, including the Rapid Action Force, were deployed to maintain calm, and commercial businesses chose to shut down.

So who was Bal Thackeray and how did his death rally millions to his procession and shut down one of the biggest financial capitals in Asia?

The controversial leader was a popular figure, who formed Shiv Sena, the army of Shiva, back in 1966 in the Indian state of Maharastra. Over the years, Shiv Sena became notorious as one of the most xenophobic right-wing groups in India, and was responsible for inciting hatred against minority groups, mostly Muslims. The Indian government accused Thackeray and his supporters for playing a major role in the 1992 Mumbai riots, which killed more than 900 people. According to the BBC, in 2002 he called on suicide squads to carry out attacks against Muslims.

Over the years, Shiv Sena has gained headlines for digging up cricket pitches ahead of matches against Pakistan, campaigning against Valentine's day and threatening young couples who celebrate it, and continuously threatening minorities.


Supporters take part in the funeral procession of  ationalist Shiv Sena party leader Bal Thackeray in Mumbai on Nov. 18, 2012. (Getty Images)

The range of opinions published following his death shed light on the character of Thackeray and how he maintained grip in one of the biggest cities in the world.

A bewildering enigma, writes the BBC.

The charismatic cartoonist-turned-politician railed against south Indians and Muslims, provoked his men to dig up cricket pitches, drank warm beer, smoked cigars, adored Adolf Hitler, hosted Michael Jackson ('Jackon is a great artist ... his movements are terrific,' he once said), berated women wearing jeans and renamed Bombay.

 The demagogue of Bombay, says Salil Tripathi in the Wall Street Journal.

He may have succeeded in changing Bombay's official name to Mumbai, and enforcing the usage by fear. But he found it harder to change the essentially tolerant nature of the city, which did not erupt in retaliatory violence after terrorist attacks such as the ones in November 2008. Bombay continues to lead the way forward for the country. It will take time for the city to heal, but it will.

A win for Mumbai, writes Sanjay Kumar in the Express Tribune.

He was not a by-product of the mainstream democratic tradition but an aberration. That’s the reason despite being in the business of politics for almost five decades, he could never become a normal politician. He remained the prisoner of an image; the image of a mafia don who wanted to control a big city on the basis of guns and goons.

A troubling legacy, concluded an editorial in the Hindu.

Even as people in Mumbai and Maharashtra mourn the passing of the patriarch, they ought to reflect on the manner in which his sectarian politics diminished the great city and State and demand of his legatees a change of course.

There's more to him than the aura of fear, says Sidharth Bhatia in the Times of India.

But with his clout, he could have transformed their lives and also, through the civic body which his party controls, made Mumbai a better place. Then the entire city would have mourned. Instead, it spent its Sunday shuttered at home.


Supporters shout slogans while holding a newspaper with the front page news of the demise of Bal Thackeray during his funeral in Mumbai on Nov. 18, 2012. (Getty Images)

Thackeray's dead, but in the party that he formed, and the millions who follow him in the name of Hindu nationalism, he leaves behind a legacy. Following his death, when a 21-year-old woman posted a comment criticizing him on Facebook, the police arrested her, as well as her friend who "liked" the comment, and members of Shiv Sena vandalized the clinic owned by the girl's uncle.

(See more photos from Thackeray's funeral procession in Mumbai.)

Anup Kaphle is the Post's digital foreign editor. He has an M.S. degree in journalism from Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
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Anup Kaphle · November 19, 2012