Bal Thackeray: The tiger of the jungle raj

Bal Thackeray
Bal Thackeray chose a growling tiger as a mascot for the party that he floated on October 31, 1966. Many believe it was apt, as it adequately symbolised the violent streak of the Shiv Sena.

The launch itself was marked with clashes. A large number of youths returning from Thackeray's rally in Shivaji Park announcing the new party, incited by his fiery speech, had targetted South Indians, or "Yandugundus" as the Sena chief then liked to call them. Their establishments in the Dadar area had been attacked and the iconic Dadar railway station vandalised.

The '60s and '70s saw Sainiks embroiled in street battles with members of the Communist Party for supremacy in the mill worker heartland of Parel-Girgaum. One such infamous episode saw the Sena raiding the CPI's office in December 1967 and setting it on fire.

In the late '60s, member of the Sena workers' union Bhartiya Kamgar Sena were accused of playing a part in the murder of Larsen & Toubro company worker outside Kurla station. The union was at the time trying to establish a base among workers.

Soon, Mumbai politics would never be the same again.

* 1969: Thackeray held for first time

The party's first major and organised violent agitation was in 1969, when Bal Thackeray demanded that the Centre intervene to solve the border tangle of Belgaum, which had been included in the Mysore state. Thackeray threatened to protest against both then home minister Yashwantrao Chavan and deputy prime minister Morarji Desai, who visited Mumbai on separate occasions, if this was not done. Subsequent use of force by the Mumbai Police to clear the way for Desai's car angered the Shiv Sainiks, who indulged in large-scale violence.

Thackeray was subsequently arrested for the first time in his political career on February 9, 1969, under the Preventive Detention Act. This too led to large-scale protests by the Sainiks, with Mumbai downing its shutters for five days. In the violence, 59 people lost their lives and property worth Rs 41 lakh was destroyed.

A worried state government finally decided to release Thackeray from prison and asked him to request the people to refrain from rioting. Thackeray's call had the desired effect and the wily politician understood how violence could effectively be used to serve the party's goals.

* 1970: Sena takes a communal turn

The party which till then had been espousing the Marathi cause got involved in communal politics with its involvement in the Bhiwandi and Jalgaon riots of 1970, when close to 82 people lost their lives. The Justice D P Madon Commission set up to probe the riots referred to the Sena's incessant efforts to win the Bhiwandi-Nizampur Muncipal Council as one of the reasons for the riots.

In a speech delivered at Bhiwandi, Thackeray is claimed to have said that the ceremonial coconut that he was breaking was going to fall on a Muslim's head.

With no one to rein it in, the party now headed into one of the most controversial phases of its existence when its members, bolstered by the soft approach of the state, stabbed and killed CPI legislator from Parel, Krishna Desai, on June 5, 1970. Two swords were thrust into Desai's ribs, killing him on the spot. Thackeray issued a statement terming his death unfortunate. Nineteen Sena supporters were arrested for the murder and 16 subsequently convicted.

Many felt that the Sena had gone too far this time. However, indicating its growing popularity, Sena candidate Wamanrao Mahadik managed to defeat Desai's widow in the by-elections for the same seat.

* 1984: Shift to Hindutva

The '70s saw a relative lull in the Sena's violent tactics. However, after a brief dalliance with the Congress as well as the Socialists in the '80s, the Sena supremo made a definitive shift to Hindutva in 1984, when a major conflagration was provoked by his alleged statement on Prophet Mohammed. Subsequent riots in Mumbai, Thane and Bhiwandi claimed 256 lives.

The Sena's antipathy was however not only directed against Muslims in Marathwada, the Sena cadre also clashed with Dalits and attacked landless Dalits in Aurangabad district.

The Sena also came out with a controversial order to boycott Sikhs for their support to Khalistan. The boycott was subsequently taken back, but many detractors accused that it was just a pretext by the Sena to extort money from the community.

* 1989: Media becomes target

In March 1989, the party turned against one of its own. Shiv Sena corporator Shridhar Khopkar was stabbed 25 times after he voted against the Sena nominee in the Thane Mayor elections. The Sena which till then had successfully managed to use the media through its mouthpiece Saamna turned against it after being at the receiving end of criticism. The office of Mahanagar, an eveninger, was attacked after a scathing editorial which criticised Thackeray. Sena cadre not only attacked the newspaper office but subsequently also attacked a protest march taken out by journalists.

* 1991: Taking on cricket

The Sena now had taken on the role of the state's unofficial censor, deciding what was permissible and what was not. And one thing it made clear was a no-no was cricket matches with Pakistan. In 1991, Sena cadre led by Shishir Shinde dug up the Wankhede pitch so that the Pakistani team could not play in the city.

* 1993: The Mumbai riots

By this time, the Sena had become a force to reckon with in the state as well as known nationally. In 1993, it gained international notoriety with the communal riots in Mumbai. As hundreds lost their lives, the Sena hierarchy was personally blamed for instigating violence. Thackeray was indicted by the Srikrishna Commission Report for directing violence against Muslims between December 1992 and January 1993.

* 1997: Rebels feel the heat

Thackeray's former protégé Chaggan Bhujbal, who split the Sena in 1991, taking away 18 legislators, had to face the party's wrath for years till in 1997, there was an attack on his official residence during his term as the state's leader of opposition. Bhujbal claims he managed to survive only because he had locked himself in the bathroom.

With the passing of the baton from Thackeray to son Uddhav, the once ruthless organisation seems to have lost some of its fangs. Even leaders have left in droves and managed to rehabilitate themselves. The past few years have not seen any large-scale incidents of violence perpetrated by the Sena cadre either. However, with Thackeray's nephew Raj seen to be cast in his mould -- in more than one way -- the question is: Has the Tiger really changed its stripes, or just donned a new skin?

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