Fear and loathing in Mumbai

Bal Thackeray's passion for his own freedom of expression did not extend to others

To shut down a city is always an odd power. In a city built on transactions and trade, where a crumbling state government leaves no one in charge, it is a terrifying power. For three decades, Balasaheb Keshav Thackeray shut down Mumbai on behalf of those whose rage he grasped. This was the rage of former Marathi mill workers in search of a job. This was the unease of the middle-class in Shivaji Park and Dadar at Maharashtrians becoming minorities in their own city. And this was the resentment of city officials — from constable to revenue inspector — who, having left home in the interiors of Maharashtra to work in their state capital, were forced to police an unintelligible land. If this were any other city, this rage would be a mere footnote of history. Instead, the centrality of Mumbai to India led the Shiv Sena and its charismatic chief to pioneer many of the trends that are now the staple of Indian politics.

The Shiv Sena understood, before most other parties, the relationship between corporate money and politics. The setting was the collapse of Mumbai's textile mills, leaving behind lucrative land and angry workers. In the raging fight between organised labour and mill owners in the late 1960s, Balasaheb Thackeray, supporting mill owners, appealed to the ethnic identity of workers rather than their class background. This relationship continued much after he won that fight, with Sena local units forming close ties with local business. In a moment laden with irony, when mill land was final auctioned off in 2005, Shiv Sena leaders bought Kohinoor Mills for Rs 421 crore. Thackeray defended the purchase since the buyers were Maharashtrian.

Balasaheb was the first to reap the bitter harvest that urban migration in India would cause; more like him will come. Before Muslims, Balasaheb targeted the south Indians who stole jobs from Maharashtrians. After Muslims, he turned on northern Indians for much the same reason. The Shiv Sena's gory role in the 1992-1993 anti-Muslim riots — chronicled in chilling detail by the Srikrishna Commission — was an opportunist use of the Hindutva wave that swept north India in the early 1990s. The Sena will always remain the party of the Maharashtrian insider in Mumbai.

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