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How the Tiger got his saffron stripes

How the tiger got his saffron stripes

By Kumar Ketkar Editor, Dainik Divya Marathi


I met Balasaheb Thackeray nearly 50 years ago in his modest ground floor flat at Shivaji Park in central Mumbai. In today’s parlance, it could have been described as a “one BHK” apartment. But in those days, it was merely a lower middle class house with no fancy furniture or any “interior”. There was no question of having a TV set then. There was an old radio on the shelf and two cane chairs in the so-called drawing room. His brother, Shrikant, opened the door and asked me to sit on one of those chairs.

I was a college student and had gone to invite him for a literary function. At that time, Thackeray’s only reputation (if it can be called even that) was that he was the editor of the first and only Marathi cartoon weekly, Marmik. The weekly was slowly becoming popular because of its no-holds-barred attack on the political class, but Thackeray himself was not widely known, forget being popular. He was in his mid-thirties then. Slim, short, almost non-descript. He used to smoke a pipe. The pipe looked too big for his small and unassuming persona.

Later, I took him to the venue in a taxi. It had not been easy to gather people to hear him. We had put up a large canvas and a blackboard on the dais. Thackeray was to demonstrate the art of caricature drawing. He was scintillating with his sarcastic barbs and even as he spoke, he drew delightful caricatures of VK Krishna Menon, the then defence minister under Prime Minister Pandit Nehru, and some others. He drew Panditji with just seven lines, showing his bald pate, pleasant smile and a rose. Altogether about 70 people, including students, attended the function.

About three years later, in 1966, Thackeray addressed a mammoth gathering of nearly 40,000 people on the maidan in Shivaji Park. This ground had seen many historic meetings, including the one on 1 May 1960 in which Nehru had formally declared the formation of the state of Maharashtra — a proud moment for the people of Mumbai. I was in school then and the day was declared as “Maharashtra Day”. Thousands of schoolchildren were brought to the ground to witness the historic event. It was an inspiring event and there was hope and enthusiasm in the air. For Thackeray to hold the rally and announce the formation of the Shiv Sena on the same ground six years later was like directly joining the political Ivy League!

Between 1960, when the state of Maharashtra was formed, and 1966, when the Shiv Sena was launched, the country was on a sort of roller-coaster ride. The rise of the Shiv Sena and the emergence of a maverick leader like Thackeray cannot be understood without taking into cognisance that tumultuous ride. After achieving the objective of the creation of Maharashtra, the Left-leaning Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti (SMS) was voluntarily dissolved. In the 1962 elections, the Congress came to power with a good majority, but the hope of a better life for the people had begun to wear thin.


For cartoonists like Thackeray, the frustration was creatively inspiring. It helped in throwing barbs of the brush at the rulers. The economy, particularly after the 1962 Indo- China war, had begun to show signs of inflation and recession. Nehru’s death in 1964 seemed to have left the Congress quite disoriented. Lal Bahadur Shastri failed to inspire the party and before he could establish himself as a leader, he too died. Indira Gandhi took over as the prime minister and in the initial days, the “dumb doll” provided themes for gags on her. When she emerged as a “superwoman”, then too she provided great subject matter to Thackeray. He was at once in awe of her and also a trenchant cartoon-critic.

The 1960s saw the rise of many local/regional leaders and political outfits. In Tamil Nadu, the DMK came to power overthrowing the Congress for good. In Punjab, the Akali Dal entrenched itself. In West Bengal, the communists began to have their sway. The Naxalite movement too emerged on the national scene in 1969-70. In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the Congress was routed in the 1967 elections and new Opposition fronts were born.

Though the Shiv Sena could not become a regional party in the classical sense, its tiger roared just when this mood of rebellion (and anarchy) had begun to spread. Many a commentator saw in the rise of the Shiv Sena, a new militant Maharashtra. Balasaheb’s hallmark was spontaneity. He immensely enjoyed making statements that would shock and make headlines. A shy and rather quiet person in private, he quickly realised that it pays politically to remain in the news, and in the thick of controversy. His statements against the South Indian migrants (he called all of them “Madrasis”) led to attacks on Udupi restaurants and some middle-level clerks. Most of the stenographers then used to be Tamilian or Malayali. This narrow Marathi chauvinism invited instant criticism from the liberal and cosmopolitan classes, and the English press. Balasaheb, however, smartly turned such criticism into his favour by denouncing them as attacks on “Marathi pride” by “the Sethji-owned capitalist media”. It was a line easily acceptable to those who were brought up on Leftist political slogans during the movement for the formation of Maharashtra.


IN THOSE days, “the media” meant only the print media. There was a sort of divide between the English press and the Marathi press. The Times of India, The Indian Express and the Free Press Journal were bought and read by the so-called cosmopolitan class, constituted mostly by Parsis, Christians, South Indians, well-off Gujaratis in south Mumbai, etc. On the other hand, the Marathi press was read by the working class. Almost the entire workforce in the textile mills (nearly 2,50,000) was Marathi-speaking. So were the workers in the engineering units on the outskirts of the city. That was a time when most of the middle class belonged to the lower middle segment; the higher middle classes had not yet arrived on the scene. The middle class, then, comprised clerical employees in government offices, banks, courts, post offices, schools, etc. The middle class was poor and the working class lived a hand-to-mouth existence. Most of these workers and employees were unionised by the communists and the socialists. A small fringe in some middle-class or upper-caste areas supported the RSS, but a much larger number was under the influence of the Left. It was also the Left that had spearheaded the movement for formation of Maharashtra.

Balasaheb’s hallmark was spontaneity. He immensely enjoyed making statements that would shock and make headlines

Even the Thackerays were influenced by the Left. Balasaheb’s father, Keshav Sitaram Thackeray, was a staunch and militant leader of the social reform movement, and advocated the “anti-Sethji, anti-Bhaiji” line. That was the language of the anti-capitalist and anti-Brahmin movement. Though the leadership of the SMS was composed of Brahmins like SA Dange, SM Joshi and Acharya Atre, it also had a rural Maratha front led by Nana Patil, Datta Deshmukh and Kisangani Veer. Keshav Thackeray ran a mouthpiece named Prabodhan, which virulently attacked the established socioeconomic hierarchy and called for a socio-political revolution, and he came to be known as “Prabodhankar” because of that militant journal. He was an atheist who believed that temples are instruments to keep the poor, the lower castes and the other backward castes in social subjugation, and that unless the superstitions governing social life were buried, there would be no transformation. Mahatma Phule and Dr BR Ambedkar were Prabodhankar’s ideological pathfinders. Is it not an irony that his son, who had imbibed these ideas, would later form an alliance with the Sangh Parivar?


But that phase came much later. When the movement for Maharashtra was sweeping Mumbai, Konkan and other parts of western Maharashtra, Bal Thackeray was in his late twenties. This budding artist with a flair for caricature drawings had inherited the iconoclastic approach of his father. He was working with the Free Press Journal, the only English daily which was read by the English-knowing Marathi middle classes. The Times of India and The Indian Express were read by the elite.

Among Thackeray’s colleagues at the Free Press Journal was the cartoonist RK Laxman, before he became a national icon and a celebrity. They sat next to each other at the Dalal Street office of the newspaper, drawing political cartoons. Both regarded David Low as their idol. That is another irony of Balasaheb’s life — David Low was known for his sharp attack on Hitler, whereas Balasaheb later became an admirer of the Nazi dictator. Indeed, Balasaheb would openly say in his speeches that he had total disdain for democracy and wanted someone like Hitler to rule the country. From where he picked up this idea is difficult to understand. His father Prabodhankar had always staunchly opposed the Brahminical RSS, which too had its deep sympathies and ideological bonding with the Führer. The movement for Maharashtra was Left-leaning, and yet Balasaheb was fascinated by fascism.

Besides praising Hitler, Balasaheb had also spoken out against Mahatma Gandhi and the idea of non-violence

Even when the Shiv Sena was emerging as an anti-communist outfit by sending gangs of strike-breakers to divide the trade union movement, its slogans tilted towards the Left. This was textbook fascism; the Nazis of Germany were also “National Socialists”! Significantly, the majority of the Sena’s followers came from the ranks of the working class, and also from families that had traditionally been communist. It had been similar in the case of the Nazis, whose supporters came from the German working class and the middle class.

The Nazis had risen to prominence in Germany at a time of great economic crisis. The Shiv Sena, too, had been launched amid an economic crisis that was causing a divide in the political establishment. The right-wing assertion in the Congress came from Morarji Desai, SK Patil, Atulya Ghosh and others, who were later known as the Syndicate. It was after Nehru’s death that rightwing parties like the Swatantra Party, the Jan Sangh and the Ram Rajya Parishad acquired a political base. Even within the Congress, a clear divide between the Left and the Right was emerging. And the situation was soon enveloped by Cold War politics — the Left in the Congress and the communist parties were generally pro-Soviet Union, while the Right advocated a pro-US tilt. The Congress was split in 1969 along the same lines. The Shiv Sena took the right-wing line, albeit with Leftist slogans sometimes!

Besides praising Hitler, Balasaheb had also spoken out against Mahatma Gandhi and the idea of non-violence. The generation born around Independence had little understanding of the Gandhi-Nehru legacy. The SMS that led the Maharashtra movement from the working class centre, Mumbai, had failed to come up with any long-term vision or Left-wing programme for the workers, and had dissolved itself with the formation of Maharashtra. It was in this vacuum, when the legacy of the freedom movement had thinned and the Right had begun to assert itself, even as the Congress was showing signs of fatigue, that the Shiv Sena emerged with the street protests of the newly unemployed and vast sections of the lumpens. Encouraging wayward youth to take to violence had become acceptable political practice. Many leaders of the Sena, including corporators, MLAs and even MPs, have lived through the street struggles of those times.


This was the backdrop of the murder of the trade union leader and communist MLA Krishna Desai. That was the first political murder in Maharashtra. The gang that killed Desai comprised young Shiv Sainiks who were encouraged by none less than the Sena supremo. He even sheltered the accused and defended the murder. It was meant to serve as a warning to other Leftist trade union leaders.

OVER THE years, the Shiv Sena has proved to be quite flexible in its choice of targets — from “Madrasis” to communists, from Biharis to Muslims, from liberal writers to Dalit poets, from the plays of Vijay Tendulkar to the films of Deepa Mehta. Violence and terror have been integral to the Sena’s orientation towards liberal establishments and institutions that reflected the values of the freedom movement. Journalists who criticised the Sena (including this writer) were often targets of the Sena’s wrath, egged on by Balasaheb himself.

Till Balasaheb cleared the way for an alliance with the BJP, the Sena had remained essentially a party of the lumpens. But the party also attracted some social workers, inspired by the cause of “Marathi pride”, and some members of the educated middle class who were feeling marginalised in the new corporate-MBA culture. However, the organisation had the overall cover of the underworld with the political umbrella of Balasaheb. Most of the bandhs called by the Sena were not spontaneous, but planned on the basis of the fear psychosis that they could generate. But these bandhs, by and large, remained Mumbai-centric events and failed in rural Maharashtra. This is because the Sena’s appeal, Balasaheb’s charisma and the network of fearpsychosis could not transcend the city limits. That is why the Sena could never become a full-fledged regional party.

Even then, all political parties in the state (and some even at the Centre) were in awe of Balasaheb. Indeed, his halo had the ring of fear and terror. One reason for that awe was the misplaced media coverage, more so by the English TV media in later years. The TV channels always preferred to cover the city because it provided visuals and theatrics, while the rest of Maharashtra rarely figured in the English media, both TV and print. Mumbai is the Shiv Sena’s base and that is how the media contributed to building up Balasaheb’s and the Sena’s larger-than-life image.

The BJP used these attributes of the Sena and Balasaheb strategically to acquire a militant arm for its “parliamentary Hindutva” and a maverick leader as a Brand Ambassador. This Brand Ambassador, however, was an unpredictable character, who did not really care for the alliance. His whims were sometimes spontaneous and sometimes calculated; he had learnt how to fake a whim to get anything he desired politically. As the Shiv Sena was born and brought up on the streets, it lacked a certain middle class respectability. The alliance with the BJP provided that respectability to the Sena and a kind of political status to Balasaheb.

It would be a challenge for Uddhav Thackeray to retain that unpredictable aspect of Balasaheb’s charisma and his mercurial nature, which confounded the media and made him a controversial figure. Further, the Sena is split because of the rebellion of Narayan Rane first, followed by that of Balasaheb’s nephew, Raj. The nephew is trying to imitate the uncle in language, expression, looks and style. He has established his own independent Sena — the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) — with a similar support base, that of the neo-lumpens of the post-sglobalisation era, when urban unemployment is rising and life in the cities has become so dehumanised that it is difficult to inculcate liberal, or even humane-secular, values.

TODAY, THE mood on the streets of Mumbai is vicious and violent. The ruling Congress and its ally, the NCP, have no base in this giant metropolis. Like all other parties, they look at Mumbai as a money-making machine. The land and the apartments are costlier than in most parts of the US. The city is actually run by real estate sharks, the builder-contractor lobby and the land mafia, in association with the political class. The so-called Mumbaikar, despite his/her much talked about spirit, is harassed and helpless. Mumbai continues to be a tinderbox that could explode anytime. But now there would be no Balasaheb to ignite the fuse.

Balasaheb thundered across this “Maximum City” for nearly 46 years, and in the reverberating roar, the Shiv Sena won the municipal corporation elections four times successively. The Congress never even attempted to win the hearts and minds of the Marathi community. That was a political donation to the Sena and, recently, to the MNS. Nor did the Left capture the imagination of the working class ever again. It has even stopped singing glories of the revolutionary past. Nobody recalls today that the red flag once dominated the politics and culture of the city. Self-styled Left intellectuals, who prefer to confine their presence to newspaper columns and TV panel discussions, have not understood the phenomenon of Balasaheb and the Sena, or how they came to acquire political space. Today, the Left, which had in the past led the movement for the formation of Maharashtra, is not even on the fringe. How Balasaheb came to be lionised by a wide range of people — from Bollywood figures to industry magnates, from cricket stars to artists, and from Sharad Pawar to George Fernandes — is still a mystery of sorts. From Amitabh Bachchan to Lata Mangeshkar, from Pritish Nandy to Sachin Tendulkar, from Mukesh Ambani to Rahul Bajaj, everyone has paid great tributes to the legend called Balasaheb. What brought them under the spell of Balasaheb? Sharad Pawar described him as a “Yugpurush” (a man who symbolises the era)!

Mumbai and Maharashtra will not be the same again. With Balasaheb gone, the vast unorganised, lumpen and disoriented Marathi middle class will feel orphaned. The Shiv Sena itself might start disintegrating and thereby create a new nostalgia, even before sufficient time has passed.

Who knows, his statues may now start competing with those of Babasaheb Ambedkar. That seems likely if one goes by the controversy that erupted within a day after the funeral pyre was lit, over the monument that should be built in Shivaji Park, where the Sena was born and Balasaheb was cremated. As mentioned earlier, it was here that Pandit Nehru had announced the formation of the state of Maharashtra. It was also here that the Left-led movement for the formation of the state had been launched earlier. It is difficult to understand at which point the script was altered and the city turned from Red to Saffron. Lionising or demonising Balasaheb will not help us understand what happened in the past four decades. For many of us who have lived through this tumultuous period, it is a trauma and tragedy that will not stop bleeding.




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