Bal Thackeray was the original angry young man. Long before Amitabh Bachchan made the screen image of the young underclass vigilante famous in the 1970s, Thackeray forced his entry into Mumbai’s politics as an angry, irreverent voice of the people speaking in masculine defiance.
At the heart of the populist politics he fashioned was the belief that the “people” were supreme. However, the institutions of liberal democracy and the administration were rigged against it, so went his argument. The defence of its interests required direct action under the leader, not working through parliamentary democracy. Laws had to be broken. Violence and intimidation were necessary to bring the people’s enemies to heel.
Thackeray’s populist ideology came to light in the early 1960s. Maharashtra had become a state in 1960. But now what? He answered this question by starting a cartoon weekly, called Marmik, or “Straight from the Heart”. At the centre of the weekly were Thackeray’s signature two-page Sunday cartoon features. These drew pictures of Indian politics and society with biting wit and irreverent humour, exposing political hypocrisy and bureaucratic excesses and ridiculing the powerful. The centerpiece of his sharp and witty commentary was the depiction of what he saw as the plight of the Marathi manoos , or the Marathi people. Week after week, he showcased their oppressed state and railed against “outsiders”—initially the south Indians and the communists and, later, the Muslims. The magazine struck a chord, and its circulation soared to 40,000 by 1966.
Emboldened, Thackeray founded the Shiv Sena in June 1966. The inaugural public meeting of the Shiv Sena, announced in Marmik, was held in Shivaji Park on 30 October, the day of the Dussehra festival. Nearly half-a-million people swarmed the open ground, surprising everyone. Bal Thackeray was the featured speaker. He was not a great orator, but his wit and sarcasm captivated the crowd. He likened rajkaran (politics) with gajkaran (ringworm), playing on their phonetic similarity to rail against politics and politicians. The Shiv Sena was not a political party but an army inspired by Shivaji. The goal was to advance the cause of the Marathi manoos by smashing its way past the intrigue-ridden realm of politics. He uttered no deep political philosophy or complex set of principles, but only a stirring nativist appeal on behalf of the oppressed Marathi manoos.
Soon, Thackeray emerged as a force to reckon with in Mumbai. His meetings, accompanied by an elaborate dramaturgy, always roused the audiences. He would speak in tones of affection and chiding, exhortation and indignation. Scolding the Maharashtrians for their inertia and indifference, he would thunder at them for “looking on helplessly while their ‘rights and privileges’ are ‘stolen’”.
“Wake up, wake up, before it is too late,” he would exhort. Roused by the leader, the snarling tiger (the Sena’s mascot) began to the stalk Mumbai.
The educated and unemployed young men were a fertile ground, but no straight correlation can be made between a tight job market and the rise of the Marathi manoos’ ideology. There was no inherent reason for counting the unemployed in ethnic terms. Religion, class, caste, region, gender, and age could have served as equally valid classificatory categories. But Thackeray calculated employment figures in ethnic terms to claim the under-representation of Maharashtrians. In Thackeray’s definition, domicile alone was not enough. Nor was the ability to speak Marathi, as many immigrants did. One had to be born a Marathi speaker to be a Maharashtrian.
Politics, not economics or culture, was in command. No socio-economic reality, no cultural tradition, sufficiently explains the emergence of the Marathi manoo s. It was Thackeray’s political creation. He referred to the injustices, real or imagined, suffered by Marathi speakers in order to constitute them as the only legitimate “people”. A part of society, the oppressed underdogs, was its whole; the Marathi manoos was the sum total of the community. Marathi-speakers, oppressed and overwhelmed, were the authentic and legitimate “people” held back by the illegitimate south Indians, the communists, and the Muslims—all “outsiders” to Mumbai in Thackeray’s mind.
South Indians, or “Madrasis” as Thackeray referred to them, were his first targets. According to him, the immigrants from southern India had monopolized white-collar employment in the city, robbing the “sons of the soil” of their rightful due. This was not true, but he made fun of their dress by calling them lungiwalas, and mocked their languages by calling them yandugundu. When the Sena supporters attacked south Indian restaurants, he rewarded them with praise.
If the south Indians were aliens, so were the communists. Thackeray made fun of Communist Party of India (CPI) leader Shripad Amrit Dange, calling him Dhonge, a hypocrite. Ideology was part of the reason for his visceral hatred for the communists. Thackeray saw them as anti-national, and he was opposed to their language of class struggle that went against his concept of the undifferentiated “people”.
But aside from ideology, the battle for control of the city was an equally important reason for his vitriol. His supporters regularly clashed with the communists in mill districts. These attacks finally claimed the life of Krishna Desai, a CPI member of the legislative assembly. An immensely popular trade union leader and a force in the mill districts, Desai was murdered in June 1970 by Shiv Sena members and supporters. The communists never recovered from Desai’s loss.
No self-respecting, right-wing populist movement in India can succeed without targeting the Muslims as alien to the nation. Accordingly, Thackeray spiked nativism with an anti-Muslim, Hindu nationalism. In 1969, he delivered an inflammatory speech, calling Muslims anti-national and referred to Bhiwandi as a second Pakistan. When Bhiwandi burned for three days during communal violence in May 1970, the role of Thackeray’s vitriolic rhetoric and the Sena’s provocative actions was clear. History repeated itself as tragedy in 1992-93. Once again, as the Srikrishna Commission reported, Thackeray’s inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric and the Sena’s concerted attacks had played a role in the violence that engulfed Mumbai.
Violence against its enemies is not an unfortunate by-product of the Thackeray-led Sena but an essential method. Action has been Thackeray’s watchword. The Marathi manoos’s abject state demands concrete deeds and instant results. As opposed to lokshahi, or democracy, he advocated thokshahi, or the rule of force. Only 40 years old when he founded the Shiv Sena, Thackeray presented himself as a fearless, youthful leader of a new type—one able to bend feckless bureaucrats, the older generation, the elite, and evil enemies to the force of his will. He appealed to youthful, masculine virility.
The Sena wove itself into the urban fabric, establishing a close relationship with the slum-dwellers, for whom its ideology of masculinity, virility, and action found resonance in their struggles for survival. The exhilaration of direct action offered them a fantasy of freedom from the malaise of reality.
So successful has been Thackeray’s politics of the “people”, now also incarnated in his nephew Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), that it casts a shadow on Mumbai’s political and social life. Bombay is Mumbai now. Political parties, including the Congress, have tamely succumbed to the ideology of the Marathi manoos. The city is shuttered every time the Sena or the MNS decides that signboards have to be displayed in Marathi or immigrants have to be taught a lesson.
If Thackeray’s grandson decides that Rohinton Mistry’s novel Such a Long Journey hurts Marathi sentiments and should be expunged from the university syllabus, the authorities meekly surrender. Many who mourn the death of Mumbai’s famed cosmopolitanism hold Thackeray and his populist politics responsible for its demise. This, unfortunately, is the lasting legacy of the “angry young man”.
Gyan Prakash teaches history at Princeton University and is the author of Mumbai Fables.