Mumbai (AsiaNews) - More than a million people crowded the streets of Mumbai for a last farewell to Balasaheb Thackeray, the charismatic and controversial founder of the nationalist Shiv Seva party who died on Saturday at the age of 86 after a long illness. To avoid disorder, police were out in great numbers in the capital of the state of Maharashtra, especially near the late leader's home in Matoshree, a rich neighbourhood in Bandra East. In accordance with Hindu tradition, his son Uddhav lit the funeral pyre that incinerate his father's body.
Involved in some of the most violent and racist actions against minorities in the history of India, Thackeray was remembered by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as "a consummate communicator whose stature in the politics of Maharashtra was unique," for whom "the interests of Maharashtra were particularly important" and who "always strived to inculcate a sense of pride in its people."
Born in 1926, Bal Thackeray began as a political cartoonist. In 1966, only six years after the creation of the state of Maharashtra, he founded Shiv Sena (Shiva's Army), a nationalist party promoting Marathi pride and interests. Eventually, he rode a wave of support by focusing on social issues like youth unemployment and job discrimination.
With such a background, it was almost natural the party would join Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and embrace Hindutva ideology.
Between 1995 and 1999, the party governed Maharashtra. Although Manohar Joshi was chief minister, Bal Thackeray was behind all of Shiv Sena's actions.
Speaking to AsiaNews, Ram Puniyani, an Indian intellectual and activist, said that Thackeray's success was due to two factors. "First, he had supporters who identified with his politics of 'son of the soil', directed against people from other states. Second, his supporters' violence scared many people." For instance, in 2002 and then again in 2008, he called on Hindus to form suicide squads to attack Muslims.
In order to promote violent action, he "focused his politics totally around identity issues," Puniyani explained. "The other facet of his politics was to support Hindutva, again based on Hindu identity, directed against the minorities. His role in the Babri Mosque demolition in 1992, and his role in Hindu nationalist violence in Mumbai in 1992-1993 show it in a clear manner."
In more than 40 years of politics, Bal Thackeray also crossed paths with the Catholic Church. In 1996, the state government presented the Maharashtra Pre-School Centres Act for the purpose of regulating admission to kindergarten.
Under the proposal, 50 per cent of all kindergarten places would be reserved for pupils living near their closest school. This meant that school administrators would no longer be able to select students, a move the Catholic Church disapproved. For critics, the law was designed to bring prestigious Catholic schools under state control. At the time, the Church ran 136 schools.
Card Ivan Dias, then bishop of Mumbai, launched a campaign against the law, citing Article 30 of the Indian constitution, which gives minorities the right to run their own schools.
Thackeray, local sources remember, asked for a private audience with the prelate. However, the cardinal declined the request saying that he was welcome at the Archbishop's Residence in Mumbai.
Soon after, the draft bill was shelved and never approved.