Why Two Million Chanted “Balasaheb Amar Rahein”

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Image courtesy: Raghu Rai

If one goes by the discourse peddled by the “secular” intelligentsia and indeed some on social media, a well-travelled, snooty, socially liberal, free-market loving Colaba/SoBo resident like me should cringe upon everything the Shiv Sena and Balasaheb Thackeray supposedly represent. While there is indeed much that I disagree with – arbitrary roughing up of a few people now and then, disrupting “normal life”, pointless anti Valentine’s Day protests etc, I feel painting people/parties/religions in binary black vs white / good vs evil is inherently riddled with fallacies.

If the media’s and “secular” intelligentsia‘s narrative on Balasaheb Thackeray was indeed true, would you have seen the kind of turnout you did (2 million+ by some estimates) at his funeral yesterday? Some say, success is measured by the number of enemies you have. There’s an addendum: OR the number of people who turn out at your funeral.

Balasaheb was a deeply loved personality and a “father figure” to many (even Rajnikanth has said so, the debate should end right here!). The question is why and one needs to look at history to find all the answers:

1) The trade unions: Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, Communist trade movements had peaked. There were continual strikes and production was gridlocked for months at end. Invariably, both ordinary mill workers and mill-owners suffered. Balasaheb saw an opportunity in this adversity, and worked out a package by reaching out to mill-owners who were more than happy to side with him to crush the Communist trade unions. The mill-workers instantly benefited in the process as production resumed and they had found a new hero. Who knows, Maharashtra’s industry may have permanently grinded to a halt the same way West Bengal’s did, if not for Shiv Sena. Unsurprisingly, Communists and radical socialists continue to bear a grudge against Mr. Thackeray to this day.

2) The underworld: In the late 1980s and the early 1990s, Mumbai was said to be under the tight hold of the “underworld” (code for extorting, gun-toting mafia men). Few films could be made or businesses be run or deals be done without the “blessings” of the Dons. To some, Balasaheb’s resurgence was indeed a new dawn in an era of Dons. A brilliant line in the movie Sarkar (loosely based on his life with some inspiration from Mario Puzo’s Godfather) sums it up best – “When the system fails, a power will rise”. Balasaheb offered all these industries and powerful people protection and once voted to power in 1995, gave the cops a free hand to clean up the mess. Whether killings of these Dons and their henchmen were necessarily “encounters” or not remains a matter of debate by some Human rights activists with selective amnesia in the English media perhaps today. That Mumbai is now largely free from the mafia and why it so is well known and acknowledged by people on the ground.

3) The manoos: Marathis witnessed the dizzying rise of Mumbai and its transformation into a leading cosmopolitan city in front of their eyes. However, it perhaps wouldn’t be a stretch to say that many felt excluded from this process – indeed, how many can afford a decent house in South Mumbai today? They needed someone who would speak up for them and someday give them a share of the pie – rightfully or otherwise. Their Sthaniya Lokhadhikar Samiti – plank for Maharashtrian jobs for Maharashtrians – struck a deep chord with many Marathis and anecdotally their share of new jobs increased. Perhaps the Dalit movement in India is a rough parallel, the upper crest of the society may not necessarily like this, but the feeling of alienation amongst large sections of the poor and the lower middle class in some senses is hard to dismiss. Marathis needed a sense of asmita and Balasaheb was their icon, just as Babasaheb was for the Dalits.

4) The friend in need: Post 6th December 1992, Bombay witnessed retaliatory violence initiated by the Dons which spread far and wide. And “eeth ka jawab” was given with “paththar”. Innocents of one religion were killed at one part of the city and the opposite was done as “revenge” in another part, as Srikrishna Commission Report notes. Mr. Sudhakkaro Naik of the Congress who was the Chief Minister of the time surprisingly isn’t vilified the way Narendra Modi is, for the unfortunate events of 2002. Hindus in Muslim majority areas (Dongri, Mahim, Bandra etc) were supposedly shielded by the Shiv Sainiks and indeed they are credited with saving many lives – whether attack was used as a form of defense, legitimate or otherwise, we wouldn’t know. Many Hindus for once saw someone finally standing up for them and Shiv Sena gained tremendously as a result of this polarization. They were elected to power, along with the BJP, in 1995.

Separately, journalists and film makers who are Kashmiri Pandits (Aditya Raj Kaul, Ashok Pandit for instance) recounted on Twitter how aggrieved families were helped directly by Balasaheb and the Shiv Sena with education and shelter post the Islamic militancy forced exodus of Pandits from Kashmir in 1990.

5) The family elder: In a country where most in the public eye shy away from speaking the truth, the absolute truth and nothing but the truth, Balasaheb was a breath of fresh air as he spoke the truth in the language of the masses. As Kumar Ketkar said on TimesNow – “In public rallies, Balasaheb would openly gossip, mimic and entertain the audience, to establish connect and make them feel as part of the family. He wouldn’t pontificate or talk down, as one sees often today.” He was also supposedly very accessible, down to the junior-most worker. He was the family elder who many never had. How many politicians can stake a claim to playing this role today? The phrase Apan Saheb Gele made many teary eyed every time it was uttered during his funeral, which I attended at Shivaji Park. Their sense of despondency was palpable.

In sum, Balasaheb Thackeray was undoubtedly a polarizing figure – thoroughly despised by some though loved even more so by so many more, as witnessed on Sunday. It is perhaps difficult to fathom how history would judge him over the long run, but that several pages will be written about him goes without saying. He lived like a King and was laid to rest like one.

Balasaheb Amar Rahein!

The writer resides in Mumbai and works as an investment professional at a leading private equity firm. He regularly tweets as @UtsavMitra. Views are personal.

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