Bal Thackeray dying in India, violence expected

I have written before about the New York Times blog India Ink, but today they ran this photograph of Shiv Sena supporters gathered outside the Mumbai residence of Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray, who lies dying in a hospital — or is already dead, as the Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh tweeted perhaps a bit too soon.  For those not following Indian politics, Thackeray is the leading proponent of Marathi chauvinism and Hindu supremacy in India, famously called Indian Muslims a “cancer,” admires Hitler, proposed to combat Islamic terrorism with Hindu terrorism and suicide bombers, and generally dedicated his long and illustrious career to stirring up as much religious antagonism in his country as humanly possible.

There is someone like Thackeray in every diverse society, convincing the majority that they, not the minority, is the true victim.  By chance, I just wrote about Republican strategist Lee Atwater who used blacks for the same polarizing purposes in American politics that Thackeray did South Indians or Muslims; in one of his more honest moments, Atwater explained in an interview that regional pride is appealing to ‘low intellects.’  The great irony of Thackeray’s rabble-rousing is that it is the precise mirror image of the Islamists he professes to disdain.

Of course, Thackeray is just a cartoonist, his admirers would contend, and he certainly cuts a beatific figure with his saffron shirts and Muammar Gaddafi eyewear.  Because Thackeray himself is not beating up Muslims, many claim he is not a violent man.  Yet, violence follows him everywhere, his army ready to fight at any opportunity.  The anodyne caption India Ink chose for to the photograph above inadvertently reveals this: it states that the riot police were deployed “in anticipation of violence by members of Shiv Sena, should [Thackeray’s] condition deteriorate.”  That, right there, perfectly captures Thackeray’s political legacy: a gang resorting to violence for no particular reason, trying to find someone to blame for news they don’t like.  I don’t know that Thackeray will rest in peace but I would be hard-pressed to think of very many people in Indian politics who did more to disrupt the peace while alive.


Update (17 Nov): Thackeray was improving, they said, but he died this morning.  I realized when Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad died in 2000 that if you live long enough, act tough enough, and never express the slightest regret for the blood on your hands you will be eulogized with a remarkable and entirely undeserved moderation of words and tone.  So today the Times of India declares Thackeray “a maverick politician who roused emotions on Marathi pride” as if he were merely the James Dean of Indian politics.  The Hindustan Times plays the news so straight that they left out the part about the hundreds of millions of fellow citizens made to fear their place in Indian life because they were migrants or Muslim:

In 1966, Thackeray formed Shiv Sena to further his ‘Marathis first’ agenda. The Sena came in for severe criticism for its violent agitations and was accused of parochial politics. Using the Marathi card, Thackeray managed to build a vote bank. His party emerged as a formidable political force when it won power in the Mumbai civic body in 1973. The next two decades saw the Sena spreading in neighbouring cities.

Bollywood, of course, was reluctant to antagonize a man whose followers could paralyze their city on a whim, though one wonders how Shahrukh Khan or Aamir Khan — two of the many Muslims prominent in the film industry — felt about being regarded as cancers in need of excising.  Still, the legendary Amitabh Bachchan says he spent “hours by Thackeray’s bedside” according to this slideshow by DNA India:

The BBC, at least, got straight to the point:

Hindu fundamentalist politician Bal Thackeray, the founder of the right-wing Shiv Sena party, has died in Mumbai at the age of 86.

Mr Thackeray was blamed for inciting tensions between Hindu and Muslim communities during the 1993 Mumbai riots in which about 900 people died.

His fiery rhetoric made him one of India’s most controversial politicians.

The Shiv Sena was founded to keep South Indian migrants out of Maharashtra state and to halt the spread of Islam.

But it is the wire service Associated Press that comes closest, I think, to the truth:

MUMBAI, India (AP) — Bal Thackeray, a Hindu extremist leader linked to waves of mob violence against Muslims and migrant workers in India, died Saturday after an illness of several weeks. He was 86.

So, he’s gone.  Now what?  Two things to watch for: one, how much violence Thackeray’s angry followers inflict in the days ahead; the other, whether Narendra Modi, who shares Thackeray’s sectarian tendencies, becomes the next prime minister of India.  If Modi fails, we will know that the true cancer — that of religious demagoguery — has gone into remission.


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One Response to “Bal Thackeray dying in India, violence expected”

  1. […] Sena strategy, a similarly chauvinist political gang, whose leader Bal Thackeray died last year — I denounced him too.]  It is neither spontaneous, as sometimes claimed, nor unwelcome, at least when seen from the […]

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