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View: Thackeray, a close ally of the capitalists

November 29, 2012 22:17 IST

'Many people are in awe of the power wielded by Thackeray. I found that even R K Laxman shared this feeling though both he and Thackeray began as cartoonists in the 1940s.'

'See how far ahead Thackeray has gone. And here I am,' he told me one day in a sad tone,' recalls Vidyadhar Date who assesses Balasaheb Thackeray's political legacy.

Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, who passed away November 17, was essentially a man liked by capitalists, who were very comfortable with him. That is why he was boosted by most media outlets during his lifetime. After his death, there has been more gushing praise of the man.

Thackeray's father Prabodhankar was an avid Shakespeare fan; he spent so much from his scare resources on books that it alarmed his mother. He devoted a lot of his time to researching in libraries.

Thackeray was unlike his father in many ways. Prabodhankar was a rationalist, an activist and a supporter of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr Ambedkar and social reformer Jyotirao Phule. He also wrote several books. But how many people remember Prabodhankar Thackeray today?

Bal Thackeray had little use for serious books.

Liberals have often criticised Thackeray for his communalism, hate speeches and chauvinism; and rightly so. But in his lifetime and after, there is little recognition of the fact that he was a close ally of the capitalists.

All over the world, capitalists have always needed an army of people to terrorise others, especially dissenters. The Shiv Sena was seen as a solid ally.

There is justifiable and widespread anger over the recent arrest of two girls for their Facebook post on in the wake of Thackeray's death.

But there is little recognition of the politically-directed violence of the Shiv Sena.

It began in 1970 with the murder of Krishna Desai, a Communist member of the Maharashtra legislative assembly. That was the defining act of the Shiv Sena. It showed where it stood. It was a well measured and well thought out attack on the Left movement, which was fairly strong then.

The murder aroused few protests from beyond the Communist fold then. Few remember it today though it should serve as a warning for all time to come.

When it comes to confronting Fascists and hoodlums and the wealthy and the imperialists, there is noticeable timidity and inactivity on the part of intellectuals.

Martin Niemoller, a German activist clergyman, warned against this inactivity when drawing attention to the Nazi threat in Germany with his famous line, 'If you do not act when others are attacked, there will be no one to protect you if you are attacked.'

There is conspicuous omission in the gushing obituaries about Thackeray of the Shiv Sena's role in attacking working people's movements. As a young journalist, I still remember veteran Bhalchandra Marathe of the Free Press Journal recalling what one of Krishna Desai's assassins had said.

He said he thrust the knife and then turned the handle because that would really rupture the interior organs. It was a murder most foul.

Thackeray's role has to be seen in the context of the way cities are being reshaped the world over to serve the interests of the rich and to exclude the poor.

David Harvey, one of the most eminent thinkers of urban life, economics and politics, is our best guide to understand the issue. He asserts that ordinary people should get a right to the city, access its services and shape its development. It should be seen as a fundamental right.

In his book Rebel Cities, he shows how cities can be a harbinger of protest and change as in the case of the Occupy Movement in the United States.

Unfortunately, Thackeray intervened little on behalf of the poor though the poor Marathi Manoos was his main electoral plank. His talk seldom matched his practice when it came to the crux of the matter.

But then how does one explain the phenomenal response to his funeral procession?

This question has been aptly asked on Facebook by John Game, a British citizen, who has done field work in Mumbai. A staunch leftist himself, he says we should realise that the Shiv Sena also did some service to citizens.

True, Thackeray channelised people's frustration and economic hardships, but he did it in a very negative way, by reinforcing prejudices and encouraging violence and threats. Often, the poor were the victims, as in the case of those who were seen as outsiders. The rich had little to fear from him.

He was expected to halt the gentrification of Mumbai and the eviction of the poor through physical and financial coercion. He has been called a tiger, an emperor, king of Mumbai and what not. Why was this king then so powerless to help the poor?

The most blatant and glaring example of the Shiv Sena's role is evident in front of the Shiv Sena Bhavan in the heart of Dadar.

You just cannot miss it. A high-rise, glass covered, environment-unfriendly structure is coming up there. From this under-construction building, hundreds of people staked out to watch the funeral procession.

The land belonged to the Kohinoor Textile Mill of the National Textile Corporation. Anyone would expect a party, speaking on behalf of the Marathi Manoos, to demand that it be used as a public space in a city which desperately needs more of that.

Strangely, it was bought for hundreds of crores of rupees and the buyers were (former Shiv Sena leader and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena founder) Raj Thackeray and Unmesh Joshi, son of former Shiv Sena chief minister Manohar Joshi.

Raj Thackeray is said to have made a huge profit by selling his stake, as reported by The Economic Times, on November 15, 2009.

The mill once belonged to Laxmanrao Apte, the father of former Test cricketer Madhav Apte, very much a Marathi Manoos.

The Aptes were so affluent that they owned a bungalow on Peddar Road, which has now been converted into the swanky Woodlands apartments in south Mumbai.

Had the big plot of Kohinoor mill remained vacant, the government would not have had to hunt for space to build a memorial for Thackeray, which is now being vociferously demanded by the Sena.

But then it is so much easier to prey on public resources. So there is a demand that the memorial be constructed on Shivaji Park, one of the few big open spaces in the city.

One can only hope that the memorial is environment-friendly, not a gigantic structure of cement and concrete.

Thackeray comprehensively reversed the liberal tradition of Maharashtra.

Incidentally, Mahatma Gandhi's guru was Gopal Krishna Gokhale and his favourite disciple was Vinoba Bhave -- both Maharashtrians.

Thackeray bore the title of Senapati, a military general, and acted ruthlessly.

So different from another Senapati from Maharashtra -- Senapati Pandurang Mahadev Bapat -- a highly respected Gandhian who opted for the path of peaceful struggle after studying in England and learning how to assemble bombs.

Bapat led the world's first struggle against the construction of a dam -- the Mulshi satyagraha against the takeover of the land of Mavlas, poor peasants whose forefathers were the backbone of Shivaji's guerilla army -- in 1921.

The practice of pillaging the land of the poor has now been revived --– as recently seen in Singur, West Bengal. The land of the Mavlas is now being overrun and vandalised by the rich and being turned into fancy townships.

The Shiv Sena has not uttered a word against this, though it speaks all the time in the name of Shivaji, as it is politically convenient and easy to exploit.

And the Shiv Sena does nothing to stop the complete removal of working class history and heritage.

Most political analysis and academic work overlooks the cosy relationship between the Sena and capitalists. But here is a surprise.

One can read between the lines in an article eulogising Thackeray by Rahul Bajaj -- chairman of the Bajaj Group and an articulate spokesman of corporate interests -- on the front page of The Economic Times on November 19.

'My late uncle Ramakrishna Bajaj was a good friend of Balasaheb. When parliamentary elections were taking place, both Balasaheb and my uncle were anti-Communist. Though the ideology of the Congress and the Shiv Sena was not common, they maintained a good rapport,' he says.

It was a time when anti-Left organisations were floated in different parts of the country in the wake of the debacle of the Congress in the elections.

Many people are in awe of the power wielded by Thackeray. I found that even the highly-respected cartoonist R K Laxman, my senior colleague at The Times of India, shared this feeling, though both he and Thackeray began as political cartoonists in the Free Press Journal in the 1940s.

"See how far ahead Thackeray has gone. And here I am," he told me one day in a sad tone.

That was the one time I could not agree with Laxman.

Now some consolation can be taken from the public outcry in support of freedom of expression in the wake of the girls' arrest. There was little of this in the past.

A glaring victim of prejudice was Professor Pandharinath Vishnu Ranade, a Marxist professor of history, a poet and author of a book on the art of the Ajanta Caves.

This was in 1974.

The year of the tercentenary of Shivaji's coronation of 1674 was celebrated in Maharashtra with much fanfare.

Professor Ranade offered a dissenting note in an article in the weekly Ranangan. He was quite respectful towards Shivaji and only argued that hero worshipping him was inconsistent with democratic principles given the nature of the feudal era in which Shivaji lived.

This created a storm.

Ranade lost his job at Marathwada University and he was reinstated only after protests by some leading progressive historians in the Indian History Congress.

One day, he was surrounded by Shiv Sainiks and threatened by them. When I intervened, I was assaulted and my spectacles were broken. Instead of condemning the attack on the freedom of expression, The Maharashtra Times criticised Ranade in an editorial.

That is the tragedy. The public perception of many people is entirely at odds with reality.

I have met a number of 'well educated people' who firmly believe that it was because of Thackeray that Hindus were saved from the onslaught of Muslims in the riots that rocked Mumbai in 1992-1993.

Vidyadhar Date is a veteran political commentator based in Mumbai.

Vidyadhar Date