'It was a reaffirmation of his party's unrelenting defiance of its erstwhile ally, the BJP; an attempt to forge a new relationship with the community the Shiv Sena had always targeted; and a pointer towards the political imperative of taking everyone along if the fight against the ruling party had to succeed,' notes Jyoti Punwani.
Some hailed it as a "historical occasion", others couldn't get over the incongruity of it all.
Saturday, January 4, evening saw Shiv Sena MP and Saamnaa Executive Editor Sanjay Raut speak at an anti-CAA/NRC meeting organised by the Jamaat e Islami.
Raut's speech conveyed many things.
It was at once a reaffirmation of his party's unrelenting defiance of its erstwhile ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party; an attempt to forge a new relationship with the community the Shiv Sena had always targeted; and a pointer towards the political imperative of taking everyone along if the fight against the ruling party had to succeed.
As a major concession to his audience, Raut spoke in Hindi, using Marathi only to begin and end his speech.
"Bhiyu naka! (Do not fear!)" were the words with which he ended his speech.
Here was the spokesman of a party which had terrorised Muslims for the better part of its existence, asking them not to be afraid.
"Those who strike fear in people come and go," declared Raut. "One can't live in fear. Jo dar gaya so mar gaya. It is Maharashtra that showed the rest of the country not to be afraid."
Where does one start counting the ironies contained in these utterances?
The founder of the Shiv Sena and Raut's mentor, used to proudly declare that he believed in thokshahi, not lokshahi: The rule of violence, not democracy. Bal Thackeray ran his party with an iron fist, and not just Shiv Sainiks, even Congress governments and their police heeded his aadesh.
But like all dictators do one day, he too had gone. Indeed, his departure was one of the main reasons why a Muslim religious group could even consider inviting the spokesman of his party as the star speaker.
The fear Raut was talking about was the fear of the prime minister-home minister combine.
After their massive victory in last year's Lok Sabha election, the seeming invincibility of the Modi-Shah duo had demoralised the Opposition and indeed, all those who wanted an end to their majoritarian politics.
Amid this overpowering gloom, came the Shiv Sena's break with the BJP.
The ruling party's oldest ally and the one most closely allied to its Hindutva ideology became the first to do the unthinkable -- break ties with its ally when the latter had attained the stature of the most powerful ruling party in the last 35 years.
And as the Jamaat spokesman who welcomed him said, Sanjay Raut was the man who had taken the lead in making this daring break.
Now Raut was citing his own party's example to exhort Muslims, the ruling party's main target, not to be afraid of this seemingly all-powerful dictatorial duo.
For decades, the Congress would resurrect the bogey of the big bad Shiv Sena-cum-BJP wolf before every election, to scare Muslims into voting for it. Now here was the wolf himself encouraging its supposed prey to cast off their fear of its fellow wolf.
In this new relationship, the traditional protector was out in the cold, with no role to play, for Muslims know that it takes one wolf to recognize the strength and weakness of another.
And they haven't forgotten that after winning their votes by raising this bogey, the Congress (and its ally in Maharashtra, the Nationalist Congress Party) did nothing to keep it at bay.
The cheers that greeted Raut through his speech reflected this new relationship between the Muslims and the Shiv Sena. But the ironies were not all delicious.
After describing how the NRC would be a curse not just for Muslims, but for 30% of Hindus across the country who kept losing crucial documents in tsunamis and floods, Raut struck a different note.
"You know all too well the relationship between the Shiv Sena and the law," he said. "We have never feared the law. Laws are on paper. So don't worry too much about this law."
The cheers that greeted this cheeky boast could not hide one harsh reality.
The phenomenon that Raut was boasting about -- the Sena's disdain for the law -- had always wrecked havoc on innocent citizens, with Muslims being the victims of the Sena's lawlessness more often than not.
Driving home this cruel irony was the sight of the man seated next to Raut on stage. Senior advocate Yusuf Muchhala had represented Muslims before the Justice B N Srikrishna Commission, and his cross-examination of then Sena chief minister Manohar Joshi and then Lok Sabha member Madhukar Sarpotdar had contributed to the commission's indictment of Bal Thackeray and his party's role in the 1992-1993 riots.
Muchhala was the only lawyer who had fought for almost two decades in the Supreme Court for the implementation of the Srikrishna Commission, which meant, among other things, prosecution of policemen who had shielded Shiv Sainiks, and the re-opening of closed riot cases against Shiv Sainiks.
But who in the audience of cheering Muslims knew this or remembered this? The moment belonged to Raut.
And indeed, for one part of his speech, the Sena MP deserved the cheers, when he said what would put any secular politician to shame.
Speaking just before Raut, retired Justice B G Kolse-Patil had reminded the audience that their community numbered 20 crore, and the strength of that number could not be underestimated.
"Don't talk about how many crores you are," Raut told the audience. "Stop counting your numbers. Because if you are 20 crore, we too are 110 crore. Instead of counting our respective numbers, we must fight together for the country, all 130 crore of us."
Muslims declaring that they were 20 crore was what the BJP wanted, said Raut. "They could then turn to the Hindus and say: 'Look, those 20 crore are getting together, so you better unite and vote for us. For don't forget," he added, "this whole exercise is to win the 2024 election by dividing and ruling."
Asking Muslims to "stand up not just for your religion, but for your country," Raut reminded them that "We are all equal citizens. If one of us faces injustice, the others must fight for him. This is what they fear: If all these people come together, where will we go?"