Once upon a time there was a great city called Bombay, a multicultural cosmopolitan metropolis, which welcomed one and all. It was India’s greatest city, its people insisted, and definitely a much better place than Delhi.
Then came Bal Thackeray, the vigilante who ruled the city by force, destroying what was once Bombay, making it Mumbai, a city that could anytime be gripped with fear. Or, so went the liberal narrative.
The same Shiv Sena has today become the darling of Indian liberals, as it breaks away from its old ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party. To keep the BJP out and check the unbridled power of Modi-Shah, the Shiv Sena is suddenly kosher for liberals.
With Uddhav Thackeray’s imminent occupation of the chief minister’s chair in Mumbai’s Mantralaya building, it seems like it was another era when Bal Thackeray was India’s most extremist politician. The Shiv Sena was more Right-wing than the BJP and its parent organisation, the RSS.
Bloodshed in Behrampada
One saw the worst of the Shiv Sena during the Bombay riots of 1992-93, after the Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya.
The B.N. Srikrishna Commission, which probed the causes of the Mumbai riots that killed 900 people with majority being Muslims, named Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray in its report. The commission said the second phase of riots were “taken over by Shiv Sena and its leaders who continued to whip up communal frenzy by their statements and acts and writings and directives issued by the Shiv Sena Pramukh Bal Thackeray”. Bal Thackeray openly boasted about his party’s role in the riots.
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These riots were used as a justification by Dawood Ibrahim and his associates for the deadly 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts that left 257 people dead. And more rioting followed.
In the Muslim-dominated Behrampada slum near Bandra, there must be fear again at the thought of the Shiv Sena ruling the state, with Bal Thackeray’s son as chief minister. The memories of the 1992-93 violence haven’t exactly faded away.
Bal Thackeray repeatedly spoke against Muslims and Islam, wanted Shah Rukh Khan tried for sedition, and his party threatened violent protests against any event in Maharashtra that involved Pakistanis. The Shiv Sena repeatedly prevented Pakistan from playing cricket in India — even in Delhi and Agra. The famous modus operandi was to damage the stadium pitch. Thackeray praised Adolf Hitler often and even compared himself to Hitler once. Only in later years did he start qualifying his praise for Hitler. He also repeatedly called for Hindus to take to suicide bombing to counter Islamist terrorism.
When violence is politics
While this was the worst of the Sena, it was by no means an exception. There is hardly a political party that hasn’t used violence at some point in time. For the Shiv Sena, politics is violence. It is the essential core of the party’s way of doing things – although some say it’s been trying to change.
Or, is it? As the BJP tried to form a government in Maharashtra last week, a Shiv Sena MLA said, “If anyone tries to break away any Shiv Sena MLA, then I will smash their head. I will also break their leg.” Yet, what was unusual was the name of the MLA: Abdul Sattar. Today’s Shiv Sena, the party insists, has left behind the politics of xenophobia and othering and wants everybody’s votes, including those of Muslims.
When the party was railing against south Indians, its workers would go around vandalising Udipi restaurants. Yet, the Shiv Sena is politically expedient. It has been known to change its political focus from time to time. To begin with, it identified south Indians as the enemies of the ‘Marathi manoos’. Then it was the Communists, then Biharis, then Muslims, and so on. The Sena has been known to flirt with rivals, changing its alliances as and when required. It was, after all, a creation of the Congress to counter Leftists.
Moderating the Sena
A Shiv Sena leader tells me that the party has been moderating itself since the death of Bal Thackeray in 2012. Thackeray’s nephew Raj parted ways and formed the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) in 2006, and the MNS appeared to inherit the violent vigilantism of Bal Thackeray. Uddhav Thackeray, in contrast, has been more of a reticent, soft-spoken drawing-room politician. He isn’t exactly a rabble-rouser like his father, nor a charismatic orator. Yet, he’s succeeded, eventually, because of the Shiv Sena cadre.
This ‘moderation’ has, however, been a slow exercise. Liberals are presuming the Shiv Sena will just change colours overnight to stay in power. But it may not be so easy. Aaditya Thackeray may no longer burn books, as he did when he entered politics nine years ago. But the Shiv Sena has until recently been taking a stronger stand on Hindutva issues than the BJP. Over issues like Ram Mandir and the National Register of Citizens, the Shiv Sena has played holier than thou with the BJP.
The Shiv Sena has committed itself to secularism as part of the ‘common minimum programme’ with the Congress and the NCP. It may now be difficult for Saamana editor Sanjay Raut to boast that the Sena helped demolished the Babri Masjid in ‘just 17 minutes’. Will the ‘moderate’ Sena of Uddhav Thackeray still demand a complete ban on the burqa, as it did just a few months ago? Uddhav Thackeray may no longer hail Godse as a patriot, as he did in 2013, or demand a permit system for Biharis coming to Mumbai, which he wanted in 2012. But the BJP will definitely embarrass him with his past statements on a daily basis.
Will the Shiv Sena still ask for NRC in Mumbai to throw out ‘Bangladeshis’? The Congress may look the other way at the BJP’s proposal of a Bharat Ratna for Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, but what if there’s Hindu-Muslim violence fomented by Hindutva proxies? In trying to go mainstream and check the BJP, the Shiv Sena could fall between two stools. On the one hand, the BJP could take the Hindutva high ground, while on the other hand, it could strategically use the MNS against the Sena.
The Shiv Sena recently endeared itself to Left-liberals by joining the movement to oppose the felling of trees in the Aarey forests for building a Metro line. It was just the sort of cause that Aaditya Thackeray needed to establish himself as a modern, sensitive leader who’s aware of issues. And yet, many attacked the Shiv Sena for its hypocrisy of being in alliance with the BJP and still not being able to stop the felling of trees. Isn’t this the party that can bring Mumbai to a halt, people wondered. Sena workers took to some token vandalism (token by their standards).
Now that the Shiv Sena is with the NCP and the Congress, it is going to face many more such contradictions. We’ll likely hear the word ‘hypocrisy’ a lot now.
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