Back in the 1990s, when Bal Thackeray was calling Muslims names - his favourite words being "snakes" and the slang "landya" (slang for circumcised men) - he invited the bureau chief of a national news-magazine for a chat over beer. Nothing unusual, except that the journalist was a Muslim. We had a great time talking about this, that and the other, the journalist remarked later.
In the same period, Thackeray had let invective loose on two journalists who were not only Maharashtrian but also wrote in Marathi. Historian, author and then editor of Loksatta, Dr Aroon Tikekar, was repeatedly abused in Thackeray's Saamna, threatened by Shiv Sainiks, and goons set upon him to an extent that he lived and worked under police protection for four-and-a-half years. Thackeray's other choice for the slugfest was Marathi eveninger Mahanagar's redoubtable editor Nikhil Wagle, who was physically harmed on occasions, his office vandalised, his journalists thrashed.
The roll-call of journalists and television camerapersons who have taken a hit - with crowbars and hockey sticks, or cuss words on Saamna's front page - is a rather long one. The common thread is that all, in one way or another, reported that which Thackeray believed portrayed him or the Shiv Sena in negative light, or journalistically assessed his aims and methods.
Thackeray, it seemed, expected loyalty from all journalists; there was hardly any space for debate, let alone criticism. "I quoted a popular abhang (devotional song) in an editorial, which infuriated him. I also wrote that it was improper that he had made Manohar Joshi, who had just become chief minister, touch his feet on a public platform, during which he further pushed Joshi's head down, to wide applause," said Tikekar.
At the height of his hold over Mumbai, as the frequency of attacks on journalists increased, Thackeray faced something he had not believed possible till then: the country's senior-most and well-known editors attended a day-long protest rally held by Mumbai journalists opposite the Sena Bhavan, the only such rally by the media. It was a severe condemnation. "Thackeray appeared on the balcony of Sena Bhavan, took in the scene, and turned away with a dismissive wave of the hand. He didn't care," recalled Jatin Desair, a former journalist, then with the Bombay Union of Journalists.
Thackeray, when he wrote, could be singularly scathing, vitriolic and unsparing. Yet, as several analysts have pointed out over the years, he would not rebut an argument, debate an issue or formulate a view. He would address cogent arguments on an issue with ridicule and dismissal, often of the variety that appealed to the gallery. "The idea was to shame or threaten the writers or critics so that the critical writing would stop," remarked Dinu Ranadive, veteran journalist. Thackeray's language was called "colourful" by many; it was more dangerous than that. Women journalists were once abused as "high-class call girls".
The dichotomous relationship he shared with the media - he welcomed media attention in good measure and heaped equal amounts of physical and verbal abuse - was reflected in his daily Saamna. Is it a newspaper or a party mouthpiece, ask analysts.
As a newspaper, it would be expected to function with certain decorum and within some parameters; it would also be subject to scrutiny that other media is routinely put to. As a party organ, it could get away with much more. Thackeray used it as both, often at the same time. In the last few years, as his public appearances became fewer, the front page of Saamna was the platform from which he addressed Sainiks.