We have all often denounced the Shiv Sena for its violence, and some of us have been its victims as well. But if we have never stinted on blaming the party for its controversial ways, there is no reason to stint on praising Shiv Sainiks for their exemplary conduct during Bal Thackeray's funeral
procession from Matoshree to Shivaji Park and then at the funeral at the maidan.
We had never seen anything like it in Mumbai before. Lakhs of people walked the 6-km stretch in quiet, dignified silence, and more than a hundred thousand stood in controlled grief first at Sena Bhavan, where Thackeray's body was kept for half-an-hour, and later in the evening at the Park.
The crowd was so massive that I felt, when I was negotiating my way through it with difficulty, that anything was possible: a stampede in case someone panicked, and full-scale violence in case someone lit so much as a small spark. Nothing happened. Instead, there was total silence when the police gave Thackeray a 21-gun salute, Padmaja Fenani-Joglekar sang saint Ramdas's poem Nishchayaacha Mahameru and son Uddhav lit the funeral pyre.
For the historian, political scientist and sociologist, there were other things to note. The funeral, and some reactions to the death, were proof of the mass appeal of one of India's most colourful, controversial and charismatic politicians.
Not everybody in the crowd was a Shiv Sainik: there were ordinary Mumbaiites there, among them North Indians and South Indians (yes, even from among the linguistic groups the Sena had targeted), and some were accompanied by their families.
Many Muslims from Mahim stood at the Scout Hall end of the Park to pay their last respects to Thackeray, and regardless of whether they had ever voted for the Sena or not, many families across the city put out their Diwali lights as soon as news of his death came in. The lights - which usually don't go off for at least a fortnight after Diwali - haven't come on since, and I know for a fact that in many cases, this has not happened under duress.
What explains this reaction? What accounts for the fact that Bal Thackeray's appeal was not reduced even though his party's fortunes have declined? Just the personality cult, or something more than that? Are there social, political and cultural undercurrents in the city that we have not examined closely enough? Are there issues which are unaddressed, and is the gentrification happening across the city creating new socio-economic-political tensions? Why has the Maharashtrian community sustained the Shiv Sena for so long, and why did other Hindu communities embrace it in the 1990s? We have to investigate all of this if we are to make sense of the contemporary history of our city and ensure that all social tensions are eliminated.
And which face of the Shiv Sena will we see in future? The one which earned so much goodwill at Shivaji Park or the one that did its best to lose it by going on the rampage at a clinic in Palghar?