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HindustanTimes Thu,10 Jul 2014

Thackeray and the age of deniability

Smruti Koppikar, Hindustan Times
November 28, 2012
First Published: 02:30 IST(28/11/2012)
Last Updated: 02:32 IST(28/11/2012)

Do you want a memorial for the late Bal Thackeray? Would you like it to be at Shivaji Park itself? It does not matter what you would like, for the issue of the memorial is now out of the citizens' orbit; it's a matter, resembling a tug-of-war, between the Shiv Sena and the state government. The Sena, true to character, has dug in its heels demanding a memorial at the very site in Shivaji Park that he was cremated. The government is gamely resisting the Sena's designs, at least it appears to be, though it may eventually bow down to "popular emotion" or some such rule-bending excuse.

The debate over the location and form of the memorial is, in a sense, futile. The cremation spot has a make-shift structure which draws the faithful every day, it is cleaned and adorned with fresh flowers every day by the faithful, it brings out complete reverence in the faithful, its appeal to the faithful can only grow as time passes. Its sanctity, as Thackeray's key lieutenant Sanjay Raut pointed out, is "similar to Ayodhya. It is like a temple for us and we won't remove the structure that has come up at the cremation site".

Thackeray will be increasingly deified, as the weeks, months and years go by. The Thackeray cult will have lakhs of faithful followers and attempt to draw more into its domain. As cult figures go, his heroics - or those that the cultists determine as his heroics - will become part of the urban legend and folklore. The memorial is but a device in this process.

A memorial is a remembrance, yes, but a memorial is also an affirmation of a particular world view, in this case the Sena's view of Thackeray. Once a memorial of a public figure takes shape in a complex urban setting such as Mumbai, we enter the age of deniability. For Thackeray to be deified, certain unpalatable aspects of his contribution to Mumbai, and urban Maharashtra, will have to be denied, if not actively then by ensuring their absence from public discourse and memory.

Not far from the Shivaji Park "temple" to him, are other memorials or sites for memorials. There's one dedicated to VD Savarkar who inspires starkly different emotions in people, Chaityabhoomi nearby attracts lakhs of followers of Dr BR Ambedkar, who too provokes complete devotion or strident criticism. If all goes to plan, Ambedkar will be deified in a memorial of "international standards" in the coming months on the prime land owned by the defunct Indu Mills.

A memorial has a symbolic value. What does Thackeray best symbolise, especially for Mumbai? An answer lies in Palghar where two college-going girls are struggling to reclaim their lives after a Sena-style protest combined with an over-enthusiastic police action against them. Yet another answer lies in the complete shutdown in the city after his death.

The true Thackeray tradition hardly allows a public discussion on what he symbolises. This, in itself, signifies him.
Smruti Koppikar, Editor, Special Assignments


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