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Shifting identity politics

Thackeray lost right to vote for six years; paid the price for Hindutva venom. Smruti Koppikar writes. Thackeray and controversies | The speech made by Sena chief in 1987 | The Prabhoo-Thackeray case

mumbai Updated: Nov 18, 2012 03:04 IST
Smruti Koppikar

Bal Thackeray, and by definition the Shiv Sena, moved from parochialism to communalism, and eventually, in the winter of his life, seemed to swing between the two depending on the circumstances he was reacting to. The Sena of 1966, and the subsequent two decades, was a socio-political outfit built on regional and language identity markers in a cosmopolitan city.

If there was a paradox in that, it escaped Thackeray and his then lieutenants. "Even his harshest critics and some Congressmen will concede that Thackeray helped cement the Marathi identity in a city that was rapidly becoming non-Marathi," noted Prakash Akolkar, editor and author of a volume on Thackeray's politics. The 'sons-of-the-soil' theory had been shaped.

Whether the integration of the Marathi manoos into a single unilateral identity was advisable is open to sociological debate. But did it succeed in deepening the Marathi-ness in various aspects of Mumbai life, and halt the assumed domination of 'the other' - south Indian or north Indian - in the city? The answer, perhaps, lies in the fact that his nephew and political disciple Raj Thackeray had to fall back on the same cause 40 long years later. Thackeray and controversies

In the mid-80s, Thackeray moved from parochialism to what, he then believed, was a larger unifying force: religious identity. It coincided with the upsurge in Hindutva politics championed by the Bharatiya Janata Party; soon, the two political parties entered into an alliance, each feeding off the other's cause. "This was also the time Thackeray realised that concentrating on the Marathi manoos plank had got him marginal results in the state assembly and Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation," says a senior Sena leader. "When he switched to Hindutva, the numbers surged exponentially."

The Ramesh Prabhoo bye-election in Mumbai's Vile Parle constituency marked this transition. In the three meetings Thackeray addressed, he took an overt, aggressive, deliberately provocative stand; his Hindutva utterances set the tone for his politics in the next two decades until he, and the BJP, realised that the Hindutva plank was fetching diminishing returns.

Thackeray had described Muslims as "snakes", and "landya" (slang for circumcised men) in Prabhoo's campaign. Cases in the Bombay high court and the Supreme Court not only rendered Prabhoo's election void, but disenfranchised Thackeray for six years - a regionally powerful leader and partner in national government stripped of his right to vote.

Thackeray then moulded himself and the party into a Hindu right-wing party; around this time, he began to be described as the 'Hindu Hriday Samrat' (emperor of Hindu hearts).

"The Hindutva plank helped Sena-BJP win Maharashtra in 1995," the Sena leader pointed out. In the next decade though, as son Uddhav's worldview began to shape the party ideology, the Sena seemed to sport an uncharacteristic inclusive character, but quickly settled down to a mix of the old son-of-the-soil platform and Hindutva.

The Sena's rank and file was disturbed at the 'dilution' of the party's original ideology, which in the next few years, Raj capitalised on, and moulded his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena into a rehashed version of the old sons-of-the-soil ideology.

That during this resurgence, the numbers of Marathi manoos from Marathi-dominated areas dwindled, fewer Marathi-medium schools functioned each passing year, and the space for Marathi culture shrunk, is a different story altogether.