What really happened on August 26, 2001, when Anand Dighe died?

Aug 03, 2022 12:33 AM IST

Shinde, whose rebellion in June split the Shiv Sena down the middle and led to the fall of the Sena-led coalition Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government, was in Malegaon

Mumbai: In a recent public meeting chief minister Eknath Shinde did not mince his words when he said that he would soon make a revelation that would cause “a political earthquake”, not just in the state but in the country. The big reveal he alluded to pertained to the death of the late Shiv Sena strongman Anand Dighe, who died after an accident in 2001.

Shinde was referring to former CM and Sena president Uddhav Thackeray’s interviews to the Shiv Sena mouthpiece ‘Saamana’ carried on 26 and 27 July (HT Archives)
Shinde was referring to former CM and Sena president Uddhav Thackeray’s interviews to the Shiv Sena mouthpiece ‘Saamana’ carried on 26 and 27 July (HT Archives)

Shinde, whose rebellion in June split the Shiv Sena down the middle and led to the fall of the Sena-led coalition Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government, was in Malegaon, on a state tour on July 30, when he said, “I know a few things about what happened to Anand Dighe. I have not spoken about the same yet but I will do it in the coming days… I will not say some things openly today, but will do so at the right time. At the moment, there is a spate of interviews. On the day that I speak out and when I am interviewed, there will be a huge earthquake not just in the state, but in the country.”

Shinde was referring to former CM and Sena president Uddhav Thackeray’s interviews to the Shiv Sena mouthpiece ‘Saamana’ carried on 26 and 27 July.

Shinde, who started his political career as a party worker in Thane and rose through the ranks after becoming a shakha pramukh and then a corporator, was among those personally mentored by Dighe. More than two decades after Dighe’s death — he passed away on August 26, 2001 of a heart attack — the Thane leader’s larger-than-life image looms large in the Sena even today.

Dighe’s death and the aftermath

Dighe was injured in a car accident that occurred on the morning of August 25 in 2001. He was taken to the Sunitidevi Singhania Hospital in Thane and treated for a fractured leg. The doctors performed a surgery on Dighe the following day. However, he suffered two heart attacks later that evening. He passed away around 10.30 pm —Uddhav Thackeray, then a Sena leader, broke the news of Dighe’s death to Sainiks who had gathered in the vicinity.

Prakash Paranjape, a Shiv Sena MP from Thane who was with Dighe during his last hours told the local media at the time that Dighe had died following two heart attacks. The doctors had tried their best to revive him but could not save him, other Sena leaders told the media. However, the gathered mob went on the rampage and destroyed the hospital. Several party workers came out on roads and ransacked vehicles, even torching an ambulance.

“There was tension in the city after Dighe was injured in the accident. The crowd outside the hospital was incensed after Dighe’s death was announced. A chair was thrown when a senior Shiv Sena leader was addressing the crowd. After that the violence began. There was a perception that this death was due to medical negligence or foul play,” said a senior journalist who was at the hospital when the violence started. He said that even journalists and photographers were attacked and the hospital was ransacked and set on fire. “There were explosions in the hospital, perhaps due to (LPG or oxygen) cylinders,” he recalled.

The journalist, who did not wish to be named, said that doubts over Dighe’s death intensified after a few senior Sena leaders commented that Dighe, who was a chain smoker, and kept irregular hours of work and sleep, was vulnerable to a heart attack. Such was the anger of Dighe’s followers that senior leaders of the party had to be evacuated out of the hospital as the vandalism began.

“There was chaos as mob went out of control late evening as the news [of Dighe’s death] broke. Even some journalists were beaten up. The mob also burnt down an ambulance parked outside the hospital. We could hear screams of the people. Many Dighe followers were crying,” recalled Kistu Fernandes, a photojournalist. “There were police deployed outside the hospital but the mob was huge and uncontrollable,” he said.

Though he was the Sena’s undisputed boss in Thane district (which also comprised present-day Palghar), Dighe had outgrown the party. It was often said, albeit in hushed tones, that party supremo Bal Thackeray’s famed control over party leaders developed a snag when it came to Dighe, who worked with greater autonomy.

For a long time after Dighe’s death, there conspiracy theories about how he died abounded. Some of his supporters floated another political party called Anand Sena, but it was short-lived.

Conspiracy theories

In 2019, Nilesh Rane, the former Lok Sabha MP and son of Narayan Rane, (he is now a union minister of the Bharatiya Janata Party) hinted that foul play was involved in Dighe’s death. Rane was upset over the criticism his father received from Sena leaders, which prompted him to make a similar threat that Shinde made over the past weekend. Rane said he would reveal “what really happened to Anand Dighe. How the conspiracy was planned and how the death was shown as having happened in the hospital later.”

The senior Rane, once a Sena leader who defected to the Congress in 2005 and later joined the BJP in 2019, disowned these statements. “I will not support something wrong. Dighe did not die because someone killed him. I was the last person to meet Dighe then, and he passed away a few seconds after I left. His condition was very serious when I went there. The Doctors were trying hard. I went outside and called Balasaheb (late Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray) and asked him to do something and send Dr Nitu Mandke (a renowned cardiologist)... Nitu Mandke spoke to me, but before he reached, Dighe passed away,” Narayan Rane said adding that allegations of foul play held no water.

However, the city was privy to Sena’s violent past. For instance, Krishna Desai, a Communist Party of India (CPI) MLA and strongman from Parel who countered the Shiv Sena blow-for-blow, was stabbed to death, allegedly by Shiv Sainiks, on June 5, 1970. In the by-elections held in October that year, the Sena candidate Wamanrao Mahadik defeated Desai’s widow Sarojini, to become the first Sena MLA.

In 1967, the Shiv Sena, which was then supported by the Congress and its chief minister Vasantrao Naik, to break the hold of the Communists over the labour unions, attacked the CPI office at Dalvi Building in Parel. The Shiv Sena also played a role in in communal riots of 1992–93 which followed the blasts that rocked the city after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 by workers of right-wing parties who called themselves kar sevaks.

Dighe too was charged with the murder of Sena corporator Shridhar Khopkar in March 1989. Khopkar had allegedly cross-voted in the Thane mayoral polls which led to the defeat of Sena nominee Prakash Paranjape. Dighe was among those arrested for the murder and charged under the stringent Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, 1987. Dighe was let off on bail in the case.

According to a former police officer who has surveyed the rise of the Sena, it was the party’s own violent past that created a cloud over Dighe’s death.

On July 31, a day after Shinde’s allegations, Thackeray announced that Kedar Dighe, the nephew of the late Thane strongman, would be the new Thane district chief of the Sena. Kedar Dighe, who had performed the cremation rites of his uncle in 2001, wondered why Shinde had chosen to keep silent all these years if he knew what had happened to Dighe.

“I am surprised. Eknathji Shinde was active in the Shiv Sena for years and held several positions… why didn’t he feel that he should reveal these secrets?” he said on July 30.

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