What will the Thackeray memorial mean to Mumbai?
With an impending general election, the Devendra Fadnavis government has reached out to its angry ally, Shiv Sena, through the Thackeray memorial.
The late Bal Thackeray’s fondness for Mumbai’s Shivaji Park was apparent; he held the first rally of the fledgling Shiv Sena here on Dussehra day in 1966. His visits to the Mayor’s Bungalow opposite the Park came in the 1980s, when the party won majority in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and Sena men and women were appointed mayors. Thackeray would occasionally drop in, occupy the large chair upholstered in saffron in the conference hall, and address loyal Shiv Sainiks.
In July 2000, the Mayor’s Bungalow turned into a make-shift police station when Thackeray was to be arrested in a case of inflammatory writing during the 1992-93 riots. Shiv Sainiks had threatened that Mumbai would see the full force of their violence if their chief was arrested; the then home minister and Thackeray’s bete noire Chhagan Bhujbal was determined to have him turned in.
The Vilasrao Deshmukh government and Mumbai police were unwilling to risk detaining Thackeray from his residence in Bandra East and driving him to the magistrate’s court. Furious negotiations with Sena and BJP leaders ensued. Thackeray came to the Mayor’s Bungalow and was “arrested” by waiting cops; he was freed within minutes by the magistrate, the case was dismissed.
On January 23, his 92nd birth anniversary, Thackeray was posthumously gifted the Mayor’s Bungalow by the BJP-Sena government. The documents of the 90-year-old Grade II heritage property, sprawled across nearly three acres on Dadar beach, hosting a colonial era bungalow of 4,500 square feet, were handed to Uddhav Thackeray who heads the Balasaheb Thackeray Rashtriya Smarak trust.
It will oversee the making of the memorial. Mumbai’s 76 mayors have occupied the Bungalow; mayors will now live in a bungalow in the city’s zoo.
In a stroke, the Maharashtra government also altered the property classification from green zone to residential, freed it from Coastal Regulation Zone restrictions, made due changes in the city’s Development Plan 2034, and sanctioned ₹100 crore. The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) will implement the project. The memorial will have, besides his statue, his cartoons and caricatures, some personal effects, a library and seminar-lecture halls.
But what would the Thackeray memorial convey, what significance would it hold for Mumbai? Thackeray’s political legacy is divided. Sena workers and sympathisers are rooted in their belief that but for him the Maharashtrian identity would have been wiped out from India’s premier city; six years after he passed away, his influence and appeal have not diminished. Others see him as a complex man with fluid and fluctuating political principles, a man who used his turn of phrase and oratory to turn Bombayites upon each other, fracturing the city’s social fabric and relative religious calm.
It is a fact that the 1992-93 post-Babri riots redefined the socio-cultural demography of Bombay. The Justice BN Srikrishna Commission, probing the riots, saw Thackeray “like a veteran general commanded his loyal Shiv Sainiks to retaliate with organised attacks against Muslims” and that the “doctrine of retaliation” was largely responsible for the “vigilantism” of Sainiks against Muslims. The Muslim protest violence against Babri Masjid demolition turned into a full-scale Sena versus Muslim rampage. Thackeray did not face the law for this – except that brief mock arrest. How should the riot-affected see his memorial?
The Shiv Sena’s reign at the BMC for nearly 25 years – during which Thackeray held his “remote-control” – saw Mumbai slide down every index of liveability, old Maharashtrian bastions like Girguam and Parel turned less Maharashtrian, Marathi medium schools shut down, and the archetypal Marathi manoos largely fending for himself/herself in a fast-changing city.
Memorialisation is undoubtedly an important aspect of cities. Monuments and memorials are constructed to commemorate events, persons, even ideas. They serve to knit people together with a common strand, remind people of sterling values to uphold, even become places of reconciliation. Will Thackeray’s memorial do any of these? Can it?
If memorials were meant for noble purposes, the one to Dr BR Ambedkar would have been constructed years ago. Some memorials serve political needs, exemplify the dominant political narrative of their time. With an impending general election, the BJP-led Devendra Fadnavis government has reached out to its angry ally, Shiv Sena, through the Thackeray memorial.