Bal Thackeray was not meant to be a demagogue. The elements were so mixed in him that Nature could stand up and say: Here was a gentle soul who found his fulfillment in a Sherlock Holmes-style pipe and a glass of beer. And yet, he proved the elements wrong. He obliterated Bombay’s history by changing its name and altering its face and in the process became an apostle of urban violence leading a lumpenproletariat mafia. Bal was agreeable, decent. Balasaheb was virulent, pestilential.
It is easy to condemn Thackeray as a destroyer of peace and a promoter of petty chauvinism. But it would be wrong to ignore the forces, principally two, that built him up as an agitprop militant. The Bombay Pradesh Congress Committee had an enemy to destroy while the city’s prominent industries had trade unions to tame. Both objectives called for unconventional measures, but neither the BPCC nor industry associations could resort to actions that would dent their image as law-abiding entities. For them Thackeray became a convenience.
That was because the Shiv Sena had by then done some bashing of heads and smashing of shops. It was an accidental confluence of factors that brought this about. Free Press Journal (FPJ) where Thackeray made his mark as an editorial cartoonist had passed into the hands of a new boss and he had done what was then unthinkable: Publish a soap company advertisement as the lead news story of the day. Half a dozen outraged members of the editorial team resigned in protest, Thackeray among them. They started a new newspaper, but it failed. Economic hardship faced Thackeray. As a desperate measure, he revived an old idea of starting a Marathi periodical. It was a shot in the dark. But it made headlines when it published a chance contribution by a chance contributor detailing how senior positions in big companies like Glaxo were monopolised by South Indians. The rest was history.
As it happened, the most prominent South Indian of the time was the popular MP from North Bombay, V.K. Krishna Menon. He was a Congressman, but the most prominent Congressman of Bombay, BPCC President S. K. Patil, detested him and was ready to do anything to banish him from Bombay. Shiv Sena became Patil’s weapon and Menon was banished once and for all. Sena storm troopers were even more frenetic as they went after trade union leaders. With patronage coming from both political and industrial godfathers, Thackeray grew into a godfather himself, lacking in neither finances nor clout.
Like company executives and Krishna Menon, several trade union leaders too were South Indians, with a Mangalorean named George Fernandes at the helm. This and the fact that Udupi restaurant boys and moplah narielpaniwallahs were soft targets made Shiv Sena focuses on South Indians in its early rounds of violence.
Spicy coffee house theories spread that Thackeray had developed a personal grudge against South Indians. There was talk that he was jealous of R.K. Laxman who started out in FPJ and went on to glory while he, Thackeray, was denied his due.
In fact, Thackeray not only had high regard for Laxman, but counted South Indians among his buddies in FPJ. There was a good deal of banter. Thackeray called the FPJ news desk the Malayali Club. The celebrated crime reporter M.P.Iyer constantly showered friendly abuse on Thackeray. But Thackeray would not take offence because Iyer used colloquial Marathi with a brilliance Thackeray could not command. At least on one occasion, Thackeray paid public tribute to Iyer and S.Sadanand, FPJ’s founder, holding them up as models for young journalists to follow.
Thackeray was as much a victim as an exploiter of circumstance. The movement that gathered around him was unworthy of him. It deteriorated into a communal platform. Its fire passed to nephew Raj Thackeray, remarkable for his unsmiling mien, who further reduced it to a platform for social hatreds. Bal Thackeray deserved better for, essentially, he was a cartoonist with a capacity for humour. A good guy. Now only the badness of his movement will remain.