As Mumbai poured out on the streets to catch a glimpse of the cortege of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray this week, many TV anchors thought his critics had been suitably mocked into silence. They claimed the outpouring of grief for the death of Thackeray vividly illustrated the echo his politics had among people.
Their conclusion was truly misplaced, for the popularity of Thackeray was never in doubt; what had always been was the sanity of his politics.
Usually, death unites people, at least momentarily. It helps them to paper over sharp differences, and even ignore injustices the departed perpetrated. This possibly explains the mammoth crowds at Thackeray's cremation. Yet what should not be forgotten was what we did not or could not witness - the emotions among those whom the Shiv Sena leader reviled and ranted against.
They included South Indians, communists, Muslims, Bangladeshi migrants, Pakistanis, Biharis, liberals, boys and girls indulging in the harmless joys of Valentine's Day, couples snatching moments of privacy in parks, journalists, in fact just about anyone who chose to differ from him or did not share his worldview.
Thackeray roared against former cricketer and commentator Sunil Gavaskar's decision to participate in the ceremony the Pakistan government had organised to felicitate Imran Khan and his men for lifting the World Cup in 1992. Nevertheless, Gavaskar flew to Pakistan, saying that in a democracy, everyone was entitled to his or her opinion.
During the Kargil conflict, Thackeray demanded that thespian Dilip Kumar should return the Nishan-e-Imtiaz honour that Pakistan awarded him. Kumar refused. This week, TV anchors did not turn to Gavaskar or Kumar or other social groups for their views on the legacy of Thackeray. We in the subcontinent desist from speaking ill of the departed.
Yet it is also true that the media would have feared the consequences of criticising the man whose politics was predicated on fear and violence. Look at the fate of a 21-year-old woman who posted a comment on her Facebook page criticising the shutdown in Mumbai on the day Thackeray died.
She said: 'Respect is earned, given, and definitely not forced. Today, Mumbai shuts down due to fear, not due to respect.' She and another woman (pic, above) who had 'liked' her comment were arrested, and Shiv Sena goons ransacked her uncle's orthopaedic clinic.
For Thackeray, respect and fear were synonymous. His politics was based on fanning paranoia. He invented a monster, pummelled him, brought him to the knees, then promptly found another monster for people to turn their wrath on, followed a third, and so on. His politics aimed to have people live in constant anxiety. His cure for it was to have them create a group which they could scare to abject helplessness. This was Thackeray solution, his followers' catharsis.
Thackeray established the Shiv Sena in 1966 to harness the deep frustration in Maharashtra. That was a decade of immense pessimism: the hopes India's independence had engendered had been belied. Jobs hadn't multiplied to meet the demands of the aspiring classes, India had lost a war to China, the country was in an economic slump, and Marathi-speaking people were anxious that their culture could get swamped because of migrants.
Such fears were not unique to Maharashtra. What was unique to the state was that it had a leader called Thackeray, whose followers attacked South Indians and Gujaratis in the misguided belief that their presence in Mumbai was the reason the sons-of-soil could not find employment.
Once the novelty of targetting them lost its novelty, Thackeray turned to the communists, assassinating their leaders and breaking their unions by driving a wedge between those from Maharashtra and the migrant outsiders. No doubt, he succeeded because of the help he received from the ruling Congress and mill-owners, chary of strikes and bandas. In the 70's, the city was already in thrall to Thackeray.
Thereafter, he turned to portray the Muslims as the enemy, as the rhetoric began to have resonance at the time the campaign against the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya took off. He portrayed Muslims not only as the bane of Maharashtra but of entire India, publicly accusing them of being traitors or illegally entering India from Bangladesh. He boasted his followers had brought down the Babri Masjid, and fomented the grisly 1993 riot against Muslims. In his rhetoric, the Indian Muslim, the Pakistani, the terrorist, and the enemy were overlapping categories, as he sought to exploit the popular revulsion against terrorism plaguing India. It brought his party to power in 1995.
Obviously, the Indian state could and should have booked him for unlawful treatment he subjected his supplicants to. Yet it condoned his action, at times even connived with him to ensure his power did not abate. This prompted a journalist-friend to remark: "Secularism did not kill Thackeray, death did."