The End of an Era: Bal Thackeray

Bal Thackeray, the controversial Hindu leader, died this past Saturday, November 17, at the age of 86. He had been sick in the weeks leading up to his death and ultimately passed from cardiac arrest. Thackeray is known throughout India for his Hindu nationalist beliefs and for inciting violent riots on their behalf. Many supporters refer to him as Hindu Hriday Samrat (emperor of Hindu hearts), while critics refer to him and his followers as thugs.

Thackeray, who was originally a cartoonist, became involved in politics during the
Samyukta Maharashtra Movement (United Maharashtra Movement) in the 1950s. It championed the creation of an Indian state named Maharashtra that would unite all Marathi speaking people and bolster their identity. The capital of the state would be the city of Bombay, India’s financial capital. This goal was achieved in 1960. Thackeray then founded the political part, Shiv Sena (Shiva’s Army), in 1966, and has led it since then. The Shiv Sena and Thackeray are responsible for the city of Bombay changing its name to Mumbai, after the Hindu goddess Mumbadevi, the city's patron deity. Since then, the party has pressed for entities such as the Bombay Stock Exchange, the Bombay High Court and Bollywood to change their names as well.

The party governed Maharashtra from 1995 to 2000, but has been unable to regain power since then. Thackeray himself has never held a political position, but is widely regarded as one of the most important political figures for Hindus. The party has been losing power in recent years, but still has countless threatening advocates.

He spent his life trying to curb the proliferation of Islam and trying to prevent migrant workers from coming to Maharashtra. He encouraged violence as a way of manifesting these goals. Thackeray is largely blamed for a series of riots in 1992 after a group of Hindus razed the Babri Masjid in North India. Thackeray is recognized as a motivating orator and political instigator. He was arrested twice for politically inciting speeches. In 2008 he wrote, “Islamic terrorism is growing and Hindu terrorism is the only way to counter it. We need suicide bomb squads to protect India and Hindus." The most recent move by the party was attacking shops and people promoting Valentine’s Day.

Upon hearing of Thackeray’s sickness, his estate received visits from Bollywood’s finest, including Amitabh Bachchan and Salman Khan. India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh offered condolences to Thackeray’s son, Uddhav Thackeray, who is thought to assume power of the party. Thackeray’s followers began to gather outside his residence upon hearing the news, leading the police to increase their presence for fear of riots outside. Followers were seen weeping in the streets.

His legacy will be one of condoning violence to promote his religious agenda and xenophobia. The way in which Uddhav Thackeray navigates the upcoming weeks will dictate the future of the party.

Written by: Lynn Bernabei


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