Long before Sudheendra Kulkarni, there were the likes of Nikhil Wagle and your humble columnist. In 1991, the Shiv Sena dug up the Wankhede cricket pitch to protest against an India-Pakistan series. I wrote an article condemning the act in the strongest possible terms. A black flag demonstration was staged outside The Times of India office, where I worked in Mumbai, I was verbally abused, but fortunately allowed to leave the premises unhurt. Wagle was not so lucky: his office in the heart of Sena territory in Dadar was attacked and he was physically assaulted.
In 2009, the Sena was at it again: the IBN Lokmat office in Mumbai was vandalised, Wagle was again beaten up. As then Editor in Chief of the network, I sought strong police action. There were a few token arrests but eventually everyone was bailed out. The Shiv Sena hailed the ‘boys’ who had attacked the office. The matter was closed, life moved on. Till, of course, the next attack, the next victim.
From 1966 till today, the Sena’s history is littered with not just ink, but blood. Anyone who has chosen to voice their dissent has been sought to be silenced: threats, intimidation, ink attacks, assaults, riots, even murder (the Sena was accused of killing communist leader Krishnakant Desai in 1970), the Sainiks have made violence their ultimate weapon. And yet, have got away each time.
So, what explains the Shiv Sena’s refusal to abide by the Constitution over the decades? First, it is an indictment of the law enforcement regime. Several speeches of the original Sena supremo Bal Thackeray were incendiary and patently violative of Section 153 (a) and (b) of the Indian Penal Code by openly promoting hatred between communities. And yet, in his long public career, Thackeray was arrested just once — in 2007 — for a hate speech, and immediately granted bail (his previous arrest in 1969 was in a riot case). “The whole country will go up in flames if I am touched,” Thackeray had told me in an interview just days before his arrest. When he was touched, nothing happened, but the message was enough for a timid legal system to back off. When you have no fear of the law, you are tempted to repeatedly violate it.
Secondly, the ruling governments in Maharashtra have also treated the Sena leadership with kid gloves, preferring to strike ‘deals’ rather than fight. If the BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis appears helpless today in reining in his ally, he is no different from a succession of Congress chief ministers stretching back to the late 1960s, when Vasantrao Naik, in some instances, actively patronised the Sena. Today, the Congress party, which calls the attack on Kulkarni a ‘shame’ on the country, must answer why it allowed the Sena to get away with such attacks in the past: Is it any surprise that the Mumbai Congress chief, Sanjay Nirupam, is a former Sainik, who was once a footsoldier of the party he now condemns?
Thirdly, the fact is, the Sena has, in its own unique way, successfully tapped into the insecurities and anxieties of a substantial section of the local Maharashtrian population in Mumbai who will blame the ‘other’ for their own predicament. It started with job competition in the 1960s, when the South Indians were targeted for taking away clerical jobs. In more recent times, the search for an ‘enemy’ has led to north Indian migrants being singled out, accused again of taking away employment opportunities of locals. Nativism resonates powerfully in a city where millions live on the margins and has ensured a core support for the Sena amongst those seeking preferential treatment for the ‘Marathi manoos’ identity.
Fourthly, the Sena’s long tryst with violence confirms the myth of Mumbai’s cosmopolitanism and the lamentable moral bankruptcy of the secularists. For all the talk of mutual co-existence and tolerance, violence is endorsed by some when it is couched in the garb of militant Hinduism. “The Sena is a loudspeaker of popular grievances,” a Marathi editor once told me by way of explanation. The mistrust of the ‘Mussalman’ runs deep within the Hindu psyche: evoking images of Shivaji and Afzal Khan, the Sena has created a mythology of its own by projecting itself as a ‘saviour’ of Hindus.
The 1992-93 riots provided the best example of this: the Sena’s actions were almost glorified by some high-profile Mumbaikars who claimed that the city was ‘saved’ by the Shiv Sena’s participation in the riots, else Muslims would have ‘taken over’. Sadly, the so-called ‘secular’ leadership, instead of challenging this narrative, fell in line: notice how the Srikrishna report inquiring into the Mumbai riots was literally thrown into the Arabian Sea.
Finally, the Sena gets away with its actions because even those elite Mumbaikars who may be appalled at its violent streak choose to stay silent. Perhaps, they are too scared to speak out, or else have been co-opted, but in a city of celebrities — be they from the film, sports or financial world — very few have dared to call the Sena’s bluff.
Which is why stars line up for a muhurat shot at the Thackeray home in Matoshree, cricket legends seek their blessings and industrialists choose to make peace with Sena unions. When Congress MP and actor, the late Sunil Dutt, was desperate to get his son Sunjay off the hook in the Mumbai blasts, he turned to Balasaheb for help. The fact is, while Lata Mangeshkar and Sachin Tendulkar are Bharat Ratnas, in the context of Mumbai, Bal Thackeray is even in death, as in life, still the Godfather and the Thackerays the city’s First Family.
Post-script: In my first meeting with Bal Thackeray in 1989, he gently asked me: “You are the son of my dear friend, the cricketer Dilip Sardesai. You are a Maharashtrian, an Indian, how can you be critical of us?” I was tempted to suggest, but I didn’t quite gather the courage, that “patriotism, sir, is the last refuge of scoundrels!”