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Vitriol on troubled waters
In the reams of newsprint devoted to Bal Thackeray's death, one interesting fact went relatively unnoticed. The late Shiv Sena leader was the only major contemporary politician to have been directly involved in the Samyukta Maharashtra movement that convulsed Nehru's India half a century ago. This popular struggle, which led to the creation of the unilingual state of Maharashtra - with Bombay as its capital - on May 1, 1960, was the crucible in which the young Thackeray forged his political ideology and identity.
The Samyukta Maharashtra movement shaped Bal Thackeray in many ways. To begin with, there was the prominent role played in the movement by his father, 'Prabodhankar' Thackeray (1885-1973 ), one of Maharashtra's major social reformers and public intellectuals. Born Keshav Sitaram, he acquired the pen name 'Prabodhankar' while writing for the Marathi fortnightly Prabodhan (' Enlightenment' ), a journal he founded;'Thackeray', on the other hand, was an anglicisation of 'Thakre' and reflected his appreciation of the Victorian novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. From the outset of his career as a social activist, Prabodhankar battled Hindu upper-caste orthodoxy. In the early 1950s, when the demand arose for a linguistic state for the Marathispeaking peoples of western India, he was one of the many public intellectuals in Maharashtra who threw their weight behind the movement. He was a leading member of the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti, which spearheaded the struggle for a separate unilingual state, and was even briefly arrested. By all accounts, Prabhodhankar not only possessed a sharp intellect, but was also a forceful and acerbic public speaker. One observer later recalled that his speeches had the relentlessness of machine gunfire. In this respect, if not in others, the son imbibed important lessons from the father.
But Bal Thackeray also learnt about the power of rhetoric from other leaders within the movement. One of the most notable figures in this regard was Prahlad (' Acharya' ) Atre, whose writings and speeches are now part of Maharashtrian political folklore. Atre was a prolific writer and the author of numerous plays, novels and film scripts. Like Prabodhankar, he also took an active part in the Samyukta Maharashtra movement and tirelessly propagated its message across the state. Atre was a skilled orator whose vitriolic speeches lacerated his political opponents and had an electrifying effect on his listeners. From Atre, too, Thackeray would have learnt about the importance of the mass media in shaping public opinion. In 1955, Atre founded a new newspaper - the Maratha - which became the voice of the Samyukta Maharashtra struggle. From its pages there spewed forth a steady stream of invective against opponents outside the movement and foot-draggers within it. In one sense, then, the Maratha paved the way for Saamna.
The politics of the Samyukta Maharashtra movement also afforded ample scope for the cartoonist. Thackeray, who was employed by the Free Press Journal at this time, drew a number of sketches skewering the Congress leaders from the state for their refusal to stand up to the party high command in Delhi and excoriating the actions of the Morarji Desai government. Interestingly, his cartoons in Marathi were signed 'Mavla', a reference to the Maval warriors who supported the young Shivaji.
More generally, the rhetoric and symbolism of the Samyukta Maharashtra movement opened up a space for the vicious brand of ethnic chauvinism that Thackeray went on to embrace in his political career. The ideologues of the movement constantly deployed a rhetoric of 'Maharashtra dharma' and Marathi pride in rousing the masses. They also drew on historical symbols - most notably Shivaji - during the course of the popular struggle. These ideas and symbols were highly contested in Maharashtra, but over time Thackeray would succeed, to a large extent, in annexing them to the cause of the highly toxic brand of nativist, right-wing politics that the Shiv Sena came to espouse. Significantly, the Shiv Sena has sought aggressively in recent years to appropriate the historical memories associated with the Samyukta Maharashtra struggle.
Finally, there was one aspect of the Samyukta Maharashtra movement, whose impact on Thackeray was perhaps more intangible. A noteworthy feature of that popular movement was the participation of activists and intellectuals from all sections of Maharashtrian public life. There were substantial, and ferociously expressed, differences of opinion among the movement's participants. Yet many of these men and women were able to maintain civil personal relations with each other even when they violently disagreed on many of the substantive issues of the day. Remarkably, given the highly divisive and adversarial nature of his politics, Thackeray too was on reasonably friendly personal terms with most of his longstanding political opponents (except for the communists for whom he nurtured a visceral loathing). It may well have been an art he picked up while observing at close quarters the political legends of his youth.
The writer is director, Centre for Urban History, University of Leicester, UK
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