Sunday, November 18, 2012

Balasaheb, Bombay and Mumbai

Bal Thackeray’s influence on Mumbai is not easy to comprehend. How did a man his colleagues at the Free Press Journal in the early 1950s knew as “mild-mannered and meek” come to be the tiger whose fear stalked Mumbai in life, and indeed, even in death?
Old timers who’ve known him down the years can offer some clues to why. P.K. Ravidranath, a former colleague of Thackeray’s who knew him as a cartoonist in 1952, and through the years after, says, “He was the one who gave the Maharashtrian an identity of his own in his own capital city”.
Mumbai came to be capital of Maharashtra only by and by. It started life during the Raj as a British city, capital of Bombay Presidency, which included the present states of Gujarat and Maharashtra, parts of Karnataka, and Sindh in Pakistan. The city then was truly cosmopolitan, and its leading lights other than the British were mainly Parsis, though it produced illustrious exceptions like MA Jinnah and BR Ambedkar.
When linguistic states were formed after independence, Bombay was not intended to be a part of Maharashtra by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. He wanted it to be a union territory like Chandigarh. It took years of agitations by the Samyukta Maharashtra movement to reverse that.
The identity of the city, therefore, was a mixed and contested one. There was a sizeable Gujarati population, a Sindhi population, a Tamil population, and people from along the Konkan coast down to Udupi, Mangalore and Kerala, among others. People from the hinterlands of Mumbai who migrated to the city often found themselves at the lower end of the social ladder, battling for jobs with migrants from elsewhere. They did not always fare well.
Thackeray the cartoonist created a character out of these people. While his senior RK Laxman created the Common Man in his cartoons, Thackeray created the Marathi manoos as an identity in Bombay politics. It was this demographic that he then came to represent.
Back in the 1950s and 60s, Bombay was an industrial city, with textile mills dominating. The politics of the city was a contest between the Congress and the communists. Workers’ union leaders were powers to reckon with; even in 1982, Datta Samant, who led the textile unions with their lakhs of workers, could easily bring the city to a halt, and did.
Bal Thackeray won his following, some say with tacit support from the ruling Congress in the early days, from among the same people who might otherwise have become communists. The creation of a political space based on his ‘sons of the soil’ slogan was the singular political achievement of Thackeray, and explains in some part why many among the Maharashtrian masses see him as a demigod of sorts.
It is because he championed their cause. He empowered them and gave them dignity; they may have remained poor, but they were no longer powerless. They had to be given respect, even if it was only out of fear. Denigrating them as ‘ghatis’ was no longer free of consequences.
In his person, and by creating a larger-than-life image, Thackeray also came to symbolize the collective power and pride of these masses. He is therefore an icon in the purest sense of the word.
His politics has been fractious, divisive, and often bloody, and his legacy in the shape of a changed identity for Bombay, which he renamed Mumbai, is unpalatable to many. But it is small surprise that Mumbai held its breath when Thackeray had trouble breathing. The lives of this man and the metropolis were that closely entwined.

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