It was a dull, grey morning that broke over Mumbai on Thursday; the city was wrapped in a post-Diwali haze. A silence and stillness at odds with the festivities of Diwali had descended. A city that never sleeps seemed to not have woken up. And all it took was a rumour.
Shopkeepers, taxi drivers, office goers, clung to their phones asking each other if Balasaheb Thackeray, the chief of the Shiv Sena, had indeed died. In Bandra East, the suburb where Thackeray’s house is located, crowds had started gathering the previous night; now they swelled. Shops across most parts of the city remained shut. Taxis and autos were few.
Outsiders to the city wondered what was going on. Why should the natural death of an old man of 86 lead to fears of rioting?
The short answer is that the man is a demigod to multitudes in this city. They would congregate in thousands to mourn him when he dies, and grief might turn to anger at the slightest provocation. It has been known to happen before.
When the Kannada film star Raj Kumar died in Bengaluru in 2006, of a heart attack at the age of 77, there were riots. Eight people including a policeman were killed, at least 20 vehicles were burnt, and damages ran to crores of rupees.
Thackeray is more of an icon in Mumbai than Raj Kumar was in Bengaluru. He has been a colossal presence in the city for the past 50 years. Not that any Mumbaikar would need a survey to tell him this, but, love him or hate him, he is the biggest icon of Mumbai. This was borne out by a survey conducted by Tehelka magazine and TNS in 2007. Mumbaikars voted Thackeray as “The biggest icon of Mumbai”. Amitabh Bachchan, the biggest superstar Bollywood has ever seen, came second. Sachin Tendulkar was third. Shah Rukh Khan made a very distant fourth.
Thackeray also made the top three in the list of most hated figures in Mumbai; he was third behind gangsters Dawood Ibrahim and Arun Gawli.
He has always been a strongly polarizing figure. His position as most loved and much hated means he arouses strong passions. It would therefore surprise only the politically naive or the ideologically blinded if Mumbai grinds to a halt, with sporadic incidents of violence, when Thackeray passes away.
His followers have a history of violence, and they have in the past rioted when one of their leaders died. This was in 2001; Anand Dighe, the most powerful Sena chieftain in Thane, wound up in a hospital with a broken leg following a road accident. He died the next day from a heart attack. He was 50. His followers, who suspected medical error because they couldn’t imagine their leader dying from a broken leg, ransacked the hospital and burnt it down.
In Mr Thackeray’s case, such an outcome is less likely, because his followers know of his old age and ill health. However, don’t expect business as usual for at least two days of his passing, whenever that happens. Cities don’t let go of icons easily.