Balasaheb Thackeray's early life, political career & strange ways
Balasaheb Thackeray was supported by millions for upholding the cause of the local Marathi population — the Marathi manoos — even as his critics castigated him for a style of politics they said relied on hatred of the "other", notably Muslims.
One of the tallest leaders in Maharashtra politics for nearly six decades, Thackeray founded the Shiv Sena in 1966 at a time powerful regional political parties such as the DMK were challenging the Congress's hold on power. It also foreshadowed the rise of parties such as the Telugu Desam, Asom Gana Parishad and even the Trinamool Congress, which have channelised linguistic and regional pride to challenge the Congress hegemony.
ET Special: Bal Thackeray's life and times from Times of India archives
But Thackeray's politics was controversial and very different from these parties. The Shiv Sena targeted south Indians in the late 1960s, and in 1989 forged a close relationship with the BJP around the time the movement to build a Ram temple at Ayodhya was reaching its peak. That movement, which culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, is widely blamed for the horrific communal riots that roiled many parts of the country, including Maharashtra, in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
A divisive figure during much of the 1990s — especially after the Sena's and his alleged role in the Mumbai riots of 1992-93 - Thackeray's public image had taken on a rather more emollient hue by the time of his death. His contacts, and friendships, with politicians across the spectrum were indeed striking.
Earlier this year, in an idiosyncratic move that was typical of him, Thackeray broke with the BJP, his long-time ideological ally, to offer support to Pranab Mukherjee, the UPA's candidate for president. He enjoyed a notably close personal relationship with Sharad Pawar, the Union agriculture minister and his old political foe for the affections of Maharashtra's masses, and Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan, among many others.
Among those who visited him in his last days included actor Sanjay Dutt, who received Thackeray's staunch — and somewhat surprising — backing when the actor became embroiled in a case linked to the Mumbai blasts of March 1993, one of which took place near the Sena headquarters in Dadar. Thackeray happened to be a close friend of the late Sunil Dutt, Sanjay's father and a Congress politician.
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The Mumbai Riots
But for much of the 1990s, Thackeray was a hated figure for a large part of India's establishment, much like Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is now.
Much of the opprobrium is due to the Mumbai riots of December 1992 and January 1993, which killed around 900-1,500 people and is often cited as a dark chapter in Thackeray's life and in the life of the city. A commission of inquiry headed by Justice BN Srikrishna famously indicted Thackeray for commanding his Shiv Sainiks like a general.
In all, 13 cases were filed against Thackeray, of which 12 were closed by the BJP-Shiv Sena government. An attempt by the Congress-NCP government to prosecute him on charges of incitement ended in farce after a magistrate dismissed the case on the ground that it was time-barred.
Later Congress-NCP governments seem to have decided that it was politically impossible to revive the cases. Despite determined attempts by activists, no Shiv Sena leader of consequence was jailed, in sharp contrast with the Gujarat riots of 2002 in which hundreds of rioters and several BJP and VHP leaders have been convicted. Like Modi, Thackeray never expressed any sort of contrition.