MUMBAI: Bal Thackeray, who died on Saturday aged 86, was a firebrand Indian politician whose right-wing Hindu party renamed Bombay and became synonymous with deadly ethnic violence.
His death leaves the western state of Maharashtra and its capital – now known as Mumbai – without one of its most controversial figures, who more than once expressed his admiration for the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.
Born on January 23, 1926 to a social activist father who played a key role in the movement to establish the Marathi-speaking state of Maharashtra, “The Tiger” as he was known began life as a political cartoonist.
But he later became more involved in calling for greater rights for local Marathi-speaking people and protecting their culture and language from migrant workers.
Re-naming Bombay as Mumbai in 1995, after a local deity and city landmarks, was seen as an attempt to rid the city of its British colonial past and emphasise its Marathi roots.
Thackeray had founded the Shiv Sena or Shivaji’s Army in 1966 in honour of the legendary 17th-century Marathi figure whose battles established a Hindu kingdom in a land then run by Muslims.
The party’s ideology to protect and promote local “sons of the soil”evolved into a high-profile campaign against south Indian clerks and restaurateurs, Gujaratis, Muslims, north Indians and Bangladeshis who had come to the area for work.
A tightly-controlled network of Shiv Sena cells across the city often followed up threats and intimidation with violence.
Among the Sena’s targets were shops selling Valentine’s Day cards, cinemas showing a film with a lesbian theme and Pakistani sportsmen and entertainers.
In 2010, activists forced some Mumbai cinemas to close in protest at “unpatriotic” comments by Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan lamenting the absence of Pakistani cricketers from that year’s Indian Premier League.
Most significantly, Thackeray stoked the fires of tension after Hindu militants destroyed a mosque in 1992 said to have been built on the site of a Hindu temple in the northern town of Ayodhya.
As reprisal attacks spread throughout India, he called on Hindus to “teach (Muslims) a lesson”.
A subsequent judicial inquiry later pointed the finger at Thackeray, accusing him of directly inciting anti-Muslim violence that left more than 1,000 people dead in India’s financial and entertainment capital.
Thackeray was never brought to book by the authorities.
In 1994, the Shiv Sena came to power in Maharashtra in a coalition with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), buoyed by anti-Muslim sentiment and a wave of bomb blasts blamed on Islamist extremists.
One of its first acts was to rename the city in a move that was widely criticised at the time, though “Mumbai” has since become its globally accepted title.
Thackeray was never a lawmaker – indeed he once said he hated politics – but his hand was seen in many of the state government’s decisions.
Some saw the measure of his power and influence in his invitation to Michael Jackson to play a concert in the city in 1996 – and donate the profits to a Shiv Sena youth charity.
The late US singer is said to have autographed a toilet he used in Thackeray’s bungalow.
The party lost power at state level in 1999 but has retained a presence ever since, with a BJP-Shiv Sena coalition in February winning a fourth consecutive term over Mumbai’s civic body, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.
The ageing Thackeray’s pronouncements continued to be watched with both interest and fear as power passed to his son Uddhav and his nephew Raj set up a new, rival party.
His fiery speeches – in later years through the Marathi-language newspaper Saamna (Confrontation) – ridiculed revered Indian political figures and showed “The Tiger” still had teeth.
He appeared by videolink to his followers in October during a Hindu festival, looking frail and describing his weakened state in what sounded like a farewell speech.
“People should keep their loyalty intact (towards Shiv Sena)... You took care of me, now take care of Uddhav and Aditya,” he said, referring to his son and grandson.
Behind every pronouncement stood Thackeray’s regionalist agenda or desire to protect traditional Indian values but it stood increasingly at odds with India’s fast-growing economy that was embracing globalisation.
He may have found support among those whose jobs were threatened, but for many the communalism he espoused looked out of touch with modern India.