MUMBAI: Hundreds of thousands of mourners on Sunday attended the public cremation in Mumbai of Bal Thackeray, chief of the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party and one of India's most divisive politicians.
Thackeray, who called his followers “Hindu warriors” and was widely accused of stoking ethnic and religious violence, died aged 86 on Saturday, triggering a virtual shutdown of the city.
Huge crowds lined the route to catch a final glimpse of Thackeray, still wearing his trademark sunglasses, as his body was driven slowly to a park in central Mumbai where heaving masses had gathered throughout the day.
Police were out in force following the death of a politician whose party has a reputation for intimidation and unrest, though no trouble was reported.
Thackeray was accused by an official probe of inciting violence against Muslims in riots that claimed more than 1,000 lives in Mumbai in the 1990s, although he was never charged.
He won devotion from his Hindu working-class followers, who showered his hearse with flowers as it travelled to the pyre erected in Shivaji Park, arriving several hours late due to the vast turn-out.
“He got a fitting last journey, among his people and with a gunfire salute.
For 100 years, Maharashtra (state) will not find another leader like him,” said shopkeeper Arvind Ghote as the cremation was broadcast live on television.
Thackeray vociferously sought to defend the rights of local Marathi-speaking “sons of the soil” against “outsiders” from other parts of India or Bangladesh who came to work in Mumbai, capital of Maharashtra.
Jyotsna Parab, a housewife, said her life would “never be the same” as she wiped away tears.
“I cannot accept that he is no more. This was a man whose entire world revolved around protecting our rights,” she said.
Thackeray had long courted big business and entertainment figures, and among the mourners were movie superstar Amitabh Bachchan and industrialist Anil Ambani.
As the cortege progressed through Mumbai, police advised residents to travel only in emergencies. Taxis stayed off the roads, and shops and restaurants remained closed since news of his death spread across the city late Saturday.
Shop owners said they feared they could be targeted by Shiv Sena supporters if they did not shut as a mark of respect. Many schools and shops were expected to also be closed on Monday.
Newspapers dedicated pages of coverage to the man who dominated the city's politics for decades.
“Mumbai loses its boss,” ran the headline of Sunday's Mumbai Mirror, below a picture of an imposing, cigar-smoking Thackeray.
“Many hated him. Many feared him. Many loved him for what he stood for,”said a tribute in the Mid Day newspaper.
While Thackeray was a hero to many working-class Hindus, his politics and the hold that his party exerts over India's financial capital angered many others.
“Why is Shiv Sena holding the city to ransom. Is that the only way?” asked leading film director Anurag Kashyap on Twitter.
Despite Thackeray's polarising career, tributes poured in for the politician who gave Bombay the new name of Mumbai in a bid to rid the city of its British colonial past and emphasise its Marathi roots.
“He was a consummate communicator whose stature in the politics of Maharashtra was unique,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said.
Thackeray was never a lawmaker, preferring to dominate from behind the scenes, but his party held power for five years from 1994 at state level and is still in the coalition ruling Mumbai's governing civic body.
The party chief had been in frail health for months.
He appeared to followers by video link in October asking them to “take care” of his son Uddhav, the executive president of Shiv Sena, whose political fortunes have ebbed since Thackeray's nephew Raj set up a rival party.