They became sainiks out of necessity

The period was late sixties. One hot summer evening, as a high school boy while sauntering towards coaching class in Dadar in central Mumbai, I came across a thin person animatedly addressing a small group of youngsters in their teens.  

I came to know that the scrawny person was a cartoonist called Bal Thackeray who was also running a weekly-magazine called Marmik. Circa 1967 and the Shiv Sena a politic body slowly started emerging as a prominent cultural body in the city; it became a gathering point of Marathi-speaking youngsters.

The youngsters, mostly in late teens and early twenties, discussed articles charged with ideas of “locals not being given their due in government and private institutions”; the deprivation ideas were being disseminated through cartoons in Marmik. I was too young to grasp what was happening in the street-corner meetings.

During college years, in Pune we started hearing news about the expansion of the Shiv Sena. The party had emerged from chrysalis but it was not the butterfly which had come out but an attacking moth. And news of attacks on South Indians migrating to Mumbai in search of mostly clerical office jobs began making headlines.

Interestingly, despite its parochial rhetoric, its growth and influence failed to even create a ripple of influence in Pune; but it attracted a lot of criticism. Maharashtrian intellectuals who breathed in nationalistic and secular ideals came down heavily on Thackeray.
But then, Thackeray was more concerned with lower middle class which barely managed to keep the wolf from the door and educated unemployed youths. The national media then described him as a leader of lumpen elements and I distinctly remember Marathi media ridiculing him and admonishing him for tarnishing the name of Maharashtra.

The criticism did not deter Thackeray; he went from strength to strength by sparking agitations in the name of “Marathi Manoos”.  The ground was fertile and ready to explode; with the city expanding beyond its limits during seventies feeling of alienation and marginalisation began seeping into the psyche of Marathi-speaking masses.
On the other hand the period also saw the Congress Party using Thackeray and his supporters in fighting back left parties and their trade unions in Mumbai. The murder of comrade Krishna Desai is a case in point of the manipulation of the Shiv Sena by the ruling parties.

The eighties witnessed the waning of influence of Left-oriented parties and their unions. This was the period when the Shiv Sena managed to inveigle itself into the political opposition vacuum that was once occupied by socialists. Ironically, workers in the city which was an industrial town, continued to swear loyalty to Left unions in factories; but out in streets, they found the Shiv Sena attractive which talked of Maharashtra pride.

And the Shiv Sena after entrenching itself in Mumbai-Thane-Belapur belt gradually began establishing its units in towns and second-tier cities like Pune, Nasik and Aurangabad in 1980s after Thackeray subtly shifted his agenda from local to a militant Hindutva ideology; the attacks on North Indian Muslims and illegal immigrants Bangladesh became more frequent.

The capturing of Mumbai, Thane, Kalyan municipal corporations made him the ruler of the commercial capital of the country. It was at this juncture, Bollywood began paying obeisance to him and soon Marathi film, drama and music industry which had contemptuously looked at the party also followed; the literati and intellectual also shed their inhibitions and began sharing dais with the Sena chief.

The eighties were the most fruitful period of the Shiv Sena. Once while touring Suregaon in Osmanabad district where three farmers were killed in police firing in an agitation spearheaded by Sharad Joshi, the police superintendent gave me graphic picture of how youngsters from drought-prone area were setting up the Shiv Sena branches in small towns, putting up Sena banners, collecting protection money from small time traders and seeking recognition from Balasaheb, as Bal Thackeray is called.

And Osmanabad was not just an exception case of people with hardly any political leanings making a beeline to join the Shiv Sena. In my own hometown Igatpuri in Nasik district, my next door neighbour –a typical apolitical family called Indulkars swayed towards the Shiv Sena when their youngest son Sanjay was picked up by local police for objecting to the setting up of a country liquor bar.

The boy set up a Shiv Sena Shakha and got in touch with the party leaders. The boy who had no political leanings became a hard-core party man and even went on to become the president of local municipal council. And like Sanjay the period saw the mushrooming of “Shakha” in various towns; and majority of these first-generation Shiv Sena small-town and district leaders, moved into the party not out of choice but because of circumstances.

And interestingly, Thackeray who had adopted the “Hindutva line”, when it came to recruiting party members and issuing tickets never bothered about caste factor unlike other political parties. However, times have changed; the party saw a vertical split. And ironically both parties continue to harp same issue and in the same breath also support economic restructuring which focusses on outsourcing. The new generation does not want menial jobs like the elders did in seventies. And therein lies the dilemma how to stop the embers turn into cold ashes.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Mumbai)

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