Teeming crowds bid farewell to Bal Thackeray

Last Updated: Sun, Nov 18, 2012 19:33 hrs

Mumbai: A sea of humanity poured into the streets here Sunday to bid adieu to Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray in an unprecedented and historic show of idolatry for a regional leader who was for five decades the torchbearer of militant Marathi chauvinism and Hindu supremacism.

India's entertainment and financial capital ground to a halt as 86−year−old Thackeray's cortege slowly wound its way through jostling crowds from his home Matoshri in Bandra East to Shivaji Park, the venue of his large rallies, where the mortal remains of the demagogic leader were consigned to the flames.

All shops and businesses remained closed for the second consecutive day Sunday. The shops had shut down voluntarily after Thackeray was declared dead Saturday afternoon. Shops and educational institutes across the state would also remain closed Monday − which shall be observed as 'Shraddhanjali Day'.

But the rest of India remained virtually unmoved and there was business as usual with most people watching the funeral's daylong live coverage on TV as another public spectacle.

"There were an estimated 15 to 20 lakh (about two million) people on the roads today and about three to four lakh people were present in Shivaji Park," a senior police official told IANS.

The short distance of seven kilometres to Shivaji Park took about seven hours as mourners surged forward for a last glimpse of a leader, who had never contested an election, been out of Maharashtra only twice in his political career and yet was one of the most powerful politicians in the state.

The public cremation, telecast live nationwide, is also a first for Mumbai. His body was wrapped in the tricolor and he was cremated with full state honours, a gesture that did not go do well with liberal intellectuals as Thackeray was not seen to be a national leader deserving of such an honour.

Thackeray's death after months of liver and pancreatic ailments came at 3.33 p.m. Saturday. His son and political heir Uddhav Thackeray performed the last rites at 6.17 p.m. − even as the sun set on Mumbai's skyline in the background − to the chanting of Hindu hymns, a picture of stoic calm.

He had broken down at the beginning of the funeral procession but thereafter maintained composure as he acknowledged the greetings of the mourners. His cousin and political rival Raj Thackeray, who had split from the Shiv Sena to form the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), stood by his side.

When Mumbai police played the final march, Raj could be seen crying. The two cousins hugged, fuelling speculation about whether the two could resolve their differences and come together − as Balasaheb, the name Thackeray was known by, would have wished.

Amidst the chanting of holy mantras, while conducting the final rites, Uddhav led Raj by his hand, implying they be together during the sad moment.

But the future of the Shiv Sena and its extreme, often violent and coercive, politics that often took anti−minority turns and staunchly supported a sons−of−the soil policy that turned local Maharashtrians, or Marathis, against people from other states who worked there, could not be determined by the emotional scene, cautioned analysts. It was too early to tell what this would translate into.

Thackeray's estranged son Jaidev was also present at Shivaji Park − the historic venue of rallies during the freedom struggle and of many a Shiv Sena gathering that Thackeray called Shiv teerth, or pilgrim spot.

Before lighting the funeral Thackeray's personal physician Jalil Parkar was amongst the first people to offer flowers following which a stream of politicians, industrialists and showbiz personalities also paid tribute.

The gathering was reflective of the power of the posterboy of radical Hindu nationalism and regional chauvinism. Senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders like L.K. Advani, Nitin Gadkari, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley were there of course but so were several union ministers.

The Congress' Rajeev Shukla was there as was close friend and political rival Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party.

Besides, the chief ministers of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, the BJP's Narendra Modi and Shivraj Singh Chauhan, as well as Maharashtra's Prithviraj Chavan were there too.

Business tycoon Anil Ambani was also present. The glamour world, with which Thackeray had an enduring connection, was represented by old friends Lata Mangeshkar and Amitabh Bachchan, Nana Patekar, Sanjay Dutt and others.

Thackeray never hesitated to take to the streets or resort to mob violence. But, contrary to apprehensions, the funeral procession was orderly and Mumbai remained calm but tense. Reports said over 50,000 policemen, including rapid action forces, were out on the streets.

Thackeray's legacy has been a divisive one, his party all about practicing anti−migrant and anti−minority, mostly anti−Muslim, politics. With him gone, maybe things might change in this Maximum City.

More from Sify: