On The Death Of Bal Thackeray And The Grief Of Athavale
By Dr Anand Teltumbde
05 December, 2012
Ramdas Athawale, who had left all the dealers of Dalit interests in Maharashtra far behind when he managed to sublimate himself straight from a dingy room in the Siddharth Vihar in Wadala to a regality of the Sahyadri, the state guest house in Malabar Hill in 1990 as a cabinet minister of Sharad Pawar, has come full circle from his radical Ambedkarism symbolized by his association with the Dalit Panther to the most anti-Ambedkarian version of Fascism of the late Bal Thackeray. Since he latched his RPI bandwagon to Thackeray’s Shiv Sena-juggernaut, he along with his hangers-on has been awkwardly trying to prove his faithfulness to Matoshree, knowing that his future prospects would be decided there. After all, he was just an alliance partner, but the manner in which he made rounds of Matoshree with grief stricken face, ensuring the television cameras were well focused to show it, was amusing to Dalits. After the ashes of Thackeray’s cremation cooled off, the Shiv Sena violently voiced its claim over the Shivaji Park for constructing the memorial for Thackeray, then relented sensing its impracticability but insisted on the site of cremation be preserved as a holy spot, and Athavale did not utter a word. This self-proclaimed Ambedkar- bhakta should have worried that just within less than a week lakhs of Dalits would pour into the Shivaji Park as every year and the so called ‘holy’ spot could pose a veritable threat to law and order. Athavale should have prevailed upon his partners and ensured that the site was restored as after all it was not legal to keep it beyond the two days for which the specific permission was reportedly given. Instead, on 29 November Ramdas Athavale gave a call to Dalits congregating at the Shivaji Park on 6 December to pay homage to their messiah, Babasaheb Ambedkar, that they should also pay their respects to Bal Thackeray at his cremation site.
Bal Thackeray’s death in the fullest sense culminated his interesting life. His public life of some five decades was interspersed with instances of our collective timidity and hypocrisy but the spectacle his death created in a way has confirmed our spinelessness and cowardly character as a nation. The manner in which almost all people in media showered praises on his persona and paid eulogy to his legacy was nauseatingly bad. One might take shelter under the saying de mortuis nil nisi bonum (speak well of the dead or not at all) but it is a lie. It is our innate character to willingly buckle before power that drives us to such sheepish behavior. None from the millions who filled the crowds in Mumbai on 18 November or the liberals who exhibited their intellect in media asked a simple question what exactly has been the contribution of this man to the human kind, except for his chosen cronies and goons. Rather, he has been responsible for the deaths and devastation of several innocent lives over five long decades. He has not even benefitted Marathi manoos in any which way and rather has lowered his stature as petty and mean-minded species. Marathi people had certain image because of contributions of the stalwarts during the colonial times, particularly the likes of Jotiba Phule, who pioneered the social revolution in the country and Babasaheb Ambedkar, who advanced it to the new highs. Bal Thackeray completely destroyed it and made him rather look sectarian and xenophobic.
Few mustered courage and reminded people how Bal Thackeray played up identities: Marathi against south Indians, Gujaratis, UP’ites, Biharis, Bangladeshis, and of course Muslims from time to time, to build up his personal power and wealth. He exploited general frustration of the working class with their crisis ridden lives, split them along their regional identities and pitched them against each other to the glee of their exploiters. His proximity to the industrialists and businessmen, the film industry big wigs, hobnobbing with political nobility was insinuated by some courageous people. But none spoke about his primal intrigues against Dalits, the Marathi Dalits. On the contrary, he was projected by some as being against castes and in implications pro-Dalits. The truth is that he had been as unscrupulous in making use of castes as he has been in any other matter with his hatred for Ambedkar and Ambedkarite Dalits.
Parasitic Birth of Sena
The main prowess of Bal Thackeray was that he accurately knew what would appeal to the majority of people at various times. Perhaps this trait came naturally to him as a cartoonist. In the general context of struggles for reorganization of states on linguistic basis and in a special context of synchronization of the interests of a small section of the Marathi-speaking entrepreneurs and the larger section of the middle class and the working class in Greater Bombay, a movement for a state of Marathi speaking people had erupted as ‘Samyukta Maharashtra movement’. It was led by the communists and socialists like SM Joshi, SA Dange, PK Atre, with quixotic slogan of ‘samyukta maharashtra, samajvadi maharashtra’ (United Maharashtra, Socialist Maharashtra), in which Bal Thackeray’s father, Prabodhankar Thackeray was also an important participant. Shiv Sena may be considered as an illegitimate child of this Samyukta Maharashtra movement. Piggybacking on the Marathi sentiments built up during the Samyukta Maharashtra movement, he and his brother Shrikant had launched a Marathi cartoon weekly, ‘Marmik’ in August 1960 at the hands of Yashvantrao Chavvan. Although Marmik did not propound any specific political ideology, it consistently criticized Nehru and Dange for toeing the Soviet line and derided the Mulslims. The border issue between Maharashtra and Karnataka resulting from the formation of the Maharashtra state, its ignorance by the center and its extension of the injustice on Marathi people became the cause célèbre for Marmik. Within five years, Marmik became extremely popular among Marathi people. Riding on this popularity, and with the visible support of the ruling Congress Party (important Congress leaders like Sharad Pawar being present at its foundation function) the Shiv Sena was founded as a political party on June 21, 1966, with Marmik as its mouth piece. The Shiv Sena projected the issue of South Indians grabbing jobs in Mumbai and effectively began to split the working class endearing itself to the industrialists and political class. In its very first Dusshera rally on October 30, 1966, which was addressed by the then important Congress leader Ramrao Adik, the Shiv Sena mob had attacked and burnt South Indian shops and restaurants with impunity. The next year they burned the office of the CPI led Girni Kamgar Union that clearly revealed active patronage of the Congress to the rise of the Shiv Sena in Bombay politics. At that time, the Shiv Sena acted as the private militia of the Maharashtra Congress chieftains like Vasantrao Naik and Vasantdada Patil (who would later help it get ensconced in the BMC), who wanted to finish working class movement to please their clientele in industrialists of Bombay. The next major action was the cowardly murder of the popular and militant Communist trade union activist and sitting MLA, Com. Krishna Desai in June 1970 by the Shiv Sena, which firmly established it as the outfit to be feared. Thackeray skillfully capitalized on this fear and grew into a Frankenstein that would cast its evil shadow on Maharashtra for next five decades, quite like Indira Gandhi’s Bhindranwale or Osama Bin Laden of the USA but unlike them, not fully out of the Congress shadow.
Wicked Casteist Strategy
The next big threat to the ruling Congress emerged in the form of the Dalit panthers, founded in 1972, both as a challenge to the injustice of the social system and as a rebellion against the then moribund and directionless Republican Party of India (RPI). The Panthers began by taking up both caste and class issues and also launched a campaign to expose the regressive aspects of some Hindu religious tenets. Dalit panthers posed potentially bigger threat than that of the communists. It had not only threatened the Congress applecart of cooptation of Dalits launched in the previous decade but also portended revolt of the organic proletariat of the country. The Dalit Panther asked Dalits not to support the then RPI leaders who were backing Congress candidate Ramrao Adik, also supported by the Shiv Sena, for a by-election for Mumbai South-Central Lok Sabha seat. With an alibi of objecting to certain speeches made by Panther leaders about Hindu deities, the Shiv Sena unleashed riots against Dalits in the Worli BDD chawls in Mumbai in January 1974, which spread to other areas of the city and continued for a week. A Dalit Panther activist Bhagwat Jadhav was brutally killed by the Shiv Sena activities, marking the beginning of the anti-Dalit feud of the Shiv Sena against the Dalit community. Interestingly, Adik was defeated by CPI’s Roza Deshpande, daughter of the communist leader S A Dange.
Shiv Sena’s sparking off Worli riots was to neutralize the threat of the Dalit Panther at the behest of its benefactor, the Congress. The Congress could have never done it on its own because that could boomerang on it by antagonizing large sections of Dalits. For the Shiv Sena, that was no consideration. On the contrary, it would serve its incipient strategy to isolate the Ambedkarite Dalits as it knew they would never be its supporters. By projecting them to be Hindu haters, it hoped to consolidate all others including the non-Ambedkarite Dalits that supplied its adherents. Nobody had gone until then to the extent of identifying people along sub caste lines as Bal Thackeray did. In that sense he was not only casteist that any way all politicians are, but also super-casteist. This strategy paid him rich dividends in terms of consolidating all other castes, creating a sense of psychological elevation among other Dalit sub-castes as belonging to a party of high caste Hindus. The deliberate projection of himself in the saffron attire with other Hindu markers also indicated that he was a spirited Hindu and in corollary believed in castes.
The Ambedkar Hater
He never gave up an opportunity to insult Ambedkar, and batter Ambedkarite Dalits. In the agitation for renaming the Marathwada University at Aurangabad after Babasaheb Ambedkar, the Shiv Sena had a dubious distinction of being the only political party that consistently opposed it. Bal Thackeray had ridiculed Dalit demand saying, “.. people do not have flour at home and they demand university.” On July 27, 1978, the state assembly had adopted a unanimous resolution to rename the university. It provoked large-scale protests all over Marathwada accompanied by mass progroms against Dalits affecting some 1200 to 9000 villages in the region, rendering about 5000 people homeless. Beatings and rapes of women occurred, and one local activist Pochiram Kamble was burned to death. While the violence was instigated mainly by feudal landed interests in the Congress, supported by upper-caste zealots in the then Janata Party, the Shiv Sena, even though confined to Mumbai-Thane belt in those days, had vehemently opposed it. On November 25, 1993, Gautam Waghmare, a Dalit Panther youth from Nanded, committed self-immolation to press the issue of renaming. His martyrdom, denigrated by Bal Thackeray calling him a bevada (a drunkard), triggered off massive wave of demonstrations of Dalits and Left organizations in every district. The Shiv Sena, capitalizing on its consistent and most vocal opposition to the renaming of the Marathwada University, by then had reached Marathwada with its shakhas set up everywhere. It tried to hold back the tide with a Marathwada Bandh opposing the renaming, but this time it evoked little response. The state government could have easily implemented its renaming resolution respecting enormous sacrifice of Dalits over the 16-years long struggle but instead it announced on January 14, 1994 mere addition of “Babasaheb Ambedkar” before Marathwada University for its truncated half, the other half being renamed as a “Swamy Ramanand Tirth University” to be set up at Nanded. Thanks to the compromise of Ramdas Athavale, who was then a cabinet minister in the Sharad Pawar government, this glorious struggle of Dalits ended in a pyrrhic victory for Dalits and a reward for the reactionary elements. Nonetheless, the Shiv Sena would not even tolerate Ambedkar’s name to pollute the university. It denounced the decision with a violent statewide bandh call, but this time it failed in inciting riots.
As the Shiv Sena spanned out of its Mumbai-Thane stronghold, its main plank was battering the Ambedkarite Dalits, which gave expression to the latent hatred of the caste-Hindu folks in rural Maharashtra that was building up because of the cultural assertion and educational progress of Ambedkarite Dalits. By appealing to such base instincts of the backward rural folks Shiv Sena created its formidable constituency in Maharashtra. It did not have competition from any political party as none could openly discard their Dalit base they strenuously cultivated. The Shiv Sena’s strategy of isolating Ambedkarite (or navbauddha, as Thackeray called them) Dalits consolidated other Dalits as well as the OBCs. From the mid-eighties, the Shiv Sena began to incite a series of assaults and atrocities on Dalits, particularly in the rural areas of Marathwada and Vidarbha regions. The struggle for fallow lands has been one of the main economic agendas of Ambedkarite Dalits since 1953 when they had their first satyagraha under BS Waghmare in Marathwada at the instance of Babasaheb Ambedkar himself. In 1960s, they had revived this agenda and had a massive nationwide struggle for land under Dadasaheb Gaikwad. Many such lands were under cultivation by Dalits. The Shiv Sena opposed their encroachments on fallow lands, going to the extent of destroying their crops and attacking their hutments. A few Dalits, mostly agricultural labourers or marginal peasants were even killed in these attacks. On August 11, 1991, carnage took place in Gothala village in Ahmadpur taluka of Latur district in which two Mahar brothers were beaten to death in a mob attack. The most harrowing example was the murder of Ambadas Savane, who was stoned to death by the people belonging to Shiv Sena. When the Shiv Sena in coalition with the BJP formed the government, one of its first decisions was to summarily withdraw over 1100 cases of atrocities on Dalits in Marathwada. Interestingly, here also, Ramdas Athavale had played a role in compromising Dalit interests.
The aspect of Bal Thackeray’s character as the Ambedkar hater came to limelight in the Riddles controversy in 1987. The Maharashtra government had undertaken the project to publish complete writings and speeches of Babasaheb Ambedkar and as a part of the project it brought out a volume that contained Ambedkar’s hitherto unpublished work, “Riddles in Hinduism”. This text was highly critical of brahmanical Hinduism and pointed out its theological inconsistencies. The Shiv Sena opposed it as an intolerable insult to Hindu religion and Hindu deities and demanded a ban on its publication. The Congress government easily obliged suspending the publication. In protest, Dalits, uniting across all the factions, held one of Mumbai’s largest demonstrations ever at the Shivaji Park in November 1987 and demanded the reversal of the government decision. The government conceded defeat and published the text. Provoked by the Dalits show of strength, the Shiv Sena called for a rally in January 1988. It issued an advertisement entitled “An Insult to Hindu religion” which contained the statement clearly alluding to the impurity of Dalits. It said, “Only those Hindus who have unadulterated blood in them should join the morcha.” The following week both Dalits and Sainiks took to the streets. Sainiks organized public burnings of the book and engaged in violent clashes with Dalits. During a massive morcha of Dalits to Mantralaya on February 5, 1988, led by Prakash Ambedkar, some irate youth caused some damage to the hutatma (martyrs) memorial, which the Shiv Sena had erected at Flora Fountain Square. In response, Chhagan Bhujbal, who was one of the close confidante of Bal Thackeray then, performed a religious purification ceremony of the damaged structure by sprinkling go mutra (cow’s urine). Although the Shiv Sena had to be satisfied with a redundant footnote by the government to the Chapter, it’s very act of coming out in opposition of Ambedkar and his followers endeared itself to the majority of caste Hindus and OBCs, who always reared hatred for them but could not express it. This was the true face of Bal Thackeray vis-à-vis Ambedkarite Dalits and even Babasaheb Ambedkar.
Shiv Sena’s vicious role in the Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar massacre and its cover up is too well known to be recounted. On July 11, 1997, noticing the bust of Ambedkar in Ramabai Nagar desecrated by some miscreants, the Dalits in the colony came out on the road in protest. Nothing unusual had happened beyond the rasto rako they resorted to, to express their anger. However, picking up the opportunity, a petty sub-inspector Manohar Kadam, who had reached there with his state reserve police force, suddenly ordered firing on innocent people with purely malicious intent and mercilessly gunned down ten Dalits and wounded over thirty others. The Shiv Sena-BJP government and its police then launched a shameless campaign to justify the brutal act and protect Manohar Kadam with a fabricated LPG tanker story with a doctored videograph. The Gundewar Commission, instituted by the government in response to persistent agitation of Dalits, to investigate into the incident, exposed the lie of the government and castigated Kadam in no uncertain terms. Justice Gundewar expressed indignation in his report of December 1998 saying, “.. the lapses on part of Kadam are so glaring and fatal that they can hardly be accepted. He has exposed himself in more than one way and I do not think that such an officer should continue to be in police service.”
The entire history of Shiv Sena is replete with such instances that reveal the inveterate hatred for Ambedkar and Ambedkarite Dalits in the mind of Bal Thackeray.
Degenerate Dalit Leaders
Bal Thackeray’s allegorical statements ridiculing Ambedkar, his dismissive references to Ambedkarite Dalits in his lumpen language, irritatingly condoned as ‘thakri’ style, his indirect opposition to the poor slum dwellers and patronizing support to money bags, to be surely construed as anti-Dalits, are legion. But the politics of Dalits has degenerated to such an extent that it does not have much to do with such things. Dalit politicians have grasped the essence of politics as maximizing their wealth and power, which today have become two sides of the same coin. They do not need a priori people behind them. In the neoliberal era, people also value wealth and power. The only requirement for these leaders is to maintain their identities as leader of Dalits, which has been made easy with the iconization of Ambedkar. If you have money, you can attract people, you can engage them to do your propaganda, you can flood the walls with your wall-paintings, put up huge hoardings projecting yourself, flood news papers with your paid-news, influence television channels to project yourselves, and create general impression such that people will perceive you as a ‘big man’ and listen to your rubbish. Politics, in general, is reduced to this base process in the prevailing system. If you have desire, capability, extension motivation and enough intelligence to genuinely serve people but no money, nobody will look at you. This being the state of politics, there is nothing much to speak about politicians in general and Dalit politicians in particular, as the latter are expected to sell much cheaper than others in the political mandi. Anyone can call the tune by paying a penny to these pipers! It is therefore that Namdeo Dhasal, onetime fiery panther dreaming of a revolution wrote a book-length paean to Mrs Gandhi, ‘priyadarshini’ (his worst poem) in 1976 and eventually found shelter in Thackeray’s den; another self-appointed sarsenapati of a non-existent Sena, Jogendra Kawade, showered praises to Narendra Modi and desperately tried to be seen in Thackeray’s funeral; and lastly Ramdas Athavale, who has outsmarted all others in political brokering along with his gang of Mahatekars and Dangales, onetime well meaning fellows, landing at the feet of Thackerays.
Athavale, whose only qualification to the leadership is his third rate poetic chants of Ambedkar, had shamelessly ignored that Thackeray had never left an opportunity to insult Ambedkar and batter his followers. Thackeray had called Ambedkar a stooge of Nizam; likened Ambedkar to a pumpkin with a spectacle; sheltered the foul mouthed Shiv Sena leader Anand Dighe who mockingly insinuated doubt on the character of Bhimabai, Ambedkar’s mother, while explaining how he became Ambedkar from his original name ‘Sapkal’; tried to institute a custom of celebrating the demolition of the Babri masjid as ‘manav mukti din’ on 6 December, the day considered by millions of Dalits as the sad day and as late as in recent year, dismissed the idea of the proposed memorial for Ambedkar on the site of Indu Mills, instead insisting that the land should be given to the memorial for Jagannath Shankar Sheth. Interestingly, he had once insulted Athavale himself famously calling him as a parasite risen over the ass of Sharad Pawar. But what is shame before the prospects of pelf and power!
Dr Anand Teltumbde is a writer and a civil rights activist with CPDR, Mumbai. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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