Significance is a trophy easily bought. Greatness demands a higher bar
Bal Thackeray’s death has as many difficult lessons for our democracy as did his life.
SHIV SENA supremo Bal Thackeray’s death was met by a shaming arc of hypocrisy and capitulation in the Indian media. Its subsequently shrill distress over the fate of the two Mumbai girls who dared mild honesty on Facebook completed that circle. All weekend, as they placed lavish verbal florets at the “tiger’s” feet, who did our public commentators think they were feting? The Mumbai Police definitely deserves to be hauled up for the outrageous arrest of the girls, but what about everyone else’s collective amnesia and timidity?
For four decades, Thackeray’s corrosive political eminence has been a rebuking reminder of our democracy’s unfinished project. In a polity riven by jostling demands, he did indeed give voice to a version of Marathi disaffection, but his idea of Marathi pride was built on plinths of intimidation, not achievement. In the name of justice, he roused riots, not self-respect. In seeking correctives for his own, he sought only injury for others. His speeches tore at the fabric of India and led to the death of many. He urged rage against south Indians, Gujaratis, Marwaris, Biharis, UP-ites and Muslims; supported the Emergency; was indicted by the Sri Krishna Commission; and according to author Suketu Mehta, once infamously declaimed that he’d piss on court judgments. His cadres — drunk on his rhetoric and buoyed by the idea of his invincibility — ransacked cinema halls, outlawed plays, and vandalised media houses. For a few people with private access, he may have been a charming man, but his public legacy was one of fear, bigotry and arbitrary fiefdom. People revered him because he could bestow favour and withdraw harm at whim. He may have been a gifted cartoonist, but he failed the cartoonist’s most basic covenant: a defence of everyone’s right to dissent. His famed forthrightness was a territory he savagely reserved only for himself.
So one can understand the grief of those whose