Millennium Post

Thackeray’s funeral poses questions

The month of November 2012 will go down in history as one which holds up a mirror to how India, the so-called secular democratic republic, responds as a nation to ‘super death events.’ First, the death on ventilator as a consequence of cardio-respiratory arrest on 17 November in Mumbai of Bal Keshav Thackeray – arch provocateur, demagogue, mascot of a brand of chauvinistic and divisive politics that have been dressed up as ‘instilling Marathi pride’, mostly extra-governmental and for a short while governmental actor, and basically the don/doyen of Mumbai for over four decades. The second was the ‘secret and swift execution’ of Mohammad Ajmal Kasab – the lone 26/11 terrorist caught alive in the act and pretty much the poster boy of terrorism in India – on the morning of 21 November in Pune’s Yerwada Central Jail.

Two deaths that couldn’t be more different from each other, in terms of the emotions they invoked amongst the Indian multitude, but especially the denizens of the scarred city of Mumbai. It was Mumbai that saw the rise of the ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’, who began as a cartoonist for the prestigious daily The Free Press Journal but went on to become the founder of the religio-fascist organisation Shiv Sena in 1966, and has been ever since a presence so formidable in the city that it would come to a grinding halt at the snap of his dreaded fingers, as it did even in the wake of his eventual passing. Yet, it was Mumbai again that bore the brunt of the ‘biggest act of terrorism’ on Indian soil and had to deal with the machine gun wielding boy-assassin from Faridkot, Pakistan. The city, bruised and vandalised by both men and their organisations, nevertheless, proffered two reactions to their ends that couldn’t be more unlike each other.

The difference is summed up in the widely circulated comment by the Shiv Sena spokesperson and MP Sanjay Raut that Kasab’s hanging was a true shraddhanjali to Bal Thackeray. What could be more ironical than the fact that execution of a 25-year old Pakistani terrorist is being seen as a homage to the self-proclaimed ‘Hitler of Mumbai’, a tyrant who was in effect the extra-judicial arm of Bombay’s superrich industrialists and politicos, who let him rule the roost because it served their interests perfectly. Bal Thackeray’s ire was never directed at the moneyed babus of Bombay: in fact he was the perfect dancer to the music of their ultra-capitalist vision. He was whom the likes of Ramakrishna Bajaj and the Ambanis wielded to crush trade unions and communist party-led working classes of the city. He was the one who openly served death sentences to several of his opponents, particularly the Marxist leader Krishna Desai, and was never brought to justice. In fact, he was the one in bed with the Mumbai establishment, hardly a challenger to the state, which colluded with him, or let him unleash his chest-beating, sword-toting terror, whenever the government-corporate lobby was being obliged.

It is a fitting tribute to at least the caustic wit in Thackeray, the cartoonist who preferred a ‘benevolent dictatorship’ over a democratic model of government, that politicians, industrialists, government officials and especially the annoyingly self-righteous moral crusaders and self-professed conscience-keepers from India’s super-sonorous television media have been falling over each other to pour platitudes over spurious platitudes in the shape of inane eulogies to the now deceased leader of Shiv Sena. Even Bollywood stars, that special brand of surface realists who are the true embodiments of cosmeticised bubble existence, but who had lived under the paws and often inside the proverbial jaws of the ‘Mumbai Tiger’ for as long as he lived, have been ‘tweeting’ their condolences and outperforming each other in this public act of grief exhibitionism. The pathological pack is of course led by Amitabh Bachchan, who had played a character loosely modeled on Thackeray in the films
and Sarkar Raj.

What kind of a rank political opportunism refuses to see all the evils perpetrated by Thackeray and bids him farewell in the grand and opulent manner, to the extent that his cremation ceremony was a government sponsored event that took place in Shivaji Park, the honour meted out last to Bal Gangadhar Tilak in 1920?! What sort of collective schizophrenia pays homage to the criminal rabble-rouser, whose acts of religious fundamentalist terrorism paralysed and ravaged Mumbai on several occasions, stretching up to four decades? What kind of a sanctioned hypocrisy drives a nation that prides itself in its entrenched democratic culture and ‘secular fabric’ to mourn so theatrically the passing of its longest serving vandal, who was as medicinal for the cause of Marathi ‘Manoos’ as Adolf Hitler was to the betterment of German people?

While India was baying for Kasab’s blood until his now widely debated clandestine hanging, and while it bays again for the blood of Afzal Guru, the accused mastermind of December 2001 attacks on the Indian Parliament, it also loudly bewailed the demise of a much-hated public figure, who extracted reverence and awe only through fear. While Bollywood experiments with ‘heavy subjects’ and grapples with bubblegum portrayals of terrorists as ‘they are also humans,’ a la Aamir Khan in Fanaa, or Hrithik Roshan in Mission Kashmir, it singles out Kasab (a Pakistani) and Afzal Guru (a Kashmiri-Indian) to remain condemned and unredeemable. While Kasab’s crime was beyond a figment of doubt, Afzal Guru’s treachery still remains inconclusive, and the possibility he has been framed looms large, but our appetite for vengeance, dressed up as a charade of collective emotional detoxification, cannot be satisfied by anything less than capital punishment.

Isn’t it brilliant that dispensable pawns in the grand scheme of things, footnotes in chapters of the mighty history of our ‘great’ nation, are so artfully utilised as sacrificial lambs, so as to keep the holy fire of our ‘secular democracy’ from being extinguished? Isn’t it fantastic that we, the Indian people, a gargantuan and motley flock of diverse individuals, have mastered the skill of selective adulation and selective condemnation, matching the political flavour of the season, and divested of any real and bold scrutiny?

As a nation of cowards, haven’t we internalised the rhythm of the fabricated melody that lulls us into intellectual and ethical submission whenever faced with a difficult choice or standing up to the tyranny of self-mythologising megalomaniacal autocrats? [IPA]
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