When I first started covering politics in early 90s I encountered a politician, who almost whole of Maharashtra then and later for some odd reason half the nation, had begun calling, Tiger, alias Sena Supremo Bal Thackeray. Also, known as ‘Balasaheb.’
As a journalist I had many an encounter and even close shave with this leading politician of Maharashtra. A powerful political personality. The first time I called Matoshree, residence of Thackerays, I wasn’t prepared to hear, “Jai Maharashtra! Me Balasaheb Thackeray boltoy.” His Nepali aide, Thapa knew my colleague and me and would tell us when it would be a good time to catch ‘saheb.’ I was taken aback to listen to the politician answer the phone himself. The first thought was he was very accessible, immediately followed with how come they didn’t have an operator and what about his security? Today, there are security walls and one never gets to talk to him, forget meeting him.
At that time i requested an interview but didn’t say ‘Jai Maharashtra,’ being a humourist, moreover someone who at that time had grouse against media was quick to say, “Now why is your tongue twisted, when on other occasions you don’t spare a chance to pull us down…” but was prompt to give an appointment. Many interactions began from then on made me think of his split personality. For me, who was not new to Bombay’s nuances, history and politics, BT the name spelt communalism, divisive and someone who aped the CPI, was backed by Sharad Pawar to ensure Congress is put on back foot.
I’d grown up hearing stories of their gundagiri of Shiv Sena in Girgaum. That was also when the CPI leader and sitting MLA Krishna Desai was stabbed to death. This turned the tide for two political parties-While CPI went downwards, Shiv Sena rose. The talks in Girgaon kattas would be ‘Marathi manoos’ being threatened, the Tamilians and South Indians coming from outside to take over jobs of local people and how Sena and Saheb were the hope for Marathis. This ‘sons of soil’ politics garnered much interest across the nation, an issue that would rule politics even in the next generation.
Stories of Thackeray never died down. In 1984, when the rest of North India burnt, the Sikhs were butchered, here a delegation went to meet BT. Leaders within Sena do say off the record money was exchanged, for protection. We know not one Sikh was touched in Bombay. These stories hold credence because much later as a return favour, Sardar Kulwant Singh Kohli was made the Sheriff of Mumbai in 1997.
By 80s the Sainiks had begun taking stalls, spaces as Shakhas. Their reputation was enough to scare many a Mumbaikar. The Shiv Sena set-up was a complete replica of CPI. By the time I quit Times of India to pursue post graduation my dear city,Bombay was mauled, murdered and literally every clothing of hers was torn, exposing her completely and making her vulnerable. Here stood the politician who always wanted to rule Bombay, without contesting elections. He watched his own city burning, how could he? He supported pulling down of a place of worship, called Muslims names, used the worst possible slang, supported riots and said nobody should be spared. All this for Hindu power! Then Marathi manoos was forgotten.
Yes, my ideology and perception of this leader I had conveyed to my editor, the late SP Singh, who appreciated my opinion and ideology but cautioned me not to let it affect my reporting. In fact SP persuaded me to read Samna. When I had said I didn’t, he said, “padha karo yeh akhbar neeta. 90 pratishad karmanook hoti hai, aur bahut khoob, sirf 10 pratishad khabre hoti hai, lekin who aisi hoti hai, ki baki ke aqbaro mei nahi milegi.” He was right, a visionary may be? Today, we like it or not, Samna editorials dictate the news agenda for national channels and yes even English news channels. The cartoonist has the intelligence, nerve and the humour, except he chose a path that didn’t integrate this country.
Thackeray would stick to his word and gave the most fiery interviews. He hated the guts of the then Aaj Tak. He loved SP Singh, but also would get angry that we addressed him as ‘Bal Thackeray.’ Yet Thackeray had instructed all his Sainiks that they should install a television in their Shakhas and watch Aaj Tak to get more informed and learn Hindi! Thackeray never let go of any chance to taunt my colleague and me, publicly. He always accused us of creating a rift between Sena and BJP, but I always wondered why he would never spew venom at us.
Those were the days when Thackeray’s family was in media for all wrong reasons. First Jaidev for shooting birds with a weapon and Raj for the Ramesh Kini murder. At that time I’d gone over to their bungalow Matoshree and interviewed Uddhav. My first ever close-shave with the politician was on that day. After finishing Uddhav’s interview I was led then by Damu Kenkre, famous Marathi theatre personality. He was spearheading the opposition to Jaidev in Kala Nagar. Thackeray was leaving for his farm house and he saw the cameraman and assistant. What seemed like an informal talk soon turned into a public spat. He spoke of finishing them, Aaj Tak and me. For some odd reason I was not scared and was firm. I asked him what has happened and if we were in the wrong we would apologise, but first I must know the cause of his anger. Let me tell you it was eerie, four gunmen pointing guns at me and my team, two tagging the umatic recorder trying to yank the tape out. He spoke angrily and accused us of spying, spreading malicious information and h was livid. Behind him with the gate slightly ajar stood Uddhav who kept signalling that he shouldn’t be dragged into it. When Thackeray said I was being misguided by Damu, who was his every night drinking partner. I told Thackeray he should confirm with his son that I first went to their bungalow and interviewed Uddhav. By then the old man suddenly cooled down. He asked me for the first time exactly what I’d done. After I told him, he gave expletives to his son. (Something I’d noted mentally, for future). By then Thackeray cooled down and snapped at the guards ordering them to stop touching our equipment. Thackeray apologised for his anger and spoke at length saying the Marathi tabloid Mahanagar was after his family and peace of mind. It was a whole new experience about how short a fuse Thackeray had and yet apologised when he realised he was in the wrong.
Damu anna meanwhile had panicked and gone to his house to call some very senior political editors of Marathi newspapers. He was scared for my life and finished the interview ushering me to go quickly to my office. When I returned the calls made by the seniors I was informed, “Welcome neeta, you are now a true journalist now that Thackeray himself threatened you.” This incident did make me realise a few important points. The father-son equation, also the fact the next day it was Uddhav who mentioned the incident at length in Samna, told me who was running the show at this newspaper. All of this would become clearer years later to come.
Thackeray has many sides, which many admire and will tell us proudly. Yes, he is tremendously witty and political, it was always evident, he has far better news sense than many in his family and within the party. People who revere him dislike that I don’t. I’m told, “he has done a lot for Marathi manoos and Maharashtrians.” Is it? Point 1. In 70s it was a Marathi cause against South Indian and specifically Tamilians. Later the anger was directed to UP Bhaiyyas and Biharis. Guess the targets change with times. Point 2. Sena fights for Mumbai city. The ones who burn buses, break property on every bandh are just who in Mumbai? May I enlist their names? Shiv Sainiks, who are left in the lurch, just by the way, when NO Thackeray family member goes to bail them out, get them occupation. The sons-of-soil sadly has forced them to stay as destructors. Point 3. Ramesh Kini was a Maharashtrian, lower-middle class head of a small family. He stood up against a landlord who wanted to evict at any cost. Kini resisted, he refused to quit, so an underworld Marathi gangster was given the supari to kidnap Ramesh Kini and bump him. The landlord is a buddy of Raj Thackeray. So Marathi manoos loses over blood kin? Ramesh’s wife Sheela another Maharashtrian, didn’t give up.
Point 4. Thackeray’s humour was always directed to mock those who opposed him and his family. Take the case of Sheela Kini, Pushpa Bhave the female advocate who stood rock solid by Sheela’s side. Thackeray always made fun of these 2 women. At public rallies, in animated style he would mimic them and make complete mockery of their hard fight. This is wasted humour, political leadership that is divisive, that denigrate women and and disrespects democracy, which he publicly is proud of, is to be denounced. I’m not bothered about the Thackeray’s place in history, his contribution, that he may have often spoken the truth, for me what is important that he has instigated communal feelings, mocked women and abused the ‘Marathi manoos’ ideology for his benefit such a person.
I have spoken to many Sainiks through out my career, the very first Corporator in whose chawl room Thackeray would hold meetings. I am sure many such have seen his good side, that’s what Don Corleone was to his devout followers, a Godfather. Here is Saheb for sainiks. I write this when he is alive, because as a basic principle i don’t write anything against those dead. It is recounting history….