Mumbai, India’s financial capital, was veiled in eerie silence last Sunday as more than a million people gathered to bid farewell to Bal Thackeray, the 86-year-old extremist leader who was the person most responsible for changing the name of the city from Bombay. Alas, that was among the most benign of his agitations: His vitriolic speeches against “outsiders” — Muslims and Hindus who did not hail from his Marathi ethnic group — have been blamed for riots that caused more than a thousand deaths.
Widely admired and widely loathed, Thackeray symbolizes one of the greatest challenges that India faces in its bid to become a leader of the modern, democratic world. His followers vandalized shops for selling Valentine’s Day merchandise on the grounds that it was too foreign. They denounced women wearing Western apparel. They beat up cab drivers, vegetable vendors, milkmen — all hailing from North India — simply for their presence in Mumbai.