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.
Thackeray’s story is familiar in any country where politicians use populist anger to get political power. A cartoonist who never held elected office, Thackeray formed a political party that stoked the resentment of working class Marathis who felt that their city was being overtaken by immigrants and wealthy businessmen from other parts of the country. His party Shiv Sena — “Army of Lord Shiva” — instigated local youth to pick up batons against “outsiders” for stealing their jobs. He was indicted after the Mumbai riots of 1992-1993, when he reportedly told his men to ensure that every Muslim be sent to Allah’s house. But he was never tried. India’s leaders feared the chaos that would erupt if he were ever jailed.
In 1995, after Shiv Sena won state elections, it changed the city’s name from Bombay, as it was called under colonialism, to Mumbai, its name in the Marathi language. But for his last journey, Thackeray’s body was draped in the Indian flag. To many who cowered in their homes during his funeral in Mumbai — and countless others around the world — that resembled an abuse of the tricolor. Now that he is gone, the city may even start calling itself Bombay again.