SILENT DIGNITY IN GRIEF

Suffering has overnight ennobled the Shiv Sena. It was a highly disciplined Sena that attended the funeral procession and the last rites of Balasaheb.

Mumbai : Balasaheb Thackeray loved large gatherings. A lot went into preparing for his giant political rallies but the crowds always came on their own. They needed no trucks, no handouts and no reason other than that the Shiv Sena supremo would speak to them directly.

SILENT DIGNITY IN GRIEF

On Sunday, with that voice now silent, the crowds came out in numbers not seen before to fill up Shivaji Park one last time in honour of a leader who bonded with his constituents like no other politician has in recent memory.

Hands joined in prayer, eyes welled up with tears and bodies burdened by a sense of personal loss, party workers and supporters filled the roads in and around Bandra, Matunga and Dadar as they escorted the leader on his final journey through the areas recognised as the heartland of the Shiv Sena’s support base in Mumbai.

They moved from his home Matoshree to the party headquarters Sena Bhavan and later to Shivaji Park, a sprawling 28-acre ground known for the two things Thackeray liked best — political rallies and cricket.

Son, political heir and Executive President of the Shiv Sena, Uddhav Thackeray, and close family members were atop the extra long trailer truck on which his body was carried, bedecked with strings of garlands, the saffron Sena flag, and a huge picture of the departed leader.

Nephew Raj Thackeray, leader of the breakaway Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, was not atop the truck but was seen making arrangements for the last rites at Shivaji Park, where  lakhs were in attendance to say goodbye to a leader who was varyingly called saheb, boss, supremo, Hindu-hruday-samrat, sarsenapati and Sena pramukh.

It was at Shivaji Park that the Shiv Sena story began almost half a century ago when Thackeray first addressed a rally on October 30, 1966, in times when the country and the city presented a very different political and socio-economic picture.

It was in the early 1960s that migration to Mumbai picked up, the slum population crossed a million and industrial capital flowed in, making the conditions for a rapid growth trajectory that has followed a haphazard path ever since. In this milieu, Thackeray struck a chord as he campaigned for more opportunities for locals and against jobs going to those from other States.

Records have it that Thackeray unexpectedly drew a large and enthusiastic crowd at his first Shivaji Park rally 46 years ago, a support base that has endured and stretched through three generations and powered a phenomenon modern day politicos cannot always comprehend.

As Uddhav lit the funeral pyre, and prayers went out from the platform, the sun had just about set and the atmosphere — the crowds, the flags, the bandobast — looked eerily similar to the many rallies that the Sena supremo has led from the very place where he was laid to rest.

But instead of the fire, brimstone and energy that the Thackeray rallies generated, this was a gloomy evening when the party faced an uncertain future with the loss of its icon and its cadres split between two factions of the Thackeray family.

Mumbai was shut, the complete closure clear even though it was a Sunday, but this time the talk of Shiv Sena forcing a bandh was replaced with awe at the raw power of a leader who could command a mass following that is unknown to many living in this city of more than 20 million.

It was the numbers that led the authorities to make arrangements for a public funeral at Shivaji Park. It was the first state public funeral after Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s, who died on August 1, 1920 and was cremated at Girgaum Chowpatty.

Confusion over crowd number

There is confusion over the number of people who actually attended the funeral. Initially, it was claimed on a television channel that no less than 20 lakh people had attended the procession. But subsequently police and political sources scaled down the number and pegged it at 4 lakh to 5 lakh people. This includes people who had Balasaheb’s last glimpse from their homes and who actually descended on the road.

1st public cremation

This is the first time a public cremation has taken place in Mumbai since independence. “All big and small funerals have taken place only at the designated sites,” said former Mumbai Police Commissioner Julio Rebeiro. The Shiv Sena had obtained special permission to perform the last rites at the park. A home department official said that in view of the huge crowds, which were likely to turn up for the event, it was decided to permit a public cremation at Thackeray’s favourite spot, Shivaji Park, which he always referred to as ‘Shiv Tirth’

State funeral

The government not only allowed his funeral to take place at Shivaji Park, never a venue for such events, but also accorded him a state funeral, the first public funeral after Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s in 1920. Governor K Sankaranarayanan and Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan placed wreathes on the Sena patriarch’s body. A contingent of Mumbai police gave a gun salute and buglers sounded the last post, a rare honour for somebody who never held any official position. The body was draped in national flag and sported a red Tilak. Balasaheb’s trademark dark glasses were kept on the stage.

Dussehra site revisited

The pyre was erected on a platform at the very place from where Thackeray addressed Shiv Sena workers during his famous Dussehra rallies and where he delivered his first speech to his rabble-rousing supporters after the launch of the party on June 19, 1996.

Galaxy of stars, politicians

Among the notable names that were present for the funeral included Nationalist Congress Party chief and Union Minister Sharad Pawar, BJP veteran LK Advani, Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj, megastar Amitabh Bachchan and industrialist Anil Ambani. BJP president Nitin Gadkari, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Union Minister Praful Patel, senior BJP leader Arun Jaitely and VHP leader Pravin Togadia were among other big names present at the venue. Narendra Modi was conspicuous by his absence.

Breakaway leaders

Ex-Sena leader Chhagan Bhujbal, who got Bal Thackeray arrested after becoming NCP’s Deputy Chief Minister and home minister in a little known case after a bitter fallout, and Congress MP Sanjay Nirupam, who also broke away from the saffron party, were among those present at the funeral.

Jagdish Rattanani

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