On January 26, 1964, the Marathi daily Maratha carried a report by Acharya Attre announcing the founding of a revolutionary youth organisation in Maharashtra by the name Shiv Sena. The motto of the outfit as propounded by Attre, went as follows:
Let the Marathas unite!’ May the Marathi spirit grow!
The Shiv Sena of Acharya Attre, could never materialise. However, two years later, on June 19, 1966, political cartoonist Bal Thackeray founded the Shiv Sena, the organisation that would go on to change the political landscape of Maharashtra for years to come.
As a cartoonist, Bal Thackeray had gained popularity in Maharashtra for his illustrative campaigns against non-Maharashtrians in Maharashtra. At its initial phase, the popularity of his party was restricted to Mumbai and Thane. By the 1980s, the Sena shifted allegiance from the Congress to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and started gaining state level prominence. By the 1990s, the local youth based organisation had grown enough to share national level power.
As the Sena completes 50 years on Sunday, one is compelled to reflect upon the astute utilisation of ideologies through which the Shiv Sena could capture the political mood of Maharashtra and also of the country.
Regionalism: ‘Shivaji, the Maratha warrior’
The Bombay of 1960s was a city frustrated with an unimpeded inflow of workers from other states, especially in the South. In 1961, Maharashtrians formed just 43% of Bombay’s population. Though no single non-Maharashtrian community gained majority, together they were larger in number that of the Maharashtrians. Further, a study conducted in the 1950s had shown that Marathis lagged behind in terms of occupational status and education.
The mood created as a result of the excessive competition for jobs and housing was what fed into the ideology of the Sena at its inception. The publications of the Sena carried warnings that Maharashtra is being overrun by ‘outsiders’.
Making strong appeals to the historical sentiments of the people of Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena claimed that Maharashtra belonged to the ‘army of Shivaji’. In other words, the party mooted the idea that Maharashtra belonged to Marathi speakers, whose economic and cultural interests had to be upheld.
South Indians, whom Thackeray often referred to as ‘Madrasis’, were the first to bear the brunt of the Sena’s rigorous nativism. Overtime though, the biggest enemy of the Sena activists emerged to be migrant workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The most violent repercussion of such regional politics were the clashes that took place in 2008 between Sena workers and the workers from UP and Bihar.
Nationalism: “Shivaji, the national pride”
Shivaji in Maharashtra was not just an image of Maratha pride, but also a national hero. Sivaji’s national hero status was a vital element in Shiv Sena’s regionalism. The region, in terms of the Sena, was never opposed to the nation. On the contrary, nationalism was inherent in the party’s idea of regionalism, and formed the basis for fighting against all ‘anti-national’ elements.
Foremost among the ‘anti-national’ enemies of the Sena were the Leftists. Communism was ripe in the mill districts of central Bombay in the first half of the twentieth century. However, by this time, there was a significant decline in job opportunities, particularly in the textile industry of the region. The Sena, by making use of the politics of identity, appealed to the workers and big businessmen of Bombay who were tired of the frequent strikes heralded by the Leftists.
Since the foundation of the Shiv Sena, Bal Thackeray was vehement in his attacks on the communists who were projected as anti-national. The Sino-Indian war of the 1960s made the anti-communist stance all the more appealing. With the backing of the Congress, the Sena could break the trade union movement in Bombay and defeat V.K. Krishna Menon of the Communist party in the 1967 general elections.
Saffron Nationalism: “Shivaji, the saviour of Hindus”
The nationalism of the Shiv Sena, had right from the beginning had a tinge of saffron in it. However, it was only from 1984 that the party started projecting itself vociferously as a Hindu nationalist force.
The reasoning behind the sharp turn to the right was twofold. First, the expanding ambitions of the party to enter the arena of national politics meant that it would have to concentrate on issues central to the nation as a whole rather than just to the people of Maharashtra. Second, by the 1980s, non-urban areas of Maharashtra were more prone towards a militant Hinduism ideology.
The Sena went about mobilising Hindu sentiments by ushering the myth of a Hindu nationalist past. The discourse of Shivaji the Hindu king, who restricted Muslim expansion, was one that was most commonly propagated by the party.
In 1971, after the MLA by-election, Bal Thackeray made a powerful statement in his weekly publication Marmik:
“I am not ashamed of calling myself Hindu. Our victory is a victory of Hindu-ness, the victory of true nationalism. What is shameful in it? Jan Sangh, Hindu maha sabba, R.S.S. and Swatantra were with us. I thank them.”
Bal Thackeray remained the party leader till 2003, after which his son assumed leadership role. Under Udhav Thackeray, the party has been striving to become the number one political power in Maharashtra. In the 2014 Assembly elections, the party gained the second largest number of seats, the largest number going to BJP.
The BJP, which was the Sena’s biggest alliance party since 1980s, has been aggressively mooting for a ‘Sena mukt Mumbai (Sena free Mumbai). The Shiv Sena too has been partially playing the role of the opposition to the BJP, despite having joined the alliance after much reluctance in 2014.
As the Sena turns fifty, the biggest challenge facing them is the upcoming BMC elections, scheduled to be held in early 2017.