Fifty six years ago, Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray stood on a dais at the Shivaji Park ground in Central Mumbai on October 30, 1966, addressing a massive gathering of Mumbaikars and Marathi-speaking youth from across Maharashtra, galvanising them to “reclaim their identities and their place in society”. It was the rally he had organised on the occasion of Dussehra, four months after the Shiv Sena was founded on June 19.
The announcement of the event was made in the Marmik Magazine founded by Bal Thackeray in 1960. During the time, Marmik frequently covered problems such as unemployment among Marathi youth, which it said was “sidelined” in government-owned companies in a piece captioned “vacha ani thanda basaa (read and do nothing), which was later changed to “vacha ani utha (read and gear up)”.
According to senior political analyst Prakash Akolkar, it was this first rally that was instrumental in shaping the Sena’s future in Mumbai and Maharashtra and helped consolidate the party’s agenda that dominated its ideology for many decades to come — that of the “protector” of the rights of a “sidelined” Marathi manoos – and helped it amass support.
Cut to the present day, and the Shivaji Park ground is bustling with activity as the party prepares for October 5, its 56th Dussehra rally. The ground has been cleaned up, lighting and seating arrangements will soon be in place, and heavy security from the Mumbai police can be seen all around.
Wednesday’s rally comes at a juncture where the Sena is trying to retain its support base and rebuild its ranks after June’s vertical split that almost erased its legislative presence. Though the two rallies are more than five decades apart, the aim is to evoke the same feelings in Shiv Sainiks — that it is time to reclaim their identity.
The permission for the Uddhav Thackeray led Shiv Sena to hold the rally at Shivaji Park comes after a legal battle with Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), as its rival – CM Eknath Shinde camp – also had its eyes set on the rally venue.
The rally in 1966, too, was not without its hiccups, albeit of another kind. That year, Dussehra fell on October 23. However, since much was to be done in the run-up to the event the rally could not be held on the day and had to be organised on October 30 instead. Thackeray was dressed in a simple pair of formal pants and a shirt, according to Subhash Desai, senior Sena leader and among a handful leaders today who were present at the 1966 rally. The Sena founder had not adopted his signature saffron kurta yet.
Bal Thackeray had chosen the Shivaji Park ground against the advice of seniors around him, who wanted the programme to be held in a hall, Desai said. Much like today, Shivaji Park was then a residential area, with a few and spaced out two- and three-storey buildings around it, dotted with tall coconut trees. A huge crowd turned up, the ground was bursting at the seams with visitors. Desai recalls that the audience frequently broke out in “ear-shattering applause”, and chants of “… zindabad”. “A number of women were also present in the crowd. At that time, it was quite out of the ordinary,” Desai said.
“It was all part of the process of birthing the organisation. In the run up to the rally, Bal Thackeray held several baithaks [chats] in Mumbai everyday. He visited chawls and held baithaks in small rooms at the homes of his friends, even if 10-20 people had gathered. The vyayam shala (gymnasium) at Hindamata in Dadar and at Bharatmata in Parel gave a lot of support to the Shiv Sena. There was no police bandobast for the rally, and security was provided by volunteers from Girangaon’s vyayamshala,” Desai said. The idea was the frontrunner of Shiv Sena’s organisational structure of shakhas.
A steel tiffin box was circulated among the crowd at the rally ground to collect money as contribution for helping the organisation come up.
The response was overwhelming, senior leaders recall, proof of the massive support the Shiv Sena was beginning to garner. Senior Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Chhagan Bhujbal, who was a student at the time, said, “I was a student at VJTI in Mumbai when I found out about the rally. Without much knowledge about the event, I decided to participate. I remember thinking I had never seen such a large gathering before. So many people got together.”
Bhujbal went on to become the Shakha pramukh of Shiv Sena’s Mazgaon unit, among the first 20-odd shakhas to have started in Mumbai.