The public outpouring of grief by Shiv Sainiks at the funeral of Bal Thackeray was expected but what was not expected was the restraint and solemnity shown in the past two days by the Dear Departed Leader’s storm troopers. Ever since Thackeray’s failing health reports came in four months ago, there were fears about public expression of uncontrolled grief. Mercifully, there was no violence.
Every generation has its icons, whether revered or reviled, or both. Thackeray was a polarising political figure. He was controversial and charismatic. He inspired a whole generation of Marathi-speaking Mumbaikars to protect themselves from being run-over by ‘outsiders’. Never mind that the ‘outsiders’ were also their fellow Indians. Men like Thackeray rise when social and political systems are in a flux. They fill in the vacuum left by the state, targetting on our anxieties and fears, to command a loyal following. Although Thackeray had a vice-like grip over his party, he never even attempted to be a national leader. His cult-like status was restricted to Mumbai. It barely extended to the rest of Maharashtra.
So what happens when an icon succumbs to mortality? The followers are at first stunned, and then consumed with grief. The funeral and its aftermath pass in a surreal haze as they watch the proceedings on television for hours. In case of MG Ramachandran of Tamil Nadu, NT Rama Rao or YSR Reddy of Andhra Pradesh and Rajkumar of Karnataka, there was public catharsis that resulted in random acts of violence, including self-immolations. The crowds at their funerals were from different communities but restricted to their own regions. When Mahatma Gandhi died, the world mourned.
There was shock that a Hindu would assassinate the apostle of peace. When the rest of the world thought that India would erupt into flames, the newly-born country was shamed into reforming itself after that unforgivable violent act. Such was Gandhi’s stature that impromptu thirteenth day ceremonies were held for him in far-flung villages across India. When Jawaharlal Nehru died, there was a sense of disbelief. Those close to him knew he was unwell, but nobody would talk of a succession plan. Like in any Indian family, it was inauspicious to talk of a new head of the family when the old one is alive. In the scorching summer sun in May 1964, hundreds of thousands of people accompanied Nehru’s funeral cortege to his final resting place.
There was no television and very few areas were covered by All India Radio. The grief that Nehru’s followers had was personal, and they dealt with it in the villages and towns of India. Grainy pictures and newspaper reports were the only way to know what happened at the funeral. By the time of Indira Gandhi’s death, things had changed. Her’s was the first live television broadcast of the funeral of a political icon on Doordarshan. The images were both disturbing and moving. People watched in morbid fascination as thousands came to Delhi despite the anti-Sikh riots that had shattered the core of the city.
But these funerals at Delhi were fundamentally different from Thackeray’s. Delhi has had national leaders but no local cult figures at par with, or as ruthless as Thackeray. Mumbai and Maharashtra were his world and he stayed there. And that is where the crowds came from to grieve his demise.
Meanwhile millions sat glued to their TV sets and computers where commentators deified him as if he was a saint. No dissenting voices have been heard since Thackeray was said to be in a critical condition. One saw this earlier when Princess Diana died. Her funeral united the divided Royal family and the people of England came out in huge numbers demanding and getting a public display of grief from the Queen.
When the twin towers came down and snuffed out innocent lives, all of American wanted to share the grief of families of the dead. Earlier when the Kargil War took place, we saw last rites of soldiers in their villages with little boys lighting the funeral pyres of their fathers. Those images on satellite television channels brought the horrors of war closer to us than ever before.
By some estimates, over a million people came for Thackeray’s funeral. Several million more watched it on television. Others followed it on social media. And these were not just Mumbaikars. When alive, Thackeray was a regional leader. In death, his images ceased to be just a Maharashtrian phenomenon.
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash