Save Aarey Forest: Is Shiv Sena Only Paying ‘Lip Service’?

What explains Shiv Sena’s lukewarm response to the burning issue of the Aarey forest’s destruction?

5 min read
Hindi Female

The Supreme Court’s order, preventing the cutting of more trees in Aarey — for the time being at least — represents, sadly, too little too late. The executive decision that felled well over 2000 trees, clearing up a significant chunk of Mumbai’s ‘lungs’ as well as a valued ecosystem, sets a dangerous precedent not just for Mumbai and Maharashtra, but the nation as a whole.

But that’s not what this article is about. I was piqued to read Aaditya Thackeray’s rather comprehensive article outlining his and the Shiv Sena’s stance on what happened and what is happening in Aarey. Aaditya is the president of the Yuva Sena, the Sena’s youth wing, as well as the grandson of the Sena’s founder Bal Keshav Thackeray. His father, Uddhav Thackeray, heads the Sena presently, and Aaditya is being pitched as a chief ministerial candidate in the upcoming Maharashtra polls.


Shiv Sena’s Origin & Dominant Narrative

Aaditya’s arguments, well enunciated, refute charges that the Sena didn’t do anything to prevent Aarey from being hacked away. He elaborates, succinctly, on measures that the Sena took to prevent this, both in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) as well as in the state government.

But his arguments do not hold. To understand why, we need to go back to the origins of the Sena. This has been recorded meticulously in books like Vaibhav Purandare’s The Sena Story, and Bal Thackeray and the Rise of Shiv Sena. But also, really, some of the key truths that make up the success story of the Shiv Sena are known to anyone who lived in Mumbai during the period of the Sena’s rise.

One of these truths is that Bal Thackeray called the organisation he founded a ‘sena’ (army) instead of a political ‘party’ or ‘dal’ (group) for a reason: the initial objective of the Sena was activism and social work.

In fact, in the speech that Thackeray delivered at the organisation’s first major rally in 1966, four months after it was established, he compared “rajkaran” (politics) to “gajkaran” (the ringworm). This continued to be the dominant narrative of the Sena, even as it entered politics, reiterated by the fact that its founder refused to take up any official position in the government.


When Bal Thackeray Decided to Back a Cause, He’d Go All the Way

Now, there is much reason to disagree vehemently with Bal Thackeray’s politics — his motives as well as his means. But there’s no disagreeing with the fact that when he decided to back a cause, he would go all the way. This could mean courting prison, as he did on the issue of the merger of Belgaum, Karwar and Nipani in Maharashtra.

It could mean thousands of Shiv Sainiks thronging the streets and bringing a city or state to a standstill (because this city was Mumbai, this meant, in effect, slowing the country down as well).

It could also mean reprehensible loss to life and public property. Instances range from violent clashes with the communists during the mill movement that culminated in the murder of communist leaders, the Bombay Riots of 1992, to attacks on free speech and protests against Pakistani cricketers, musicians and celebrities.


The Shiv Sena: Then & Now

If the Sena supremo was daunting when in opposition, he was twice so when in power. When Thackeray decided to run a ‘remote control government’ with the BJP, he made sure the remote control was in his hands. One is at a loss to think of how he would have reacted to the phrase ‘junior partnership’, common parlance for the Shiv Sena’s relationship with the BJP in Maharashtra nowadays.

The point I’m trying to make is Thackeray’s Sena did not necessarily wait for ‘strength’ in terms of the number of seats won in an elected body to assert itself. When the Sena wanted to steer clear of a fight, as it did in the case of the Emergency, it would steer clear of it altogether. However, when the Sena decided to disagree with something, the nation would know. It would not have to read tweets or columns to find out.

Compare this to today, when we read of all that the Sena did, to prevent the atrocity that was committed in Aarey, in the BMC, in the state assembly and through committees.

It did participate in protests but, alas, although three of its leaders were detained by the police, the top leadership was missing in the actual action at Aarey, and the Shiv Sena’s participation can hardly be compared to the kind of mass agitations that have made it a household legend (or terror, depending on where you stand) in Mumbai and Maharashtra.


What Explains Shiv Sena’s Lukewarm Response to Aarey Destruction?

“Nowhere did the Sena protest with a political agenda or flags or caps, unlike other parties,” Aaditya Thackeray writes, as if this was a good thing. What it means, in essence, is that the Sena did not claim this protest as their own.

There can be three explanations for this lukewarm response to a burning issue.

  • One, that the Sena doesn’t actually believe in the cause of the ‘Aarey forest’ and is merely paying lip service to it. In doing so, it would be reducing itself to the role of the proverbial ‘good cop’ (or ‘friendly face’) as the BJP’s de facto B-Team.
  • Two, that — especially since the demise of its founder — the Sena is neither as confident nor as capable of staging impactful public demonstrations as it once was.
  • The third explanation could be that this kind of dithering marks a shift between what the Sena stood for — an activist force — and what it is looking to be: a wheeling-dealing political party like any other. Aaditya’s decision to contest elections, a first for the Thackeray family, lends weight to this idea too. This would raise the question, however, of what the Sena’s USP in Maharashtra politics would be, with three prominent mainstream parties (Congress, the NCP and the Sena’s own ‘senior partner’ BJP) already in the fray in the state.

A Sad Truth for the Sena

The truth may be a mix of the above. A sad truth for this organisation for —notwithstanding the Sena’s violent methods and divisive politics in the past —hypocrisy and irresoluteness was never its strongest suit; activism was.

The first plank of this activism incidentally, a foundation that the Sena was built on, was a rallying cry for the ‘children of the soil’. Forgive me for sounding sappy but there is no better illustration for this, literally and figuratively speaking, than the thousands of trees that were chopped down at Aarey.

This attack on an ecosystem is a travesty of justice for all Indians. Doubly so, for the people of Mumbai. But for the Sena, perhaps, it went for the jugular.

(The writer is a journalist and writer. He tweets @RishiMajumder. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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