Is Raj Thackeray all set to create trouble for Mumbai and Maharashtra? It would seem so, going by the furore his recent speeches have created. Sharad Pawar, Maharashtra’s senior-most politician, seen as the guiding force behind the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition, accused him of speaking on behalf of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the state’s main opposition party.
Pawar’s view is shared by most political observers, who base it on Thackeray’s main demand: the government remove loudspeakers from mosques. He said if that’s not done, his followers would recite Hanuman Chalisa on loudspeakers outside mosques. This ultimatum is now being put to practice in distant Varanasi by the BJP’s followers.
But that’s not the only indication. In both speeches – the first at Thackeray’s customary rally at Shivaji Park to mark Gudi Padwa, the Maharashtrian Hindu New Year, and the second on 12 April in the party’s stronghold, Thane – the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief raised issues that only a BJP spokesperson would.
It's a Bit Late to Rake Up the 'Betrayal'
Thackeray’s chief grouse was against the two pillars of the ruling coalition: Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray (who is also his cousin, and the reason he left the Sena), and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar. He accused them of having betrayed the mandate of the October 2019 Assembly polls. The BJP and the Sena had fought the polls together, winning 105 and 56 seats, respectively, giving them a majority in the 288-seat Assembly. However, with the Sena reluctant to be the junior partner in its own state, and the BJP adamant about retaining the chief ministership, the alliance split and the Sena formed the government with the help of the NCP and the Congress.
It’s a bit late in the day to rake up this “betrayal”, given that the MVA coalition has completed almost two-and-a-half years in government. It was the kind of grouse only the BJP could still be nursing.
But this is also a grouse that some grassroots Shiv Sainiks continue to nurse, for two reasons: the raids on the Thackeray family only because it is no longer with the BJP, and the sight of their leaders working in tandem with politicians whom party founder Bal Thackeray had fiercely opposed. The chief among these are the Gandhi family, Sharad Pawar and Chhagan Bhujbal. The latter left the Shiv Sena in 1990 to join Pawar and will go down in the state’s history as only the second Home Minister to have arrested Bal Thackeray.
In both his speeches, Raj Thackeray named Bhujbal, now the Food and Civil Supplies Minister, pointing out that a politician who had been released from jail was chosen to be the first to be sworn in as Cabinet Minister. Of course, he omitted to say that Bhujbal was out on bail for one-and-a-half years before being sworn in, and that he has since been discharged in one of the cases against him.
Thackeray also reminded his audience that Pawar had walked out of the Congress on the issue of a “foreigner” becoming Prime Minister, but had gone back to work with Sonia Gandhi soon after.
How Raj Thackeray Drew Support From Behrampada's Muslims
But neither this raking up of old political moves that are now history, nor Thackeray’s attacks on the current situation wherein two of Maharashtra’s cabinet ministers (Anil Deshmukh, the former Home Minister, and Minority Affairs minister Nawab Malik) are in jail on charges framed by Central agencies, got an enthusiastic response from the audience. Even more surprisingly, the MNS chief’s attempts to exhort his audience by painting Shivaji, the founder of the Maratha empire and Maharashtra’s icon, as primarily a Hindu ruler who fought Muslims [“Shivaji Maharaj raised the bhagwa (saffron) flag against their green flags”], also didn’t seem to find much favour with his audience.
This was precisely the way Bal Thackeray incited Maharashtra’s Hindus for years. Indeed, the Shiv Sena, or “Shivaji’s army”, was used by the Sena chief to attack Muslims in the many riots that Mumbai has seen, the last and biggest being the 1992-93 post-Babri Masjid demolition riots. No wonder Mumbai’s Muslims ended up with a deep dislike of the Maratha ruler.
But an entire generation has grown up since, and enough has been written – even by Muslims – about Shivaji as a secular ruler who not only had Muslims in senior positions in his army but also ruled with a fair hand over all communities.
Similarly, Raj Thackeray’s attacks on the Muslim settlement of Behrampada, not far from Matoshree, the Thackerays’ residence, was also an echo of an old Sena obsession that made them demonise Behrampada as a den of illegal immigrants. However, party leaders could not prove this allegation in front of the Srikrishna Commission inquiring into the 1992-1993 riots.
Ironically, after the Sena came to power in 1995, its corporators and MLAs earned popularity in Behrampada by providing civic amenities. Indeed, Raj Thackeray himself at one time drew support from Muslims living in Behrampada and its surrounding areas.
These anomalies made the MNS chief cut a very different picture from his normal belligerent self. It was difficult to reconcile this persona with the rabble-rouser who won 13 Assembly seats in his electoral debut in 2009, or the orator who conducted a spirited anti-Modi campaign during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. His famed mimicry and sharp wit barely made an appearance. Even his demand that loudspeakers be removed came at the very end of a rambling speech, in which he railed at the audience for being undemanding voters with short memories. One was left wondering at the BJP’s hope that the MNS chief could, by echoing Bal Thackeray, attract Shiv Sainiks in a way they could not.
Why the Threat Is Being Highlighted By Media
The way the loudspeaker demand was highlighted by the media and has since been made into an issue by TV channels that support the BJP, is telling. As a result, the issue of loudspeakers at mosques has become a concern for Muslims in Maharashtra, who have so far been spared the indignities being heaped on their community in BJP-ruled states. Complaints about loudspeakers have already begun to come in from some areas in Mumbai.
All that’s left now, as NCP Minister Jayant Patil said, is for Asaduddin Owaisi to step in. Interestingly, Sena spokesperson Sanjay Raut referred to Thackeray as the BJP’s “new Hindu Owaisi”.
However, in a curious development, Raj Thackeray postponed his deadline for loudspeakers to be removed from mosques to 3 May, Ramzan Eid, asking the government in his second rally to discuss the issue with Muslim religious leaders by then.
Will Thackeray Get Away With His Antics, Again?
This concession coming from a leader known for giving ultimatums on which his lumpen followers act instantly can only mean that the police have told the MNS chief that this time, he won’t be allowed to get away with his trademark inciteful speeches and violence by his supporters. Until now, every government, be it the Congress-NCP or Devendra Fadnavis’ BJP-Sena government, has given him leeway to wreak mayhem. In exchange, they have used him in elections to wean away Shiv Sena’s votes. But now, it is Sena chief and his bête noire Uddhav Thackeray who heads the government. Giving his cousin a long rope would be suicidal for the Chief Minister.
On their part, Muslim leaders have started sending the message within their community that loudspeakers should be toned down. During the month of Ramzan, announcements from mosques begin even before sehri, ie, as early as 3.30 am.
The issue of loudspeakers has been troubling many within the community for long. But to submit to an ultimatum by a leader bereft of electoral support and obviously playing Hindutva politics sends an entirely wrong message to a community already besieged. Only a very delicate understanding between the community and the government can allow both sides to resolve the issue, with their dignity intact.
(Jyoti Punwani is a Mumbai-based journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)