Mumbai a ghost town as Thackeray looms large in death

November 17, 2012

(Tresa Sherin Morera and Henry Foy contributed to this report. Any opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters)

It didn’t take long. The news of Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray’s death came at 4:30 p.m. India time on a Saturday, a working day for many in Mumbai. Thirty minutes later, my neighbourhood was a ghost town.

Shops were shut, and taxis stayed off the road. On any other day, my street would have been teeming with people, buses and vegetable vendors, but on Saturday, it was strangely deserted.

It was the same in the rest of Mumbai. A colleague described it as “something I have never seen before. It’s like a government curfew.”

Here’s a bit of background from our Reuters story on Thackeray, for readers unfamiliar with him:

A religious zealot whose grip over Mumbai often resembled that of a mob boss, Thackeray was president and founder of the hardline Shiv Sena party, built around his fiery rhetoric on religion, immigration and communalism.

A hero of Mumbai’s Hindu working class, he was heralded as a staunch defender of regional heritage by his supporters and despised as a hot-headed bigot by others. He devoted his public life to championing the rights of Mumbai’s “sons of the soil”.

On Saturday, people scrambled to stock up on essentials before shops shut and Twitter was flooded with requests for car pools from those stuck at work.

The reason? People feared that members of the Shiv Sena, called Shiv Sainiks, would use violence to enforce the shutdown, which is supposed to serve as a symbol of mass mourning for Thackeray.

“If I defy them, all it takes for them is to throw one stone at my vehicle. It’ll be my loss. Not theirs,” said a cab driver. “I would much rather stay home.”

Flights to Mumbai, a city with an estimated population of more than 12 million people, reportedly were also affected. On Twitter, Chris Samuel (@xtophesamuel) tweeted that his Jet Airways flight from New Delhi was delayed because ground staff at Mumbai’s airport had been pulled off duty.

All this because the 86-year-old leader of a party, not even the ruling party in the state of Maharashtra, died of natural causes.

For the rest of the world, I can see how it might be hard to believe. A colleague, on being told that cinema chain PVR wasn’t screening films, asked “how can they just shut down?”

As I write this, there are reports on Twitter that a cable company has blocked all channels except for newscasts. Buses ran empty, restaurants downed their shutters, and the band Swedish House Mafia, which was supposed to perform in Mumbai on Saturday, cancelled their gig.

Aditya Pawar, a 20-something youth in jeans and a T-shirt, bought Swedish House Mafia concert tickets as a birthday gift for his girlfriend, and drove in from Pune, a city about 170 kilometres away.

He and hundreds of disappointed fans are stranded in an eerily quiet city.

“The eating joints are all shut too. It’s crazy. Where do we stay?” asked Pawar.

Another of my colleagues who was visiting from Bangalore to attend the show, witnessed Shiv Sainiks yelling at shop owners and hoteliers near the Leelavati hospital by Hill Road in the Bandra neighbourhood to close their doors.

How can one of the world’s biggest cities be held to ransom like this?

The answer lies in Thackeray’s personality and in the way he and the Shiv Sena functioned. Though largely a phenomenon of Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena has controlled Mumbai city’s civic body, one of India’s richest, for 16 years.

For a party that gained notoriety for its use of political muscle, the Sena never seemed to grow out of it. And for almost every issue, whether it was their objection to immigrants in Mumbai or Indians celebrating Valentine’s Day, the party took to the streets to prove its points.

Cricket pitches were dug up and shops selling Valentine’s Day merchandise vandalised because “Saheb,” as Thackeray was known to his party workers, didn’t agree.

Bal Thackeray is a looming presence in the city, his face peering out from every street corner. Saheb was always seen in oversized tinted sunglasses, even when indoors, with a necklace of beads over orange robes typically worn by sadhus. His legacy of violence is one that stays with him even in death.

Saturday’s Mumbai shutdown is being described as a spontaneous reaction by party officials, who say the people of the city are in mourning. But if you were to believe reports, gangs of bikers flaunting Shiv Sena flags and telling people to shut shop doesn’t seem spontaneous. After all, reports that Thackeray was nearing death have been circulating for about a week.

Marathi author P. L. Deshpande once said that Mumbai was a city with no regard for history — it just has today and tomorrow. The Mumbai man is happy as long as he is safe today. Tomorrow is another struggle.

2 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

This article is one sided. Balasaheb Thakare was the leader with great stature. He was like god for most of Maharashtrian people and shutting out the city for such person’s death is justified. I have also suffered whole Sunday but the complaining persons will be outsiders, parasites who have nothing to do with history and culture here. They are here only to milk the money as they can’t do that in their native places. Further, the points you have mentioned like cancelled PVR screening and concert are for useless people. They themselves should have considered cancelling it. Two million people will never attend a funeral out of fear. Playing with emotions can be dangerous especially in India.

Posted by Kets | Report as abusive

Everyone who lives and works in Maharashtra whose family doesn’t go back 100 or 1,000 years to a Maharashtrian village is a parasite? I’ll remember that the next time I visit Mumbai or do some work there. It’s nice to feel welcome.
Yes indeed, playing with emotions can be dangerous, especially in India.
Thanks for writing, and thanks for reading!
Robert MacMillan
Editor, Reuters.com global editions