Huge crowds gathered in Mumbai yesterday to witness the funeral procession of Bal Thackeray, founder of the Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party and one of India’s most divisive politicians.
Thackeray, who called his followers “Hindu warriors” and was widely accused of stoking ethnic and religious violence, died aged 86 on Saturday, triggering a virtual shutdown of the city.
Hundreds of thousands of mourners lined the route to catch a final glimpse of Thackeray, still wearing his trademark sunglasses as his body, covered in the Indian flag, was driven slowly through the heaving throng.
Authorities placed a massive police force on the streets in a bid to avert trouble following the death of the politician whose party has a reputation for intimidation and unrest.
Thackeray was accused by an official probe of inciting violence against Muslims in riots that claimed more than 1,000 lives in Mumbai in the 1990s, although he was never charged.
He won devotion from his Hindu working-class followers, who showered the hearse with flowers as it traveled to central Shivaji Park, where the public could pay homage before his last rites and cremation later in the day.
“I will be privileged to pay respects to my god. We have lost our godfather,” Ganesh Sawant, an office assistant in the city, told reporters.
Jyotsna Parab, a housewife, said her life would “never be the same” as she wiped away tears.
“I cannot accept that he is no more. This was a man whose entire world revolved around protecting our rights,” she said.
Commercial establishments across Mumbai were expected to remain closed until after Thackeray’s cremation with some owners saying they feared they could be targeted by Shiv Sena supporters if they did not shut.
Newspapers dedicated pages of coverage to the man who dominated the city’s politics for decades.
“Mumbai loses its boss,” ran the headline of the Mumbai Mirror, below a picture of an imposing, cigar-smoking Thackeray.
“Many hated him. Many feared him. Many loved him for what he stood for,” a tribute in the Mid Day newspaper said.
Thackeray vociferously sought to defend the rights of local Marathi-speaking “sons of the soil” against “outsiders” — whether Gujaratis, north Indians or Bangladeshis — who came to work in Mumbai, capital of Maharashtra state.
Despite Thackeray’s polarizing career, tributes poured in for the politician who gave Bombay the new name of Mumbai in a bid to rid the city of its British colonial past and emphasize its Marathi roots.
“He was a consummate communicator whose stature in the politics of Maharashtra was unique,” Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said.
As his cortege progressed through Mumbai, police advised residents to travel only in emergencies.
Taxis went off the roads, and shopkeepers and restaurants stayed shut since news of his death spread across the city.
Several buses were damaged on Saturday evening, but there was no widespread unrest.
While Thackeray was a hero to many working-class Hindus, his politics and the hold that his party exerts over India’s financial capital angered many others.
“Why is Shiv Sena holding the city to ransom. Is that the only way?” leading film director Anurag Kashyap said on Twitter.
Thackeray was never a lawmaker — preferring to dominate from behind the scenes — but his party held power for five years from 1994 at state level and is still in the coalition ruling Mumbai’s governing civic body.
Thackeray had been in frail health for months, with a trail of Bollywood stars visiting him in his final days.
He appeared to followers by video link last month asking them to “take care” of his son Uddhav, the executive president of Shiv Sena, whose political fortunes have ebbed since Thackeray’s nephew Raj set up a rival party.