There are many similarities between Thackeray and Bhindranwale, but the response of the Indian state towards both is very different. Whereas Bhindranwale was killed and continues to be seen as an enemy of the state, Thackeray was co-opted by the Indian state through electoral politics and was given a state honour after he passed away in 2012.
The release of a biopic based on a Hindu chauvinist leader and its promotion by the Bollywood Film Industry only shows growing acceptance for Hindu theocracy in a country that is otherwise known as the world’s largest secular democracy.
Directed by Abhijit Panse, Thackeray is the story of Bal Thackeray, a well-known Hindu supremacist who controlled India’s financial capital of Bombay that later came to be known as Mumbai, partly because of his pressure. He was the co-founder of Shiv Sena – that believed in Maharashtrian nationalism.
Thackeray, as the film reveals, was pained to see how the original inhabitants of the state of Maharashtra were mistreated by those who had come from outside and dominated businesses in Bombay. Through Shiv Sena, he promoted regionalism and targeted Tamils and other ethnic groups, who he thought had marginalized his community. His supporters had begun with targeting signboards in other languages. The renaming of the city as Mumbai – an indigenous name was the culmination of such campaigns.
Thackeray who began his political career after giving up his job as a cartoonist with Free Press Journal gradually turned into a Hindu nationalist leader from a regional leader, who ran a parallel administration in Maharashtra – where the local police officers openly supported him.
The story of the film does not hide Thackeray’s prejudice against non-Maharashtrians and Muslims. Ironically, the character of Thackeray has been played by a talented Muslim actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who was born in Uttar Pradesh. The migrants from that state were also targeted by Shiv Sena in the recent past. This is despite the fact that Thackeray openly supported a campaign to demolish an ancient mosque in 1992. The film also clearly shows how blatantly he advocated for razing the mosque that Shiv Sena and its ally and the currently ruling right-wing Hindu Nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed was built by the Mughal emperor Babar after destroying a temple at the birthplace of a revered Hindu god, Lord Ram.
The film not only tries to glorify Thackeray by blaming the marginalization of people of Maharashtra on the outsiders, it also tries to justify Thackeray’s role in anti-Muslim violence of 1993 in Bombay as a reaction to Muslim’s “lack of loyalty to the nation”.
One important aspect of the film was the role of the self-proclaimed secular Congress party in patronizing Thackeray to consolidate its support in Maharashtra. That he supported the national emergency by the then Congress leader and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to save Shiv Sena from being outlawed for the sake of national interest, proves how far he had gone to establish himself as a die-hard patriot who not only believed in regional nationalism but also Hindu nationalism.
The real story of Thackeray isn’t complete without looking into the story behind the making of the film and the way it was promoted. The timing of the film is very significant as it comes at the start of the year when India is heading for the next general election in the summer of 2019. Since the film is a powerful medium to reach voters, those in power do not want to leave an opportunity to get maximum support in the name of Hindu nationalism.
It is not a coincidence that Thackeray was released shortly after the release of two other controversial movies with a potential to help BJP in its poll prospects. The Accidental Prime Minister and Uri: The Surgical Strike were released on January 11. While the first one takes a dig at Congress, particularly the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as a “weak prime minister”, the latter is based on an anti-Pakistan military operation by the Indian army. The second one actually shows the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi look alike as an effective Prime Minister who knows how to deal with a hostile neighbouring country.
While one can understand that Siddiqui is a versatile actor and is free to play any role to earn his livelihood, but he had openly stated that he feels fortunate to have been picked for this role and chose to remain silent on his legacy of hate.
If this wasn’t enough, Amitabh Bachchan – a legend of Bollywood also showered praises on the film.
It’s a shame that the movie on a man who openly challenged democracy and the Indian constitution was released a day before the Republic Day of India on January 26, as it coincided with his birth anniversary.
By promoting enmities between different communities, regional and religious chauvinism, he was directly defying the Indian constitution that guarantees religious freedom and diversity. The Censor Board that often tries to create too many hurdles for filmmakers seemed to have shown great leniency to Thackeray that tries to rationalise bigotry and hate when the world is grappling with increasing populism.
This is in sharp contrast to what the Indian establishment has done with the films that tried to glorify minority religious extremists in the past. A case in point is Dharam Yudh Morcha – a Punjabi movie based on the Sikh agitation for extra powers to the state of Punjab and several concessions to the minority community was banned in 2016.
The film glorified Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale – a fundamentalist Sikh preacher who frequently used similar harsh language as Thackeray against non-Sikhs, particularly the Hindus. He was also fighting for regional autonomy for Punjab and had a big following among the Sikh youth and had many supporters in the Punjab police. He too was upset with the mistreatment of the Sikhs by the government that was bent upon scapegoating the community to polarize Hindu majority. Much like Thackeray, he also defied democracy and believed in violence as a justifiable means to get justice. He too ran a parallel government until he died fighting against the Indian army in 1984.
Even as there were many similarities between the campaign of Thackeray and Bhindranwale, the response of the Indian state was very different. Whereas Bhindranwale was killed and continues to be seen as an enemy of the state, Thackeray was co-opted by the Indian state through electoral politics and was given a state honour after he passed away in 2012.
The difference in reception of the two films, therefore, isn’t surprising and only reinforces the general belief that there has always been two set of rules in India: one for the majority and another one for minorities. If a filmmaker can be allowed to contextualize the chauvinism of Thackeray then this freedom should also be given to others, or else Indian establishment should acknowledge that it is really an exclusionist Hindu state under the garb of secularism.