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The charismatic fascist: Mourning Indian politician Bal Thackeray is as complicated as he was

AP Photo / Gautam Singh
Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan (pictured left) and right-wing politician Bal Thackeray had a close relationship.
By S. Mitra Kalita
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Bombay’s biggest boss has died.

Bal Thackeray, a Hindu nationalist leader, campaigned against migrant workers and cultural imports in the city now known as Mumbai. Today, stores grapple with whether to open, police herd throngs of mourners, concerts and sporting events face cancellation, and media struggled to characterize one of the most divisive figures in India’s politics.
The original angry young man,” pronounced Mint.

“The mascot of Marathi pride who aroused extreme emotions,” wrote the Times of India. (Mumbai is in Maharashtra state; its people are known as Marathis.)

Television station NDTV’s website took the word-association approach: “Controversial. Communal. Demagogue. And the only man who could bring Mumbai to a halt. … a talented cartoonist, a master orator, a shrewd politician and a hero who fought for the rights of Marathis.”

And from a Hindustan Times blog came the inevitable: “…fascist…”

It would be easy to dismiss Thackeray, the founder of the Shiv Sena party, as parochial and incendiary and fear-mongering—except for a complexity and charisma that won over so many. A lover of the arts, Thackeray was eulogized effusively by Bollywood, the prolific film industry worshiped by a cross section of India.

Earlier in the week, it was reported that veteran actor Amitabh Bachchan was injured while trying to visit Thackeray. Today, on Twitter, he wrote:

Of course, Thackeray hardly had that relationship with everyone, including the other pillar of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan. The two sparred when Thackeray tried to block the release of My Name is Khan, about a Muslim man who faces discrimination. But in recent days, as the politician was sick, Khan softened his stance and went to visit:

My mother once told me that you can fight in good times, but when bad time comes, you must pray and spread love.

Despite the hatred he spewed for so many in life, that seems to be the overwhelming response to Thackeray in death.

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