MUMBAI, India — Bal Thackeray, a newspaper cartoonist who became a powerful influence in this city by championing and stoking the grievances of the native population and Hindus against outsiders and Muslims, died Saturday at his home in Mumbai. He was 86.
The cause of death was a heart attack, Thackeray’s doctor, Jalil Parkar, said.
Thackeray, who had described himself as an admirer of Hitler, was a formidable force in Mumbai for more than four decades even as he grew increasingly frail. Many shops, restaurants and other businesses shut down after his death was announced, as his followers prepared to mourn him and others anticipated violence by members of his right-wing and often-militant political party, the Shiv Sena. Streets out of downtown Mumbai were clogged Saturday afternoon as office workers and others rushed to get home to avoid getting caught up in any possible scuffles. Throngs of police officers were standing by and guiding traffic through busy intersections.
In New Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appealed for “calm and sobriety during this period of loss and mourning" and canceled a dinner with opposition lawmakers to discuss a contentious session of parliament that is scheduled to start Thursday. In a statement, Singh lauded Thackeray’s “strong leadership and extraordinary organizational skills."
Bal Keshav Thackeray was born Jan. 23, 1926, in the city of Pune, about 100 miles east of Mumbai, and came of age during India’s struggle for freedom from Britain. His father, Keshav Sitaram Thackeray, a journalist and activist, was said to have taken the surname because he admired the English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. The elder Thackeray became a leader of a movement to establish the state of Maharashtra for speakers of the Marathi language, a group that would become a core constituency. Mumbai, then known as Bombay and to this day the financial hub of India, became the capital of the new state.
The younger Thackeray gained fame as a cartoonist first at the daily Free Press Journal and later at his own weekly publication, Marmik. He used his cartoons to inveigh against communists and champion the cause of the Marathi manoos, or the average Marathi citizen, who he argued was losing out to south Indians, Muslims and other outsiders. In 1966, he established the Shiv Sena, or the Army of Shiva; its mascot is a snarling tiger.
In the early years of the Shiv Sena, Thackeray battled communists and their labor unions, especially in the city’s large textile industry. He was supported, scholars say, by textile mill owners and the governing Congress Party because he was taking on their opponents.
But his success came in his ability to win over Marathi-speaking working- and middle-class Hindus. Thackeray did so by arguing that Muslims and people from other parts of India had unfairly cornered the city’s jobs, resources and wealth. He also argued that outsiders should be forced out and others should be barred from coming.
Supporters say Thackeray gave voice to Marathi speakers who had been taken for granted by national politicians, often from northern India. Much of Mumbai’s corporate and cultural elite is made up of Indians from other parts of the country who are more comfortable speaking English. Thackeray’s party also won the support of Mumbai residents by setting up branch offices in most neighborhoods that, analysts say, were efficient at resolving conflicts and complaints about municipal services.
While Thackeray never held elected office, his political party and its allies governed the state from 1995 to 1999 and have been in charge of Mumbai’s city government for more than 16 years. While his party held power at the state level, Bombay was renamed Mumbai after a fishing village that predated the Portuguese colonization of the seven islands that would become the city.
People who met him said he came across as charming and funny, and was engaged in the arts and movies. Thackeray’s death could create a struggle for power in Mumbai and Maharashtra, India’s richest and most industrialized state. His son Uddhav, his designated heir, has been hospitalized twice this year for a heart condition and is considered less charismatic and influential.