How Bombay’s businessmen and the Congress helped create the Shiv Sena

Shiv Sena was founded on 19 June 1966. In this extract from 'Hindu Hriday Samrat', the author describes how disparate groups got together to free Bombay from the grip of ‘the communists’.

Madhav Deshpande... an architect by profession...[was] in many ways, the real architect of the Shiv Sena – or, at least, of the concept of a regional force to oppose the then all-powerful Congress for its perceived neglect of the Marathi people, their culture and ethos...

The Shiv Sena was formed in 1966 but it took Thackeray another decade to register his organization as a political party. ‘It was the fear of the Emergency (in 1975) that prompted him to declare a party hierarchy,’ Deshpande had told me then. ‘And nowhere in the party document that they drummed up at the time does Bal Thackeray figure as any functionary. In fact, from president down to secretary and even treasurer, everyone is a non- entity. Thackeray was afraid of being arrested for political activity and so he thought up this brilliant move – to hold power without any responsibility – to escape the consequences.’...

'The communists'

‘All the powerful Congress leaders from the state like SK Patil – the city’s uncrowned king at the time – looked to Delhi to promote themselves and their careers and no one really cared for Maharashtra except to use it to gain a foothold at the Centre,’ says Deshpande. He and many others like him also discovered that the Maharashtrian people and their culture were being subsumed by the larger Indian one and that it did not really show up in the big picture. Bombay’s was just a business community and while the Congress looked towards it to fund its programmes, politically the city was in the grip of ‘the communists’, who, of course, cared neither for Bombay nor for Maharashtra, nor even for New Delhi. Rather, as goes the well- known accusation against them, ‘they unfurled their umbrellas when it rained in the Soviet Union and all their agenda was set by Moscow’.

However, while most Congressmen might indeed have been looking towards New Delhi, there were still a handful of influential ones who did care for the local ethos. In the typical fashion of Congressmen even today, they decided to do something about it – but without really making it official. So did Deshpande. So did Bal Thackeray. And so also did the businessmen of Bombay, who shared the Congress leaders’ paranoia about the communists-led trade unions in this industrial hub of India which had most workers in their grip. Each went about it in their own way but somewhere – and soon – these streams did meet.

'Rise and unite'

So, along with three other friends – Padmakar Adhikari, an architect like himself as also his business partner, Shyam Deshmukh, who worked with a large industrial house in the suburbs and so could be depended upon to muster the labour force together, and Vasant Pradhan, a railway employee who later trained to be a lawyer to help fight the cases of workers – he set up an organization called ‘Ooth ani Ekjut Ho’ or ‘Rise and Unite’. They would visit the community centres and gyms every evening and talk to the workers about their rights and the need to build a parallel regional force that would challenge and take on not just the Congress but also the communists....

Once Thackeray had decided to set up the Shiv Sena, he lost no time in making the announcement in an issue of the Marmik – it appeared as a small notice at the bottom of the centre-spread. The party’s formal launch went almost unnoticed at first (just a coconut cracked at the doorstep of the Thackerays’ home at Kadam Mansion, off Ranade Road in Dadar, marked it). Deshpande and his friends, who were leaving no stone unturned to raise awareness among Maharashtrians and unite them under one banner, did not miss the small print. ‘We realized here was another man like us, fired by the need to do justice to the aspirations of the locals, and we decided that we must not divide the efforts.’ They merged their ‘Ooth ani Ekjuth Ho’ into the Shiv Sena.

‘One man and one magazine'

Marmik’s circulation was then growing by leaps and bounds (around 50,000 at the time with a readership of nearly two lakh, if not more) and people were responding in good measure to Thackeray’s ideas. But when Deshpande met him after seeing the notice in the magazine to ask what the structure of his organization was like, Thackeray was surprised. ‘Structure? There’s no structure. There’s just me, some friends and that announcement so far,’ he said.

‘That will not do,’ said Deshpande. ‘One man and one magazine are just not enough.’ And the architect that he was, he drew up an elaborate ‘structure’ – a hierarchy of what is now called shakha pramukhs (branch heads) and vibhag pramukhs (division heads), drawing upon both the mandals and the Bombay Municipal Corporation’s own division of the city into wards. It is the cadre structure that has stood the Shiv Sena in good stead till today – and saved the party from near-certain decimation at the 2012 municipal elections in Mumbai.

Deshpande also made two discoveries: that Thackeray was rather ‘piddi’ (cowardly) and that he had a great way with words. ‘His turn of phrase was such that he could enthrall the crowds and hypnotize the audiences – provided we could persuade or drag him out of his comfort zone and get him to the dais.’ Since none of the four founders of the Shiv Sena’s precursor – the Rise and Unite movement – had had as much success at holding the attention of their listeners, they decided to push Thackeray to the forefront and declare him the face of their regional movement. Both the Congress and the Communist Party of India (CPI) had split by then and were speaking in two voices for each ideology.

‘That is why we merged our movement into the Shiv Sena and we decided we would have just one voice and that that voice would be Bal Thackeray’s. The Shiv Sena was never meant to be owned by Thackeray or his offspring. Sadly, that is what the movement has been reduced to today,’ rues Deshpande. But before its decline, there was the rise and rise of the Sena, and Bombay’s businessmen and the Congress party had as much to do with its creation and nurture as had Deshpande and his friends. Though ‘Mumbai’ is seen as a city owned by Shiv Sainiks today, it had belonged to the communist parties in the 1960s and the frequent strikes and demands by workers had tired Bombay’s entrepreneurs to the core. At the time, the left parties were the only political challenge to the Congress and both its leaders and the businessmen who funded the Congress wished to see the back of the communist trade unions whose domination even the Congress-sponsored trade unions had failed to break.

Congress bags of cash

By Deshpande’s own admission, Congress leaders then sent him bags of cash to take care of meetings that the Sena might hold or to put up candidates against those of the communist parties to cut into their vote bank by raising the regional sentiment against that of workers’ unity. That’s how they defeated former Union defence minister VK Krishna Menon who had contested from Bombay North with communist support after he was denied a ticket by the Congress on account of his role in India’s debacle in the 1962 war with China. The Sena was also encouraged to form its own workers’ union (the Kamgar Sena, as it is called today) to bring the Marathi and the workers’ sentiments together. The organization (it was not yet a political party) was also covertly protected by the then ruling party in the state, the Congress, then headed by Vasantrao Naik whose record as Maharashtra’s longest-serving chief minister for eleven years remains unbroken. The government clearly looked the other way when one Kamgar Sena leader (who later ended up as a minister in the only Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra so far) was accused of killing a legislator, Krishna Desai, belonging to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or the CPI(M). Four decades later, though sixteen of Thackeray’s ‘boys’ were convicted for the murder, the case against the mastermind and the Sena tiger who had then congratulated those ‘boys’ for killing Desai by stating that ‘we must not miss a single opportunity to massacre communists,’ is still meandering through the courts. No government has made any effort to bring them to justice. In the subsequent by-election in 1970, the Sena wrested that seat from the CPI(M) with covert Congress support, marking its maiden entry into the state legislature.

Stunning response

Thackeray had not expected a good response to his call to rally when he published a notice for one in the Marmik. He had wanted a small town hall or a school ground as the venue of the first Shiv Sena meeting, just to test the waters. But Deshpande says he overruled the objections of all others and persuaded Thackeray to go for Shivaji Park, Bombay’s best known and, perhaps, the largest open space, a rallying ground for all political parties. (An earlier meeting of the Sena had already been held in a closed hall.)

‘Thackeray was not so sure about the regional sentiment then but I had gauged the response at our meetings at the mandals and the vyayamshalas. Even the policemen who were on bundobast duty that day in 1966 when the first real public meeting was held had been sceptical and mocked me at the start of the meeting. But the response stunned everybody, including Thackeray. There had been no posters, no mobilization, only that notice in Marmik. And yet Shivaji Park was overflowing that day. I knew that we had arrived.’

The bulk of that crowd was drawn from the working classes, and from the ranks of the unemployed and even uneducated people with idle minds. Not surprisingly, the Shiv Sena gathered enough muscle power in no time at all. With the combination of moneybags and political patronage extended to the Shiv Sena by the Congress to do its dirty work, it is no wonder that the Sena became an irresistible force that met, on its own terms, the Communist Party of India (which too packed a few dirty tricks, like murder of opponents, up its sleeves), and eventually broke its back.

Little surprise then, says Deshpande, that they uncovered a conspiracy by the left (for which there is no police record) to assassinate Bal Thackeray. And even less of a surprise, therefore, that whoever Thackeray might have loved or hated (enemies today, friends tomorrow), he abhorred communists the most. Even more than the Congress, Muslims or even more than the south Indians and north Indians, all of whom he has hated at times and befriended at others, he hated the left: he had a constant paranoia of the left. They were his enemies and he would not be persuaded otherwise. That, in a sense, was truly his only ideology.

Congress  backing

The Shiv Sena always had the backing of the Congress, which had an unbroken stint as the ruling party from Independence up until 1995... Through the years of the Shiv Sena’s growth though, the authorities always looked the other way: the Congress had set up Thackeray in business for its own purposes and had to allow the Sena chief some room to secure his own gains. So Shiv Sainiks could get away with much lawlessness with impunity. Moreover, even if successive Congress governments had cracked the whip, they were soon handicapped by the fact that many lower-rung policemen had become Sena sympathizers and closet supporters of Thackeray, a fact that emerged in the open and proved very detrimental to everybody’s interests during the 1992-93 riots in Bombay following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.


WHEN THE SHIV SENA supported the candidature of Pratibha Patil of the Congress for presidency in 2007, Bal Thackeray could pass it off as a move in keeping with the Sena’s raison d’être, the Marathi manoos. The Shiv Sena was, after all, a nativist party and it had always fought for the rights of local Maharashtrians who many, including those in the Congress, thought were being treated as outsiders in their own homeland. The BJP, with whom the Sena has had an alliance now for nearly three decades, could do little to persuade Thackeray otherwise. But they could do even less when, inexplicably, Thackeray decided to once again support the candidature of a Congressman, Pranab Mukherjee, at the subsequent presidential election in 2012, even without any overt appeal from the Congress to his party to do so.

But Thackeray was only going back to his roots in facilitating a Congress victory in those elections. After all, it was this party which had not only helped establish the Shiv Sena in 1966 but had also, both covertly and overtly, flagged its agenda from time to time with some clever and well-thought-out moves of its own. In 1969, when the Shiv Sena decided to block the entry of Morarji Desai, a former chief minister of the undivided Bombay state, into the city, the then chief minister, Vasantrao Naik, decided to look the other way at first. By most accounts, the police were asked to ignore the troublemakers on the streets. Action was taken against the rioters and Bal Thackeray only when things went completely out of hand and it was well-nigh impossible to ignore the growing mayhem across the metropolis.

The Shiv Sena, at that point of time, was proving to be a handy tool in destroying the communist parties which, in some ways, ruled Bombay without quite being in power, much like the Shiv Sena did in later years. Thackeray had also helped the Congress defeat the Communist Party candidates in the legislative assembly and parliamentary elections in those early years. And with the then Maharashtra home minister Balasaheb Desai proving a powerful ally in his pursuit of the Marathi agenda, the Sena grew by leaps and bounds, even winning about forty of the 140 seats in the Bombay Municipal Corporation in 1968 on the Marathi card, just two years after blazing into existence.

Seamless integration

Before Independence, which brought with it universal adult franchise to India without any of the struggles that European nations and even the US had to witness even as late as the twentieth century, only taxpayers could vote or stand for civic elections under the British regime. Not surprisingly then, most of these eligible people were Parsis, Bohra Muslims, Hindu Gujaratis and the British themselves. You could count local Maharashtrians among the voters on the fingers of just one hand. This skewed composition continued well into the years after Independence. The non-Maharashtrians dominated the municipal corporation, despite universal adult franchise, simply because of the headstart that some other groups had had in these matters in the preceding years.

So Thackeray’s ‘Bombay for Maharashtrians’ agenda found great resonance across the board, even among traditional Congress politicians. It is not surprising then that there was, and still continues to be, an almost seamless integration between Congress ideologues and the Marathi agenda of the Shiv Sena.


Excerpted with permission from Hindu Hriday Samrat by Sujata Anandan, published by HarperCollins India

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