Bal Thackeray, one of India's most polarizing politicians and leader of the right-wing Hindu nationalist party, died Saturday at the age of 86. Robert Siegel speaks with Vikas Bajaj, Mumbai correspondent for New York Times.
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Mumbai was shut down yesterday for a funeral. Not just any funeral, the funeral of Bal Thackeray, the 86-year-old political boss of the city and the Indian state of Maharashtra. Thackeray was a Hindu nationalist extremist who championed the local Marati population of Mumbai against newcomers to the city, including Muslims.
Although he inveighed against Muslims he called antinational and said they should be driven out of India, Thackeray claimed he was not against all Muslims. Here he is speaking in an interview last year.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
BAL THACKERAY: I am not anti-Muslim, but anti-Pakistanis because Pakistan will never, never be our friend at all, never.
SIEGEL: Bal Thackeray's movement was identified with mob violence, and his stature in Mumbai was so great that when a young woman commented on Facebook yesterday that the shutdown of the city was unwarranted, she was arrested.
Vikas Bajaj is the Mumbai correspondent for the New York Times. And I want you to tell us how was it that this man who started out as a political cartoonist and went on to found the party Shiv Sena never actually held office, but seemed to control everyone who did hold office in that part of India.
VIKAS BAJAJ: Yeah, he described himself as the remote control that governed what happened in Mumbai and, for a time, in the state of Maharashtra as well. He was a very charismatic man. He was able to wow crowds, sway them with humor and wit and passion and sort of really, unlike other politicians, didn't necessarily promise them things, but he sort of goaded them and said this is what you deserve. This is what's been taken from you and I'm here to fight for you. And you have to stand up and fight for yourself as well.
And so I think that attracted a group of people, especially people who felt like they had been left behind in the growth of Mumbai and the growth of India.
SIEGEL: He was often linked to mob violence or to inspiring it, to extortion, shaking down businessmen for protection money, but he was never jailed. He was never convicted of any crime, I gather.
BAJAJ: No, he wasn't. He was indeed, I think, too powerful for the law to take its own course. In fact, he himself said that, you know, if he was ever arrested or put on trial, that there would be riots across the country and that the people loved him so much that they wouldn't stand for him to be put on trial in that way. And, you know, his statement turned out to be true. He was never really tried for the great violence that occurred under his watch and that occurred at his instigation often. You know, most famously in 1992 and 1993, when Hindu/Muslim riots killed nearly 1,000 people in the city of Mumbai, a majority of them Muslims.
SIEGEL: Of course, the very peculiar point about him was his name. In India, you say TAK-rey. It's Thackeray. His name was - as in William Makepeace Thackeray, the English novelist who wrote "Vanity Fair." How was that?
BAJAJ: So from what we have been told and what local lore is that his father anglicized the spelling of the name because he liked William Makepeace Thackeray and that's why the name is spelled the way it was. And so the traditional Indian pronunciation and spelling, you would probably come out with something like T-H-A-K-R-E, rather than Thackeray.
SIEGEL: Well, Vikas Bajaj, thank you very much for talking with us about it.
BAJAJ: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Vikas Bajaj is the New York Times correspondent in Mumbai, a city which, by the way, was renamed Mumbai from Bombay, largely due to the efforts of Bal Thackeray. Thackeray died this weekend at age 86. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.