A memorial for Bal Thackeray is still a gleam in the eye – not a fully conceptualised plan yet. It could well be a statue, a purposeful institution, or both. The chances of a statue, either in itself, or in combination with an institution, even a permanent exhibition, is most likely.
The issue, however, is not so much as to what but where. It seems that the location is more significant than the very idea of a monument at this time.
That, as is usual, puts the Shiv Sena, in the midst of a controversy, a raging controversy, indeed.
Chances are the sainiks would ensure that the very spot where their first and foremost leader was cremated becomes a place of worship, whether the civic body, the government, local residents who swear by the Shivaji Park and its expanse in the heart of central Mumbai, like it or not.
This is how the scenario would most likely develop.
So far the place where he was consigned to the flames, an elevated rectangular platform with the four metal pillars to contain the firewood, remains undisturbed, has fresh flowers re-arranged in patters on it regularly, and sainiks even today troop there to pay their homage. Their reverence is visible. It is like a temple visit.
It is common knowledge that in India, temples are not just built in its modern times but they only grow. Someone, even unknown persons, plants an idol, sometimes even a stone—a shila in Marathi and Sanskrit—and a small but rough and ready grotto emerges to slowly take on the dimensions of a shrine over time. Its footprint, even if located on a road margin, embraces someone else’s land. Even the road is further encroached upon.
Say, for instance, a road expansion or major project like the Jogeshwari-Ghatkopar Link Road, the first major East-West corridor after the road through Dharavi, they get stymied for a long while because of a place of worship comes in the way. Such places are a huge disruption to planned projects and delays only add to costs as well as the discomfort of a city. But who cares? The toehold turns into a campus.
Unless the Sena’s leaders on their own cool their rhetoric and cease firing up the passions, this could well be the case with the cremation site regardless of where the memorial would be finally built in the city. Already, the Mayor’s Bungalow across from the Shivaji Park is being talked about.
Even the Club on the land leased to it by the civic body is up as a probable candidate. But it has to be on the very spot of cremation, the problems would persist.
Facilitating the funeral on a vast maidan had its good reason. The huge, even unprecedented throngs, bigger than those which turned up in the past annual rallies he addressed ensured such a sensible decision could not have been manageable in any routine crematorium. Significantly, the authorities have not yet thought of dismantling the platform. Doing so would be as fraught as it would have been if the funeral were to have been disallowed there.
If they were to dismantle it, there would be a crisis on hand in the city as well as across Maharashtra. The civic body, which controls the Shivaji Park, will not even consider it for two reasons. Firstly, to the party, the Shivaji Park is hallowed because it is from where the party was launched and marked its annual milestones, and secondly, it is now a more venerable because it was Bal Thackeray’s last stop. What better than the very spot?
The state government, whose Chief Minister, Prithviraj Chavan, has ruled out a memorial at the site, citing local opposition, the legalities involving redoing the land use code, does not have the gumption to disassemble the platform for the very reason that it can ignite passions. Such gumption was missing from the past governments as well. The resistance to such an action could be so even if an acceptable memorial location elsewhere were to be decided upon, for the party cadre, which needs icons and slogans more than reason, it is already a shrine now.
The Sena’s growth on its own strength was boosted further by the cowardice of the Congress and Congress-led governments. They have consistently refused to look the party or the Thackeray’s in the eye and deal with it. Fear of violence led to backroom deals even if the Sena’s leader had to be forced to attend a court. Likewise, during the 1993 riots, anti-Sena leaders had met Sudhakar Naik , the then chief minister to privately caution him against arresting Thackeray.
Their argument was that they would keep demanding action but any action would reduce the city to cinders. But for political reasons, they would keep at it because words, even strong ones at that, at that time were alright but any deterrent action against that party and its leader would only prove counterproductive, even expensive. They told Naik it was a time for both politics and administrative prudence.
We already have Manohar Joshi, the former chief minister, insisting on Shivaji Park as a location and urging that if a law came in the way of a memorial there, it should be defied, much like the party had in the past. He cited how Bal Thackeray in his lifetime had asked the cadre to be like Israelis. It had an underlying message—carry guns like them if required—but there was no need to directly call for arms. It was built in.
Even as he stokes the demand raised by him, Joshi, easily the senior most in the party, has not heeded Uddhav Thackeray’s plea that this was not the time to raise the issue of the memorial even as the family, much like the sainiks, were in mourning. Regardless of it, even the civic body’s constituents, mainly the Sena which controls it, have been speaking of the memorial. No one seems to want to cool it.