Death of a Fundamentalist
For those who have never heard of Bal Thackeray it suffices to say he was an Indian
politician with the power and the will to mobilize mobs of Hindu fanatics from his
extremist Shiv Sena party who frequently went on a rampage to murder, rape and pillage
Muslims, Christians, South Indians and their property.
I have a particularly dislike for Thackeray whose thugs sent me scary messages while I was
foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune in New Delhi until finally I received a letter from
someone warning I was 'a marked man.' The letter came from a Shiv Sena member in Chicago, a
good example of the type of Hindu extremist living safely and comfortably abroad but eager to
prove their credentials as loyalists. The letter was turned over to Chicago police and I have no idea
what happened to the guy who signed himself simply 'Shiv Sena' perhaps convinced the name
alone would strike the fear of the gods in me, as it does in many Indians.
I thought of those days at the turn of the century when I read of Thackeray's death
this week followed by the story of two young women, Shaheen Dhada, 21 and Renu
Srinivasan, 20, arrested and jailed for politely protesting on Facebook that Bombay should shut
down in respect for, or rather of, this man.
On her Facebook update Dhada wrote......"respect is earned, given, anddefinitely not
forced....today Mumbai (Bombay) shuts down due to fear, not due to respect...."
Her facebook friend Renu merely agreed with that statement.
It occurred to me then (again) that something has gone badly wrong with
Indian democracy which has never jailed Thackeray for his decades-long inflammatory
speeches virtually exhorting his followers to go out and purify India of Muslim and
Christian infidels, if necessary by fire.Â Yet two young women who made a simple and
rather polite comment about this man's death are hauled to jail and probably while Shiv
Sena thugs vandalised a clinic of Dhada's uncle.
(Both women have been released on bail as Supreme Court lawyer Ms Karuna Nundy
argued for reform of the law under which they were accused of disparaging, hateful and
All this happened while Indian leaders expressed their condolences and regret at
the passing away of a man who had been one of India's greatest obstacles to reconciliation
between Hindus and Muslims, a man who could activate a mob of
fanatics with a few phrases.
In my days in 1998 and 1999 Thackeray launched a crusade against Christians in
India, especially those from low castes who had converted to Christianity to escape the inhuman
fate of having been born into the lowest castes as Dalits, the Untouchables. Dalits are treated as
the refuse of humanity by the higher castes who will not even drink out of the same glass as them
or worship in the same temple. For many Dalits Christianity was the only way to escape their
predestined role. But militant Hindus were infuriated by the 'desertion' of a caste providing cheap
labour and servants, a caste whose village women were often raped by rampaging upper caste
youths without punishment. (One could not drink from the same glass used by a Dalit
but obviously one could fornicate with a Dalit, another Hindu anomaly)
I used to write about these raids on Christian villages of former Dalits, brutal incursions
which unfortunately only made headlines when Hindutva thugs burned alive an Australian
missionary and his two sons in their camper. After that Banswara Village in southern Rajasthan, a
village of Christian converts, was burned to the ground when local Hindu fundamentalist leaders
called for it to be 'eradicated.'
In those days raids by Shiv Sena and other Hindutva mobs smashed film theatres
screening foreign films, terrorized audiences, tore up paintings and canvasses considered
sacrilegious and dug up the New Delhi cricket pitch to prevent a scheduled cricket match between
India and 'the enemy' Pakistan.
The result was well calculated. The Shiv Sena crusades mobilized pious
Hindus and paved the way for a majority government, the firstÂ in five decades, by the
Hindu Nationalist Party (BJP).
One may only hope the death of Thackeray, one of the undisputed leaders of
Hindu fundamentalism, might usher in a more peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Hindus.
Yet judging by the arrest of the two Facebook girls, an increasingly corrupt Indian democracy still
caters to radical elements to covet their support at the polls.
Uli Schmetzer was the Chicago Tribune correspondent in New Delhi between 1998 and 2000. He is the author of four
books available in print and digital versions on www.amazon.com.