Pinch Me, Please: Does Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena Appear More Liberal than the Government?

Politics

Pinch Me, Please: Does Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena Appear More Liberal than the Government?

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Last week, when a colleague asked the room to “check Uddhav Thackeray’s tweet out”, at least 10 North Indians in our Mumbai office resigned themselves to their fate, sighed, and started packing their bags. When the Shiv Sena chief speaks, there’s no telling which way the wind’s blowing: He could be announcing that Maharashtra will soon be free of pesky bra-wearing mannequins, or that he’s ready to start enlisting for the great tollbooth uprising.

And, true to form, Thackeray’s Twitter thread did end up going way off track, but not in the way you’d initially expect. While a few social media crusaders were busy trying to connect the violence on the JNU campus with the publication of Das Kapital, and others whipped out their own morphed videos to try and play “Agatha Christie-Agatha Christie”, Maharashtra’s CM had apparently decided that it was time someone played the role of an Opposition leader.

JNU

Protest organized by Voice of People against brutality against JNU and upcoming law CAA and NRC at Carter Road, Bandra, on January 8, 2020 in Mumbai, India.

Photo by Pramod Thakur/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

After first drawing parallels between the violence in JNU and Mumbai’s 26/11 attack (a far stretch, sure), he went on to assure the people of Maharashtra that there would be severe repercussions if anyone tried to repeat what happened in JNU in his state. In what turned out to be his first public statement after tying up with the Congress and NCP to become chief minister (and breaking the pre-poll alliance with the BJP), he assured protesters that they were free to stand in solidarity with the attacked students without fear of police reprisal, following which two days of peaceful protests were observed in Mumbai and Pune. He also demanded that the people in masks be brought out and punished, an assessment even the Delhi police doesn’t seem to have made yet.

Now, of course, this outburst was taken with a pinch of salt, considering it isn’t the first time a politician has blamed the Opposition for a crime. Plus the fact that the Shiv Sena has a sort of soft corner for vandalism and public hooliganism doesn’t really help us take things seriously.

So the real surprise came the next day, when a picture was circulated of a woman holding up a sign that said “Free Kashmir” at a Mumbai protest. While the protester has since then clarified that she was referring to the internet shutdown and has since then apologised, an FIR was filed against her and the usual labels of tukde tukde gang, and anti-national squad made headlines. This is when Thackeray delivered another shocker. An editorial in the Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece Saamna backed the Mumbai girl, saying, “A Mumbaikar Marathi woman could understand the pain of Kashmiris. The Opposition feels this is sedition. There can’t be a dirtier example of irresponsibility.”

About a decade ago, the Shiv Sena was known as the party who hated Pakistani artists, Pakistani cricketers, North Indians, and South Indians.

It went on to add, “If the Opposition (Devendra Fadnavis) and its supporters feel expressing yourself fearlessly is sedition, it is not good for them (opposition) and the country. The Opposition has fallen flat on its face after the woman’s clarification,” breaking the record for the most number of times “Opposition” can be used in one paragraph, and also somehow dealing another blow to the Hindutva image the Shiv Sena has been building up for years.

For those still unconvinced, there are other slightly more telling signs that they’re willing to let bygones be bygones, such as the time he literally admitted in the Maharashtra state assembly that the party had “made a mistake mixing religion and politics,” and had now decided to stick solely to governance. That’s right, a politician actually accepted a mistake and confessed that they had been making politics religious. The future of the party and Thackeray’s son, Aaditya, sat behind him thumping his desk in agreement. Big, if true.

That’s not all: In the last few weeks, the Sena has removed controversial cases against Aarey colony and Bhima Koregaon protesters, stopped the metro car shed project in the Goregaon forest until “doubts are clarified”, and has agreed to open an investigation into Justice BH Loya’s murky death. Thackeray even announced that not a single tree will be cut for the memorial of Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, just in case you thought the party hadn’t won everyone’s heart emojis just yet.

JNU

Students from various colleges and institutions of Mumbai stage protest against the attack on the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), at Gateway of India, on January 6, 2020 in Mumbai, India.

Photo by Vijayanand Gupta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Of course there’s still skepticism about this supposed huge change of stripes, and it would be wrong to say that no humans were hurt during the party’s apparent transformation. About a decade ago, the Shiv Sena was known as the party who hated Pakistani artists, Pakistani cricketers, North Indians, and South Indians. Its workers were more or less considered to be goons, and Bal Thackeray was accused of fuelling violence during the 1992 Mumbai riots. It’s a checkered history to say the least.

Should we really then take Uddhav Thackeray at face value? Maybe not. Our politicians are masters of the U-turn. The Sena had once vowed never to tie up with Sharad Pawar’s NCP, but the two are now allies. It really then shouldn’t come as a shocker if in the future, the party decides to go back on its word, and resume playing up its “harder than BJP” Hindutva image when convenient.

But at the same time, if we don’t support politicians when they’re being unreasonably reasonable, they may decide that there was no point in the transformation in the first place. So we suggest you sit back and enjoy the rush of having a CM say all the right things… at least while it is politically expedient.

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