Mumbai: Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray first shot to national attention 46 years ago with a huge public rally at Mumbai’s Shivaji Park. On Sunday, he was consigned to the flames at the same ground, witnessed by an unprecedented gathering of half a million people. As his son Uddhav conducted the last rites, the entire gathering went into mourning.
Despite the fact that he held no high official post, Mr Thackeray was cremated with full state honours in the presence of top dignitaries.
Thackeray’s body, draped in the tricolour, was brought to Shivaji Park where a huge pandal with his image and the words “Jai Maharashtra” was set up. Bhajan groups from Iskcon and the Siddhivinayak Temple recited devotional songs through the day.
It was the first time in Mumbai’s history that a cremation was held at Shivaji Park. And for the first time since Independence a cremation was conducted at a public place: in 1920, freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak was cremated at Girgaum Chowpatty.
The pyre was at the same place where the stage is set for Thackeray’s Dussehra rallies, which he rarely missed. This year, though, on October 24, he was not present and addressed his supporters through a video message, which was a hint that his health was failing.
After dignitaries paid homage to Thackeray, the body was kept on the pyre, and after the last rites by six brahmin pandits, the police fired a gun salute.
Son Uddhav Thackeray, Shiv Sena executive president, lit the pyre at 6.15 pm.
The traders’ community across Maharashtra has called for a shutdown on Monday, so shops will not be open across the state.
The Shiv Sena, however, clarified that it had not called or supported a bandh, and urged people not to believe rumours.
Mumbai's schools will remain shut on Monday. Thackeray was accorded funeral with full state honour even though the Sena founder was neither a national leader nor a highly decorated official. In his lifetime, Balasaheb Thackeray was a divisive figure, known for his vitriolic remarks against Muslims, Biharis, South Indians, North Indians.
Pretty much everyone who wasn't his beloved Marathi manoos, and there were many even among those whom he didn’t like. In death, remarkably, he became a unifying force, a man of peace.
Thackeray’s funeral procession started from his home in Bandra East and surged out into the adjoining neighbourhood of Mahim, an area dominated by Muslims, with a smattering of Christians, Parsis and other communities.
People lined the road, many men in their skullcaps, and women wearing burqas.
All shops were shut, and even water was hard to come by. Some among the Muslims provided drinking water for the masses following the cortege carrying Thackeray's body.
Further down the road, at a small church, the Victoria Church, Sunday service was on. The church elders decided to hold a prayer service for the departed soul.
Thackeray's funeral procession was requested to halt for this, and did, while a brief prayer was held for him on the pavement next to the vehicle carrying hi s body.
Father Savio Desailles who held the service said the cardinal had wanted to visit Thackeray at Matoshree but was unable to do so, and had decided to hold the service when he heard of his passing.
At Matunga, a predominantly South Indian neighbourhood, similar scenes repeated themselves.
Everyone was out on the street, or on balconies and rooftops, waiting for a glimpse of the departed leader.
Sikhs who had kept their gurdwaras open for food and water for all joined the procession at several places. Slogans in Hindi went up, of 'Balasaheb amar rahe!' North Indians and Biharis were a part of it as much as the Marathi manoos.
The crowd that had gathered, estimated to be 1 million strong by the police, was a crowd of Mumbaikars.
The entire procession went off peacefully. In the end, Balasaheb went in peace.