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Mumbai came to a virtual standstill on Sunday as Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, a Hindutva mascot and flagbearer of Marathi pride, was laid to rest and lakhs of mourners joined the Marathi leader's grieving family to bid him a tearful farewell.
As several times in life, the Thackeray phenomenon was in evidence once again in death as he brought Mumbai to a halt with all marketplace closed and all roads leading to Matoshree, Shiv Sena Bhavan in Dadar and Shivaji Park, where his last rites were performed. Loud roars of Parat ya parat ya Balasaheb parat ya' (Come back, come back, Balasaheb come back) and 'Balasaheb amar rahe' (long live Balasaheb) rent the air as an emotional Uddhav, the youngest son of the departed leader and Sena's executive resident, lit the pyre.
In a reflection of the respect Thackeray commanded across the board, a galaxy of politicians, from allies to rivals, film stars to industrialists were present at Shivaji Park on Sunday evening. Among those present included long-time political rival and personal friend Sharad Pawar, BJP President Nitin Gadkari, senior BJP leader LK Advani, Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj, Opposition leader in Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley, Union ministers Praful Patel and Rajiv Shukla.
Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan, with whom Thackeray shared a long-standing bond, actor Nana Patekar, filmmakers Madhur Bhandarkar and Mahesh Manjarekar, industrialists Anil Ambani and Venugopal Dhoot reached Shivaji Park hours ahead of the funeral. Ex-Sena leader Chhagan Bhujbal, who got Thackeray arrested after becoming NCP's Deputy Chief Minister and home minister in a little known case after a bitter fallout, and Congress MP Sanjay Nirupam, who also broke away from the saffron party, were among those present.
In a measure of respect and influence Thackeray commanded over generations of Maharashtrians, the government allowed his funeral to take place at Shivaji Park, never a venue for such events, and accorded him a state funeral, the first public funeral after Bal Gangadhar Tilak's in 1920. Governor K Sankaranarayanan and Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan placed wreathes on the Sena patriarch's body. A contingent of Mumbai police gave a gun salute and buglers sounded the last post, a rare honour for somebody who never held any official position.
Even as Mumbai elsewhere turned into a ghost city with not a taxi or an autorickshaw in sight and markets, restaurants, cinema theatres and muliplexes closed, the Bandra-Shivaji Park stretch came alive with slogan-shouting Sena supporters. As the firebrand leader's final journey began from Matoshree, his son Uddhav could not control emotions and broke down atop the flower-bedecked truck carrying among others his wife Rashmi and sons Tejas and Aditya, the 'Yuva Sena' chief.
Conspicuous by his absence from the truck carrying a massive poster of Thackeray against the image of the tiger, the Sena's symbol, with saffron flags aflutter, was his nephew and MNS boss Raj Thackeray who chose to walk some distance with the mourners before taking care of arrangements for the funeral at Shivaji Park. As the procession inched towards Sena Bhavan,
the party headquarters, tens of thousands supporters and onlookers lined the streets, balconies and flyovers, with many clambering atop lamp posts and trees to catch a sight of the leader. Many showered the mourners with flower petals.
It took the cortege nearly nine hours to cover the 10 km stretch between Matoshree and Shivaji Park. The cortege made a brief halt at Sena Bhavan, built by Thackeray in 1977, where his body was kept for top party leaders to pay homage to the Shiv Sena patriarch. It was out of bounds for the common Sena workers.
The pyre was erected on a platform at the very place from where Thackeray addressed Shiv Sena workers during his famous Dussehra rallies and where he delivered his first speech to his rabble-rousing supporters after the launch of the party on June 19, 1996. In a touching gesture, the doctors who made a failed attempt to save Thackeray's life and who looked after him for years, were the first to pay floral tributes to him when his body draped in national flag and sporting a red Tilak and trademark dark glasses was kept on a stage before the final rites were performed.
Thackeray's servant Thapa, stood along with Uddhav and Raj, Sena partriarch's estranged son Jaidev and grandsons, as the family, united in grief, acknowledged condolences. Raj, who had walked out of Shiv Sena and formed his own outfit, after Thackeray annointed Uddhav his successor in 2004, broke down when the last post was sounded and pyre lit. The MNS boss was a frequent visitor to Matoshree during Thackeray's illness. He also drove Uddhav to the hospital and was present during the two angioplasty sessions he had to undergo to remove coronary blockages.
Thackeray, the tallest contemporary leader in Maharashtra, passed away on November 17, losing a grim four-day battle for life. He was suffering from respiratory and pancreatic problems. Thackeray, who started out as a cartoonist at English daily Free Press Journal alongside R K Laxman, galvanised the Marathi youth with his "son of the soil" slogan at a time when outsiders including Gujaratis, South Indians, Marwaris and Parsis controlled businesses and the job market.
He was idolised by his supporters and demonised in equal measure by detractors for his divisive politics that was often described as jingoistic and chauvinistic. For somebody who never contested an election, Thackeray pulled off an amazing feat of dominating the state's politics for nearly half a century without holding any official post of authority.
He would largely confine himself to Matoshree, where he received political leaders, foreign dignatories, film stars and captains of business and industry on a gilded throne with multiple images of the tiger, reflecting his larger than life persona.
Thackeray's charisma catapulted his regional political entity, whose support base largely comprised ragtag bands of roadside toughies, to power in 1995, in alliance with BJP, after he tempered his hardline Marathi plank and embraced the larger Hindutva nationalist ideology. Though the saffron coalition lost the next elections to Congress-NCP combine, Thackeray's sway over the financial capital continued with his party controlling the country's richest civic body, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, till his death.
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