MUMBAI, India (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of grieving supporters thronged the streets of Mumbai on Sunday for the funeral of Bal Thackeray, a Hindu extremist leader linked to waves of mob violence against Muslims and migrant workers in India.
Nearly 20,000 policemen were on hand because of the violent history of the group. The mourners, however, remained calm and orderly as the body of Thackeray was cremated at Shivaji park where he had made political debut by addressing his first public rally 46 years ago.
His son and successor, Uddhav Thackeray, lit the funeral pyre amid chants of “Thackeray is immortal” by the supporters, some of whom wept.
Top Indian politicians, industrialists and Bollywood stars including L.K. Advani, Sharad Pawar, Anil Ambani and Amitabh Bachchan, earlier placed floral wreathes aside Thackeray’s body, which was wearing his trademark dark sunglasses.
Thackeray, an 86-year-old powerful, rabble-rousing orator for Shiv Sena – which means Shiva’s Army – died on Saturday following a cardio-respiratory arrest. He had been ill for several weeks.
His body, wrapped in India’s national flag, was carried through the city on a trailer-truck. Policemen carried his body to the cremation site at the end of a daylong funeral procession as the Maharashtra state government, headed by the governing Congress party, announced state funeral for him.
Life in Mumbai, India’s financial and entertainment capital came to a halt as people voluntarily closed shops and businesses and kept taxis and auto-rickshaws off the roads. However, state-run buses and trains plied to help Thackeray’s supporters to attend his cremation.
Indian media reports said more than 1.5 million people attended his funeral procession. There were no official estimates of the mourners.
“Mumbai has not seen a congregation like this in the past 50 years,” said Kumar Ketkar, editor of a local daily and a respected political commentator.
Thackeray’s Sena is among the most xenophobic of India’s Hindu right-wing political parties and held power in Mumbai from 1995 to 2000. His supporters often called him Hindu Hriday Samrat or emperor of Hindu hearts.
In 1992, members of Hindu right-wing groups, including the Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party, were instrumental in destroying a 16th century mosque in north India that they said was the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama, and Thackeray was blamed for the violence and rioting that followed. In Mumbai alone, nearly 1,000 people were killed.
His extreme regional and religious parochialism led him to advocate Hindu suicide bombers and planting bombs in Muslim neighborhoods to “protect the nation and all Hindus.”
His followers often attacked and rampaged through the offices of media organizations that he claimed were anti-Maharashtrian and anti-Hindu and threatened to dig up cricket pitches ahead of matches between largely Hindu India and its Muslim-majority neighbor Pakistan.
Even though the Shiv Sena’s political grip over Mumbai – its longtime power base – has been waning over the last decade, it still commands tens of thousands of violent followers.
In the early 1990s he led a successful campaign to drop what he called the colonially tainted name Bombay – a Portuguese derivation of “beautiful bay” – and replace it with Mumbai, after the local Marathi language name for a Hindu goddess. The city is the capital of Maharashtra state.