The raging war between Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena and the Eknath Shinde-led faction reached a new tipping point with both groups trying to establish their hegemony over the Shiv Sena brand in the Dasara Melawa held on Wednesday. While the outcome of the political battle between the two groups will be determined by the Election Commission’s decision on who gets the party symbol and finally in the upcoming elections to local bodies, events such as the Dasara Melawa have become grounds for the two groups to fight ownership over the Idea of Shiv Sena.
The Shivaji Park rally saw Uddhav Thackeray directly confronting Shinde and the BJP and taking a jibe at its ‘pressure tactics’ staking his claim over the Hindutva propounded by his father Bal Thackeray as opposed to what he called as the RSS brand of shendi-janva ( Brahmin orthodox) Hindutva. It is interesting to note that it was Uddhav’s stance against the RSS in the previous Dasara rally that had upset many within the BJP, eventually culminating in their personal attacks on the Thackerays and the party’s eventual support to the Shinde faction.
Shinde, on the other hand, tried to orchestrate all the optics by bringing in popular Marathi singers and members from the extended Thackeray family on stage. He said that the Shiv Sena belonged to the Ideas propounded by Bal Thackeray and neither him nor Uddhav. What this idea consists of however, was left for the crowd to decipher.
Amidst all this, as Shiv Sena completes 56 years since its first public meeting, the party undergoes one of the toughest, and possibly the most, decisive moment in its history. It is a test of what the Shiv Sena brand means to people in the city and the state and what the final deciding factor will be.
The Dasara Melawa is extremely significant not just for the Shiv Sainiks — as it is an opportunity to hear their leader every year — but it also played a great role in shaping Shiv Sena as a movement and party in all these years. On June 19, 1966, the movement started by Bal Thackeray was formally called Shiv Sena (army of Shivaji) with an aim to fight for the rights of the sons of the soil.
The movement gathered a lot of support from young men in Erstwhile Bombay and Thackeray decided to hold the first public gathering for the Shiv Sena on October 30, 1966, at Dadar’s Shivaji Park.
In order to mobilize crowds for the first public meeting, Thackeray and his aides decided to visit vyayamshalas (gymnasiums), mitramandals (cultural groups) and also approached several kho-kho and kabaddi groups, meeting several young men and telling them about the cause that the Shiv Sena was trying to stand up for.
The strategy worked, as the Shivaji Park ground was filled with people on the day of the event with great enthusiasm among youngsters to hear Thackery and his father Prabodhankar. This exercise of mass mobilization was later replicated through shakhas (local branches) of the Sena and the Shiv Sena managed to enter people’s homes through such a hyperlocal socio-cultural presence which no other party commands even today.
Since Dussehra fell on October 23, 1966, it became a trope using which the Shiv Sena appealed to the young Marathi men to act. “This is our true simollanghan (crossing the boundary) as we are fighting for our rights,” Prabodhankar said at the event, as per Navakal’s edition dated November 1, 1966. Bal Thackeray made a similar pronouncement — “The Marathi manoos has awakened and he will never tolerate injustice from now,” he said, as he condemned politics and said that he was doing this for samajkaran (social work). He eventually became a cult among the Marathi manoos.
On the way back from the first public meeting, the sainiks confronted the south Indians and that was the beginning of Shiv Sena’s street politics. Its confrontational stance against the “outsiders” defined the politics of the city and the state in the coming years.
Year on year, the Shiv Sena’s Dasara Melawa became bigger and symbolized all that the organization stood for: the call for Marathi and Hindu unity, Thackeray’s insightful speeches, his call for actions and the appeal to Shiv Sainiks to come together and fight an enemy – – first the south Indians, then the Muslims and the north Indians. Despite its magnitude, it was projected as a family gathering.
At the melawa held on October 17, 2010, the senior Thackeray formally announced the entry of his grandson Aaditya. Similarly, in 2012, which turned out to be his last Dasara speech which was recorded, he urged the sainiks to support his son Uddhav and Aaditya in the coming years. “Keep the loyalty aspect of the Shiv Sena intact. Take care of Uddhav and Aaditya, continue to ensure that Maharashtra flourishes,” he had said.
While the Uddhav-led Sena tries to carry the legacy of Thackeray and the Dasara Melawa with its ‘ek neta, ek zenda, ek maidan’ (one leader, one flag, one ground) tagline, the real question is – who do the sainiks and people of Mumbai see as this one leader — Uddhav Thackeray or Eknath Shinde.
(Dr Sanjay Patil’s doctoral work looks at the journey of Shiv Sena between 1985 and 2022. He works at the University of Mumbai and has been chronicling the Shiv Sena’s journey for the last ten years.)