MUMBAI (Reuters) - Bal Keshav Thackeray, one of India’s most polarising politicians and leader of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party that has dominated politics in the country’s richest city for two decades, has died aged 86.
Thackeray died of cardio-respiratory arrest on Saturday at his home, one of his doctors, Jalil Parker, said. He had been ill for some time and was rumoured to have died earlier this week.
A religious zealot whose grip over Mumbai often resembled that of a mob boss, Thackeray was president and founder of the hardline Shiv Sena (Shiva’s Army), built around his fiery rhetoric on religion, immigration and communalism.
A hero of Mumbai’s Hindu working class, he was heralded as a staunch defender of regional heritage by his supporters and despised as a hot-headed bigot by others. He devoted his public life to championing the rights of Mumbai’s “sons of the soil”.
As darkness fell and news of his death spread on Saturday evening, shopkeepers and restaurant owners rushed to down their shutters across India’s commercial capital, as the city’s population fled home on traffic-clogged roads fearing a “bandh”, or city-wide shutdown, by his supporters.
A bus was attacked with stones in one of the city’s eastern suburbs, while people carrying Shiv Sena flags were seen forcibly shutting down shops that had not already closed, as the city’s police force advised people to stay in their homes.
Shutdowns in the past, typically enforced by political groups as a protest measure, have seen incidents of violence.
Movie theatres closed their gates, music concerts were cancelled and taxis disappeared from the roads after Thackeray’s death was announced. The city’s bus transport company suspended all of its services, CNN-IBN television channel reported.
The shutdown is expected to last until Sunday evening, when his funeral will take place.
Thackeray, a former political cartoonist, waged a 50-year campaign against immigrants from outside the state. He accused immigrants of taking jobs away from residents of Mumbai, endearing him to large numbers of young working class men.
“Only Marathis have the first right over Mumbai,” Thackeray wrote in his party’s newspaper last year, referring to natives of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is capital. The party newspaper is called Saamna, which means “confrontation” in the Marathi language.
His rise to power in Mumbai, a city of about 20 million people, underscored the strong pull of religion and regionalism in modern India, a constitutionally secular country prone to clashes over its many faiths and traditions.
Always seen in oversized tinted sunglasses, even when indoors, with a necklace of beads over orange robes typically worn by religious figures, Thackeray held a strong grip on Mumbai through his army of loyal supporters, whose rallies and protests often turned violent and forced the city to a halt.
Thackeray often referred to Indian Muslims as “anti-nationals” and called for Hindu suicide squads to counter what he saw as a rise in Islamic terrorism. He was also fiercely critical of Pakistan, decrying efforts by New Delhi to reach out to its nuclear-armed rival.
“Having peace talks with Pakistan which is behind the blasts in India is a farce,” Thackeray wrote in Saamna in July, referring to bomb attacks in Mumbai in 2008. “Playing cricket with them is treason,” he added.
A government inquiry into riots in Mumbai in 1992 and 1993 said “there is no doubt that the Shiv Sena and Shiv Sainiks took the lead in organising attacks on Muslims and their properties under the guidance of several leaders of the Shiv Sena”.
Thackeray was never charged in connection with the riots, in which about 600 Muslims were killed.
His political influence and huge following saw him courted by big business and some of India’s most famous film stars. Amitabh Bachchan, the biggest name in Bollywood, fought through crowds outside his house to visit Thackeray this week when the politician’s health deteriorated.
Thackeray’s views have been condemned by many mainstream politicians, but his party is the fourth-largest in Maharashtra’s state legislature, and his face adorns hundreds of billboards across Mumbai.
His death could spark a power struggle in the Shiv Sena, denting its support with its vote base in Maharashtra.
In a video message to party workers last month, a visibly frail and out-of-breath Thackeray said he was exhausted and asked them to “take care” of his son, Uddhav, and grandson, Aditya, who are widely seen as his successors.
Thackeray’s estranged nephew, Raj, whose skills as a public speaker have drawn comparison with his uncle, broke away from the Shiv Sena in 2006 to form a rival party, and is seen by many to be gaining influence in the state.
Additional reporting by Sumeet Chatterjee and Nandita Bose; Editing by Ross Colvin and Stephen Powell