MUMBAI – Mourners were expected to throng Mumbai’s streets on Sunday to bid farewell to Bal Thackeray, chief of the extremist Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party and one of India’s most divisive politicians.
Thackeray, who called his followers “Hindu warriors” and was known for his fiery anti-Muslim rhetoric, died aged 86 on Saturday of cardiac arrest following a prolonged illness.
A huge funeral procession was planned for the founder of the Shiv Sena party, who was adored by followers and disliked by secular Indians, before the cremation of his body later in the day.
Despite Thackeray’s polarizing career, tributes poured in for the politician who gave Bombay the new name of Mumbai — seen as a bid to rid the city of its British colonial past and emphasize its Marathi roots.
“He was a consummate communicator whose stature in the politics of Maharashtra was unique,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said.
A huge crowd was assembled outside his home late on Saturday and India’s financial hub came to a virtual halt with witnesses reporting that Shiv Sena supporters were telling businesses to close as a mark of respect for Thackeray.
Authorities placed thousands of extra police on the streets in a bid to avert trouble following the death of Thackeray, whose Shiv Sena party championed Hindu nationalism against “anti-national Muslims”.
The politician, known for his outsized sunglasses and jet-black hair, was accused by an official probe of inciting violence against Muslims in riots that claimed over 1,000 lives in Mumbai in the 1990s, although he was never charged.
He also vociferously sought to defend the rights of local Marathi-speaking “sons of the soil” against so-called “outsiders” — whether south Indians, Gujaratis, north Indians or Bangladeshis — who came to the region for work.
Many of the people outside Thackeray’s house broke down in tears when his death was announced.
Police advised Mumbai residents to travel only in emergencies as taxis went off the roads and shopkeepers and restaurants quickly shut with news of his death spreading like wildfire.
Commercial establishments across Mumbai were expected to remain closed until after Thackeray’s cremation with some owners saying they feared they could be targeted by Shiv Sena supporters if they did not close.
Protests and rallies by Shiv Sena — Shiva’s Army — have often turned violent in the past.
Thackeray was never a lawmaker, but his party held power for five years from 1994 at the state government level and still has control over Mumbai’s governing civic body, the richest in India.
Thackeray had been in frail health for months.
The politician appeared to followers by videolink in October asking them to “take care” of his son Uddhav, the executive president of Shiv Sena, whose vote bank has weakened since Thackeray’s nephew Raj set up a rival party.